How does Food Affect Sleep and Proper Possible Solution

Food has a great impact and plays a vital role in our sleep. Let’s discover How does food affect sleep.

Lack of food

Going short of food leads to hunger pangs, the feelings of emptiness, and discomfort from the stomach that are associated with actual contractions of the stomach wall as it seems to grope for food that is not there.

These hunger pangs occur in bouts in the night, coming and going with the nocturnal 100-minute ultradian rhythm, and are accompanied by restless movements of the whole body.

Human adults actually have plenty of food reserves stored away as fat, but babies do not have such reserves and it is more urgent that they steadily maintain their food intake.

It does not need laboratory research workers to tell parents that their baby gets more and more restless and noisy if kept without food.

To see what would happen in adults we kept healthy young male volunteers without food for four days and nights at our laboratory (they were able to slake their thirst whenever they wanted), and sure enough, they too slept less and less.

Sleeping more after a meal

Being without food strengthens hunger pangs and disturbs sleep and the converse is familiar to all of us who have felt sleepy after a large and satisfying meal.

Any occasion for the feeling of general satisfaction of achievement and gratification is accompanied by relaxation and a sense of well-being with a ready departure into somnolence.

However, it is possible that the sleep of satiety is brought on by something more than just the satisfaction of basic needs for the hormones or enzymes that are released into the stomach and interesting to help with the digestion of food are in many cases the same chemicals as those that affect the working of the brain.

The digestive enzyme is known as cholecystokinin, for example, is nowadays believed to be one such chemical.

When fat reaches the first part of the small intestine, called the duodenum cholecystokinin is released to help with the digestion, and it has been claimed that when cholecystokinin is given to cats by injection fall asleep just as they tend to do, after a meal so it is possible that our digestive hormones pass via the bloodstream into the brain to make us sleepy after a good meal.

The tryptophan controversy

One of the constituents of protein in food is tryptophan, an amino acid, and you may have read in recent years the statements in newspapers, magazines, and books to the effect that tryptophan helps you fall asleep or makes you sleep more.

We believe that some of these claims are based upon muddled thinking. There is indeed tryptophan in protein and ½ 1b/250 go of steak may make you sleepy after you’ve eaten it, but it can’t be because of the tryptophan since the total amount in the steak is small and is only absorbed very slowly over a period of two, three or more hours while the steak is digested.

If you take pure tryptophan in the form of pills (Optimax, Pacitron, or Trojan for example) it is absorbed rapidly; but after it leaves the gut it has to go through the liver, where much of it gets destroyed, especially if there has been more tryptophan in the diet recently; and finally, it has to go via the bloodstream into the brain.

The amount that gets taken into the brain actually depends upon how much carbohydrate-which comes from starchy or sugary food you have eaten at about the same time.

The higher the carbohydrate content of the food the more insulin hormone is passed into the bloodstream from the pancreas and when there is a lot of insulin about the tryptophan gets taken into the brain.

So just taking tryptophan pills or eating a steak gives no guarantee at all the significant quantities of the drug will reach your brain.

Only if very large and unnatural quantities of tryptophan are taken by mouth accompanied by large amounts of carbohydrate can we be fairly certain that excess is getting into the brain?

When this is done people certainly do feel drowsy, their paradoxical sleep may come on earlier in the night than usual, and they can get rather more sleep than they would otherwise.

However, the effect is a weak one, in no way comparable to taking a sleeping pill. We ourselves have been quite unable to confirm claims by researchers in Boston that smaller quantities of tryptophan, such as 1 g at bedtime (far more than there is in a steak) can make sleep come on a bit quicker.

Bedtime snacks and drinks

The debate over tryptophan is a relatively recent issue. For many years, though, it has been widely believed that a snack or hot milk drink at bedtime will be followed by a good night’s sleep.

Once again, the only way to find out if this is true is to test the theory in the sleep laboratory. The results are certainly revealing.

How does food affect sleepOPPOSITE: research has shown that an easily digested snack before bedtime can often lead to a more restful night’s sleep.

In the 1930s, in the united states, Dr’s laird and Drexel compared sleep after an easy-to-digest bedtime snack like cornflakes and milk, with a variety of hard-to-digest snacks, and found, not surprisingly perhaps, that hard-to-digest snacks, and found, not surprisingly perhaps, that hard-to-digest snacks were followed by restless sleep, whereas cornflakes and milk seemed to help sleep to be less restless, judging by the number of body movements during the night.


In another immense study of sleep in Chicago, involving thousands of nights in which body movements were measured, the great effects on sleep of a whole variety of bedtime snacks, ranging from plain water, bread and bread sandwiches containing cheese to plain milk, milk mixed with the malted bedtime food drink Ovaltine, and Ovaltine mixed with water.

ovaltineHe found that there were fewer movements during the night among those who had drunk Ovaltine before going to bed, whether mixed with water or milk. Ovaltine is made from milk and cereal, so Kleitman’s finding rather paralleled Laird and Drexel’s results with cornflakes and milk.


This is another of the proprietary food, drinks for long famous as a proposed aid to sleep, which is again a malted milk drink prepared from cereal and milk products.

horlicksTo test the effect of Horlicks on sleep, at Edinburgh we first tried two experiments, one with young and one with middle-aged volunteers.

On some nights we gave them a yellow capsule that was actually inactive, though we told them that it contained a folk remedy for sleep, and on the other nights we gave them Horlicks mixed with hot milk.

The young people slept so well on all their nights that nothing could have improved their sleep anyway, so no difference showed up with the Horlicks.

The middle-aged people, over, slept quite a lot better after they had had Horlicks. There was a big difference in the amount of wakefulness in the later night particularly, the change being much more than could be accounted for by chance.

The difference was striking, and more that we had originally expected; but there was a flaw in our method, as we were later to realize.

We then conducted a much bigger study in which sixteen volunteers had their EEGs recorded throughout the night, on a total of twenty nights each.

On some nights they were just given the inactive ‘folk remedy’ capsule, on some nights milk, on some nights Horlicks mixed with milk, and on the other nights a flavored drink specially concocted to contain no milk or cereal products, but the same calories and amounts of fat, carbohydrate, and protein as Horlicks.

Once again Horlicks emerged as best for sleep; but the difference, though greater than could be explained by chance, was a small one.

It was also apparent that the rather unpalatable and specially made food, the drink seemed actually to disturb sleep. However, the most important factor to emerge lay in the customary habits of our volunteers.

When we had done the earlier study with the middle-aged people, we had asked for volunteers who would be willing to drink Horlicks at bedtime, so that, although we did not think of it at the time, we had probably been getting volunteers who were accustomed to having a bedtime drink or snack.

So when they slept better during our test after drinking Horlicks this was due, as we later realized, to getting their usual nourishment at bedtime; and when they slept less well after an inactive capsule without any food value, they were relatively hungry and restless through the night because their stomachs were not used to being so empty while they slept.

In the second study, we asked the volunteers to complete a diet questionnaire so that we could see the pattern of their normal evening eating habits at home.

This confirmed that there was a link between how much was normally eaten in the later evening and the quality of sleep after a food drink in the laboratory.

Those who normally ate little or nothing in the later evening at home slept best when they were given the inactive capsule with no food in it, and being unaccustomed to bedtime food supplements, their sleep was more disturbed after they had imbibed any of the food drinks before going to bed.

So where does all its research leave you if you want to know whether bedtime snacks and drinks will help or hinder your sleep? First of all, to go to bed feeling desperately hungry is not a good idea; but this is not to say that a full stomach will necessarily bring better sleep.

It really depends on what you are used to: following your regular eating routine in the evening is the surest way to get the best sleep. In other words, don’t have a large supper one evening and nothing on the next.

If you are accustomed to eating in the evening, let it be something that is easily digested. Don’t expect the best night’s rest after a king-size hamburger and double portion of greasy French fries! Milk and the proprietary food drinks, being easily digestible sources of nourishment, probably are effective in helping you sleep, though their effect is not a strong one.

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