Sleep Well: Night Caps and Midnight Feasts

It’s widely believed that the foods we take at the end of the day have a direct effect on the quality of our sleep. Most people accept that coffee can keep them awake, but is there any truth in the old idea that eating cheese provokes bad dreams? If we go to bed on an empty stomach we’re told to expect a restless night, due to a lowering of blood glucose levels, a condition which used to be called ‘midnight starvation.’ These ancient folk beliefs have now been investigated at numerous sleep laboratories around the world. Human volunteers have been set to sleep on beds wired to record their every movement. One of the most consistent findings of these tests is that sleep is more disturbed when the stomach is either empty or over full.

One of the earliest studies was carried out by physiologists at the University of Chicago, who studied the sleep patterns of human guinea pigs for thousands of nights after they’d taken a wide variety of bedtime snacks, ranging from plain water and milk, to cheese sandwiches, slices of bread and butter, and mugs of Ovaltine, which at the time was a popular evening drink. They found that the least disturbed sleep came after drinking the Ovaltine, irrespective of whether it had been mixed with water or made with milk. Similar results were obtained by researchers at Guy’s Hospital, London, who found that if elderly people took a glass of milk before retiring to bed the quality of their sleep was enhanced – they slept longer, and found it easier to get back to sleep if they woke during the night. Another important finding of this research was that the more regularly the milk drink was taken, the more effective it became as a sedative.

More support for the night cap routine has come recently from both sides of the Atlantic. At Harvard University it’s been found that taking an evening cup of a chocolate drink improves the health of the heart, while scientists at Nottingham University have discovered that drinking a cup of hot cocoa before retiring to bed appears to improve learning and memory and reduce the long-term risk of dementia. In both cases the protective effect is thought to come from cocoa’s high content of flavanols, naturally occurring compounds which boost the blood flow to the brain. We are creatures of habit, and seem to benefit by following the same unwinding ritual when the day’s work is done and we prepare for bed. For our health’s sake, there’s now ample evidence that we’d benefit if that switching off routine included the taking of a leisurely mug of hot chocolate or malted milk.

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