Evening snacking — is it a good routine for seniors or one they would be better off breaking?
Many of our senior loved ones like to snack in the evening while watching TV or just because they have a craving for something.
Maybe they snack because they are bored or it is just a long standing habit which may not be healthy for them.
Some of our seniors think that eating before bed will help them sleep better, deeper or longer. Or just the opposite, some people feel that eating after dinner will keep them up because it could cause heartburn or reflux while they lay flat in bed.
Still others worry that eating before bed is contributing to weight gain that could negatively impact their health.
What does the research tell us?
Is there a better snack choice for our senior loved ones, foods they should avoid after dinner, or will the timing or amount eaten make a difference? Let’s see.
Foods that Can Help Seniors Sleep
Our grandmothers (and our senior loved ones grandmothers too) knew there were foods that were important to help with whatever ailed us including helping us sleep. Here are a few to try if sleep is a problem in your household.
- Warm milk – this age old remedy has a basis in science. When milk is warmed it releases tryptophan that helps soothe us to sleep.
- Chamomile tea – this herb contains flavonoids, tea varieties like lavender and lemon balm can also help sleep; no caffeine in this tea to disturb your sleep either. There is some school of thought that a hot beverage before bed without caffeine can raise your body temperature to make you sleepy.
- Turkey and fish – more sources of the amino acid tryptophan that soothes us to sleep by stimulating serotonin (remember Thanksgiving?). Fruits such as bananas, nuts, low fat cheese, seeds and eggs contain tryptophan too.
- Almonds and other nuts including peanut butter – nuts have magnesium which acts as a muscle relaxant and protein that help with serotonin for better sleep.
- Melatonin containing foods such as cherries – melatonin naturally promotes sleep.
Foods to Avoid Before Bedtime
There are some foods that can contribute to sleepless nights due to gastric reflux (heartburn), wakefulness and slow stomach emptying. Here are some foods and drinks to consider avoiding:
- Caffeine containing beverages or foods such as chocolate – they can overstimulate your central nervous system, resulting in trouble with sleep.
- Spicy foods – foods that increase stomach acid that then backs up into the esophagus and results in heartburn or reflux symptoms. These can include salsa, pizza, tomato containing products, chili, foods with chili pepper or whole peppers, and ethnic foods. Some people have specific foods that trigger reflux symptoms that might be different than these such as acidic citrus juice or fruits.
- High fat foods – whether eaten as a bedtime snack or a meal nearer to bedtime, higher fat content that is harder to digest can sit in the stomach and cause sleep problems.
- Overindulging – no matter what your senior decides to eat before bed or later in the day, if it is too much and the stomach is overfull at bedtime, this can lead to poor sleep. Large meals inhibit sleep.
- Too much to drink – drinking large quantities of fluids near bedtime will lead to nocturia, meaning frequent overnight bathroom trips which definitely inhibit sleep.
The Study Says…
A recent study from researchers at San Diego State University and published in Science found that avoiding bedtime snacks could protect the aging heart.
These researchers tested fruit flies in the lab and were able to prevent heart problems as a result of aging and a poor diet. Fruit flies are traditionally used to simulate effects found in humans. When we eat late, it often leads to being overweight plus getting diabetes and metabolic syndrome as a consequence of the weight gain.
The fruit flies given the same food in the same amount by the end of the day were divided into two groups who could eat for 24 hours or 12 hours. Those in the 12 hour group, even though they ate the same amount, did not gain as much weight and slept better. The quality of the food was no different just when they ate.
Another recent study out of the University of California at Los Angeles examined how eating bedtime snacks impacted the brain’s learning and memory cycle when the circadian rhythm is disturbed.
Researchers found that when they fed mice ‘late night’ bedtime snacks it disrupted their entire systems. They feel that memory function of the brain is affected by food, and late eating produces an internal misalignment in the body. This misalignment resulted in changes in memory and leaning abilities.
Better Sleep = Better Health
Researchers will continue to look at why and how our senior’s sleep patterns are disturbed because increasing evidence is pointing to the importance of a stable sleep pattern to our overall health at all ages.
We can take steps to improve our senior loved ones’ health by helping them avoid snacking after dinner, reducing the fluids they drink before bedtime or, if they decide they really must snack, help them eat some different foods that could actually help them fall asleep.
Maybe we’ll have to cut those same things out of our own routines to make it easier for them, which might just benefit us as well.
Getting a good night’s sleep will improve not only our senior’s health but their quality of life too.
They will have a better day when they sleep better, and so will you!