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How Late Night Eating Affects Your Sleep

Is late night snacking unhealthy for you? Eating before bed and eating late at night — a large dinner or something small to snack on while watching your favorite TV show — may help you fall asleep but it negatively impacts your overall metabolism and ultimately create stress inside the body.

When blood sugar crashes in the middle of the night, cortisol levels rise, and melatonin production diminishes.

Melatonin is a natural hormone that plays a role in sleep. Melatonin production and release in the brain is related to time of day, rising in the evening and falling in the morning.

During the dark hours of the night, a hormone called norepinephrine is released. It tells the brain to make melatonin.

A couple of things need to be in place for the production of melatonin:

  • Norepinephrine is one essential element necessary for melatonin production.
  • Actual darkness is needed for norepinephrine release and for melatonin production. This means that bright lights, including the light from a television, can inhibit this process.
  • Excess of cortisol, a chemical tied to stress, will also inhibit the release of norepinephrine and the production of melatonin.
  • Melatonin and cortisol have an inverse relationship. When cortisol is high, melatonin will be low. Likewise, when cortisol is low, melatonin will be high.

We already know by now that stress has an important relationship with sleep — more stress equals poorer quality sleep, in most cases.

Clayton Sleep Institute researchers discovered a “bidirectional relationship” between chronic stress and sleep issues. People suffering from chronic stress were more likely to sleep shorter and less deeply, experiencing daytime impairments to follow. In the study, daytime impairments and shorter sleep also led to complaints of habitual stress.1

You may recognize some of the most common causes of stress that can affect your sleep:

  • Anything that engages strong, reactive emotions.
  • Over-thinking and worrying.
  • Trauma, both physical and emotional.
  • Adrenal stimulants, like coffee.
  • Lack of sleep.
  • Unhealthy fats, which release pro-inflammatory chemicals.
  • Irregular blood sugar levels.

Poor sleep may also alter the immune system’s stress response — increasing the risk of mental and physical health problems by increasing inflammation in the body, as seen in a study conducted on older adults.2 And unsurprising to many of us, researchers likewise confirmed a reciprocal, causal relationship between job stress and poor sleep, showing that daytime stress can impact sleep quality and create a stress-sleep disturbance cycle that is hard to break.3

A Vicious Stress Cycle: Too Much and Too Little Blood Sugar

Eating late at night may initially raise your blood sugar. While sleeping, your body goes into a light fast. If you eat before sleeping, especially carbohydrate rich foods, you may be more likely to experience a crash in blood sugar while asleep.

How this works:

  • Blood sugar spikes.
  • The pancreas releases insulin to remove the sugar from the blood and into your cells.
  • If the blood sugar spike happens frequently (as it does for many), the pancreas delivers too much insulin into the bloodstream.
  • This causes a drastic drop in blood sugar, or a crash.
  • A blood sugar crash alerts your adrenals glands that there is an emergency.
  • The adrenals secrete the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Cortisol can inflame the body and weakens digestive function.
  • Constant sugar crashes exhaust adrenal function.

Skipping meals or frequently eating foods that are starchy or sugary causes blood sugar spikes, and both lead to the same thing: adrenal dysfunction. What’s interesting is that people who skip meals will often use adrenal stimulants, caffeine, or excessively sugary foods to get a quick lift of energy.

This blood sugar yo-yo effect in the body triggers the adrenal glands to release cortisol which serves to provide the body with glucose via gluconeogenesis to balance blood sugar level. This pulling on the adrenal glands does something else in the body. Eventually, it will exhaust other elements of the endocrine system. The endocrine system is the system in charge of regulating hormones in the body. University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers even recommend eating less late at night to buffer some of the effects of sleep deprivation, like deficits in alertness and concentration.4,5

Cortisol Lowers Your Melatonin

Sleep is an activity that is all about relaxation and restoration. Thus, cortisol, the stress hormone, should be at its lowest at night.

When blood sugar crashes in the middle of the night, cortisol levels rise, and melatonin production diminishes:

  • The natural cycles of cortisol and melatonin are part of your circadian rhythm.
  • Chronically high cortisol levels suppress human growth hormone.
  • Chronically high cortisol levels suppress immune function.
  • Chronically high cortisol levels also open the door to a series of inflammatory cascades in the body.
  • Cortisol also plays an important role in human nutrition. It regulates energy by selecting the right type and amount of substrate (carbohydrate, fat, or protein) the body needs to meet the physiological demands placed on it. When chronically elevated, cortisol can have deleterious effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.

Does this mean that taking a melatonin supplement will restore the circadian rhythm?

Studies suggest that melatonin may help with certain sleep disorders, such as jet lag, delayed sleep phase disorder (a disruption of the body’s biological clock in which a person’s sleep-wake timing cycle is delayed by 3 to 6 hours), sleep problems related to shift work, and some sleep disorders in children. It’s also been shown to be helpful for a sleep disorder that causes changes in blind peoples’ sleep and wake times. Study results are mixed on whether melatonin is effective for insomnia in adults, but some studies suggest it may slightly reduce the time it takes to fall asleep.

Keep in mind that ultimately you want your body to remember its own natural ebb and flow of hormones. Melatonin is a hormone and taking this hormone exogenously over time may actually lead to a deeper and more pathological imbalance. University of Adelaide researchers caution that melatonin can be dangerous for children especially, warning doctors and parents not to give children melatonin to help manage sleep issues.6 For adults, caffeine has also been proven to alter our circadian clock — and limiting consumption to the morning and before noon is strongly encouraged.

For Other Conditions

While there hasn’t been enough research to support melatonin’s use for other conditions:

  • Researchers are investigating whether adding melatonin to standard cancer care can improve response rates, survival time, and quality of life.
  • Results from a few small studies in people (clinical trials) have led investigators to propose additional research on whether melatonin may help to improve mild cognitive impairment in patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and prevent cell damage associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). An analysis of the research suggested that adding sustained-release melatonin (but not fast-release melatonin) to high blood pressure management reduced elevated nighttime blood pressure.

Supplement With Magnesium For Deeper Sleep

Many people do well, and experience enhanced sleep with magnesium supplementation. A magnesium supplement, like Pure Encapsulations Magnesium Citrate, is another good way to not only restore levels of magnesium in the body. Along with its ability to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety, magnesium has been dubbed a vital sleep nutrient because it keeps the “trains running on time.”

University of Edinburgh researchers discovered that magnesium plays a critical role in helping living things adapt to the natural rhythms of night and day. 7

Other Steps For Improving Sleep

Getting good sleep is both an art and a science – yet the overwhelming majority of people have trouble sleeping. Even if you had time to sleep an entire eight hours a night, would it be optimal, uninterrupted sleep? Would you wake up feeling 100 percent refreshed?

If you’re ready to start sleeping better, read How To Sleep Better And Wake Up Ready To Go. Here you will find out why sleep matters, how much sleep you really need, and science-backed sleep hacks to improve your sleep.

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