During the holiday season, many of us will give in to the temptation to overindulge. Food plays a large role in family gatherings, and we often lay out more food than normal. Therefore, it is no surprise if we find ourselves overeating during the holidays, with the discomfort this can sometimes bring.
However, when you overeat, you can also affect the quality of sleep, interfering with important restorative processes. Sleeping well is as vital as eating well to maintain good overall health. The reverse is also true -- as sleep deprivation can see us overeating and choosing foods which are less healthy.
How Overeating Leads to a Disrupted Night
Many of us will have suffered the consequence of eating a big meal too close to bed time, feeling bloated and uncomfortable while trying to fall asleep. Overindulging in the evening can also result in acid reflux and heartburn, making sleeping more difficult. This may be exacerbated by eating spicy foods.
When you eat a big meal in the evening, the digestive process is unlikely to have completed before you go to bed. Digestion will slow once you fall asleep, putting the digestive process at odds with your body’s normal sleeping processes. The outcome can be a night of disrupted sleep.
Studies also suggest the impact on sleeping patterns could be greater if you are overeating on particular foods, such as those high in saturated fats and sugar. If you are eating a meal high in calories prior to bed, you could well be setting yourself up for a night where you struggle to stay asleep.
The Vicious Cycle of Sleep Deprivation
The link between overeating and sleeping can become a vicious cycle, as research shows sleep deprivation also leads to overeating. When our sleep quality is poor and we are fatigued, research suggests we are more likely to eat more and that the food we turn to is less healthy comfort food.
A disrupted sleeping pattern affects the important regulation of our hormones. In terms of food the crucial impact is on the hormones ghrelin and leptin. The hormone ghrelin is linked to feelings of hunger and helps inform the body when to eat. While asleep the levels of ghrelin fall. However, when we are sleep-deprived, these levels rise, making you feel hungry.
Leptin informs your body that you are full, and levels normally increase when asleep. However, when sleeping patterns are disrupted the levels of leptin decrease. These lower levels of leptin in the body are a signal you need to eat when in fact you do not. The combined effect of reversed ghrelin and leptin levels is to make you overeat.
Changes to brain activity through disrupted rest can also lead to overindulging. Studies indicate that poor rest and fatigue increase the appetite for foods which are high in calories. Food seems to become looked upon as a positive reward once sleeping patterns are negatively affected. This seems true of all ages including children, and such overindulgence can have significant consequences.
Weight Gain & Sleep Apnea
The consequences of overeating and sleep deprivation is weight gain and obesity, particularly if, as studies suggest, we also choose foods higher in fats and calorie content when sleeping poorly. The fact that overindulgence affects your sleeping, which in turn could make you more prone to overeat, shows how this can soon become a vicious cycle leading to more weight gain.
Such weight gain can put you at increased risk of a sleep disorder like obstructive sleep apnea. Obesity is a major factor in obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder which sees the upper airways collapse overnight as the muscles relax. The resulting obstruction to breathing causes the brain to awake the body for air, and this can happen frequently through the night.
Overindulging in the evening may exacerbate obstructive sleep apnea by further disrupting your sleep, as well as increasing your risk from obesity. As well as frequent awakenings other symptoms of this disorder include heavy snoring, morning headaches, excessive daytime fatigue and poor concentration. If you have the disorder, you could be more at risk of eating too much due to a lack of rest.
Tame the Ill Effects of Overeaten
Every now and again we all eat a big meal in the evening, a bit too close to bed time. The key is to recognize the affect it can have and to ensure it does not happen often. This can be harder during the holiday season, and there are a few things you can try in order to minimize the impact if you have overeaten. These include:
- It may feel counter-intuitive when feeling full to bursting point, but drinking water and staying hydrated is important
- If eating later than normal, stay off the alcohol and avoid drinking caffeine
- Try and give your body at least three to four hours to digest the food before going to bed
- Optimize the sleeping environment in the bedroom by ensuring the room is dark, the temperature and mattress is comfortable, and screens are switched off.
- A short walk after eating can help with the process of digestion
- Those who are prone to heartburn or acid reflux may try elevating their head by six inches when in bed, as well as sleeping on their side.
These tips may help when you have overeaten, but as a generally accepted rule you want to avoid eating up to three hours prior to bed. Eating in the period before bed can result in a disrupted night’s rest, which is only magnified when you have overeaten.
Our body clocks are geared to digesting food during the day. It can be difficult over the holiday period, but avoiding large meals late in the evening are key to a good night of vital restorative rest.