This Is The Best Time To Eat Dinner If You Want To Sleep Through The Night
As anyone who's ever tried to snooze off a big meal can attest, what you eat for dinner has a noticeable impact on your sleep quality. But perhaps just as important as what you eat is when you eat it. Here, two sleep experts weigh in on the best time to wrap up your dinner so it doesn't weigh heavy on your bedtime.
The ideal time to eat dinner.
According to Peter Polos, M.D., Ph.D., FCCP, FAASM, sleep medicine specialist and sleep expert for Sleep Number, you'll want to aim to wrap up dinner at least three hours before you plan to go to bed. So if you're hoping to fall asleep by 11 p.m., you'll want to be doing dishes by 8 p.m.
"This allows adequate time for digestion, thereby reducing any possible disruption to sleep caused by poor digestion," Polos says of the three-hour window. This is especially important when eating protein-rich or fatty foods, like meat or fish, which tend to take a bit longer to digest.
Eating too early in the evening won't do your sleep any favors either, though, since going to bed hungry can lead to blood sugar dips that wake you up in the middle of the night. Wrapping up right around three hours before bed seems to be the sweet spot for most people.
However, if you can't nail this timing night after night, neuroscientist and sleep expert Sofia Axelrod, Ph.D., of Kulala says not to stress. From her perspective, it's just as important (if not more so) to eat dinner at roughly the same time every night, whenever that may be. "It matters more that your eating times remain as constant as possible from day to day than whether they are one hour before bedtime or three hours," she tells mbg.
That's because meals are one of the many daily activities that help regulate the timing of our circadian rhythms, which dictate our sleep-wake cycles. "If you always eat at the same time," Axelrod explains, "your body learns to prepare the digestive tract (e.g., by producing digestive enzymes) to optimally digest the food you eat." Along with being strategic about your light exposure during the day, eating at the same time during the night can help keep your sleep schedule ticking smoothly and dependably.
What about dessert?
Sorry, late-night sweet tooths, but Polos encourages you to wrap up desserts within that three-hour window too if sleep is a priority. If you do end up feeling peckish closer to bedtime, he and Axelrod both recommend options that are low in added sugar and higher in fiber and unsaturated fats. Things like fruit, nuts, and nut butter are all healthy options that won't slow down your digestion or spike your blood sugar in the middle of the night. Axelrod adds that foods containing tryptophan and melatonin can also trigger sleepiness, so milk, oats, and chocolate can also have a place in your dessert lineup as long as you don't have sensitivities to these foods.
"It should be noted that the relationship between sleep and diet is two-way," adds Polos, meaning that the healthier your diet, the better your sleep will be, and the easier it will be for you to make healthy food choices.
"Generally speaking, a lifestyle that allows maintenance of a healthy weight has been shown to help get better sleep, so limiting sugar and increasing intake of healthy carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, along with regular exercise is important," says Axelrod.
The bottom line.
Timing is everything, especially when sleep is concerned. Wrapping up dinner at roughly the same time every night—preferably around three hours before bed—can work wonders for your overall sleep quality. Pair your last meal of the day with a strategically timed shower, workout, and sleep supplement to set yourself up for restorative sleep that arrives right on time.*
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.