It's 2:30 a.m. and you can't sleep—again.|
Maybe you were jolted awake after a couple of hours, or perhaps you haven't drifted off at all yet. Either way, there seems to be a big, impenetrable wall between you and dreamland, and no amount of sheep counting or white noise machines can break through. Time and time again, you find yourself convinced that there can be only one answer to your sleep deprivation: a snack.
It could be that you didn't have enough to eat for dinner and your body is legitimately in need of fuel. Or maybe you're not actually physically hungry, but nocturnal noshing seems like the best escape from your worries, fear, anger, boredom or whatever emotion is keeping your brain from shutting off. Whatever the reason, you find yourself quietly slinking to the fridge or pantry in the dark of night, where you can indulge your cravings while the rest of the world sleeps.
Obviously, middle-of-the-night kitchen raids aren't conducive to any weight loss plan—or any healthy lifestyle, for that matter. So how can you wean yourself off of the midnight munchies and stick to a more sensible dining schedule?
Plan your last meal wisely.
To avoid waking up hungry, health coach Liza Baker says it's important to carefully choose the last meal of the day, which should ideally occur about three hours before bed. "It should contain some lean protein and some beneficial fat—such as wild-caught salmon with an olive-oil-based cilantro sauce or a kale pesto made with walnuts—plus two to three servings of a bulky vegetable, like sweet potatoes or dark, leafy greens," she suggests.
If you still can't make it through the night after eating a filling dinner, try adding a healthy snack an hour or two before bed. Registered dietitian Alissa Rumsey, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, recommends some nighttime foods to help you fall into a sound sleep:
- A banana with nut butter: The banana contains magnesium, an important mineral for sleep that promotes the relaxation of muscles.
- Whole-grain crackers with hummus: Chickpeas are a source of tryptophan, an amino acid that gets turned into serotonin and converted into melatonin. The fiber and protein from the chickpeas, along with the carbohydrates in the crackers, will help you get to sleep while keeping you full.<pagebreak>
Work on non-food sleep techniques.
Ironically, lack of sleep could actually be tricking your body into thinking it's hungry, which actually leads to even more sleep deprivation as you ditch your pillow for the pantry. This can create a vicious cycle of fatigue and faux hunger.
"Sleeping less than seven hours per night has been shown to increase ghrelin levels, our hunger hormone, thus making us feel hungry," says registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein. "Therefore, many people confuse exhaustion with a false sense of hunger, when really all their body wants is satisfying sleep, not food."
To avoid waking up hungry in the middle of the night, Muhlstein recommends working on alternative tools to help you get back to sleep. It probably seems like you've already tried everything, but maybe a few of these ideas can help:
- Do some light stretches or yoga poses before bedtime
- Listen to guided audio meditation with a focus on sleep (Rumsey likes Headspace and Calm)
- Perform some slow, deep breathing exercises
- Write down any thoughts or concerns that are on your mind, so you can clear your head and make room for rest
- Eliminate any distracting ambient light by using blackout curtains and powering off televisions, smartphones and other screens before bedtime
Identify your daytime food triggers—and redirect them.
If you are inclined to turn to food when you can't sleep, Baker recommends digging into what your relationship with food is like during the day. Do you eat only at mealtimes, or do you snack all day long? Do you eat when you're hungry, or when you're frustrated, angry, lonely, tired or bored?
"Take some time during the day to jot down when you ate, what you ate and why—don't judge yourself for eating, just note the circumstances," Baker suggests. "I once heard that when we want sweets, we have a heart craving, and when we crave salty or crunchy, we have a mind craving. This may not be true for you, but you may detect some patterns of your own."
Once you've nailed down your daytime eating triggers (outside of when you eat strictly for bodily nourishment), Baker says to find a different, healthier activity to achieve the same outcome.
For example, if you realize that you often eat because you're lonely, reach out to someone supportive in person, online or on the phone for a quick check-in. This will "treat" your loneliness, and you may find that the need to eat passes. Or, if you eat because you're dragging and need a pick-me-up, Baker suggests taking a short walk or climbing a set of stairs a few times.
"If you continue to 'feed' your need through connection/relationships, physical activity, time in nature, etc., you may just find that your need for putting food in your mouth decreases," she says.
Transfer your new form of nourishment to nighttime.
Once you've mastered the daytime redirection, put it into practice at night.
"When you wake in the middle of the night, instead of reaching for food, try some breathing exercises or put on a guided meditation," Baker suggests. "Find a way to quiet your mind and body – 'corpse pose' from yoga comes to mind – and really listen to why you're awake: Are you hungry, angry or sad? When you're awake, try to fill that part of you to the brim, whether it's through movement, physical touch or intellectual stimulation."
As Baker notes, mastering the art of restful, food-free sleep takes time and commitment, but it's worth pinpointing and treating the cause of your sleeplessness rather than just satisfying the superficial symptom of hunger. Over time, you'll find that those visions of chips and chocolate cake stay safely in your dreams, and far from calorie-rich reality.