Do you wake up before you want to and struggle with getting back to sleep when you do? One thing (out of many) that can cause this is low blood sugar*. If this is your issue, it is easily solved by eating high-fat, high-protein food.

My evidence on this is purely anecdotal; I learned this from r/adviceanimals in 2012, so the intellectual pedigree is weak. But I added ~one full sleep cycle to my night when I tried it, which lasted for years until I was forced to stop due to medication requiring an empty stomach (I now use ketone esters). A month ago my dad went from “3-5 hours/night, 3 hours awake, maybe more sleep after that” to “8-9 hours of near-continuous sleep, 1 night per fortnight a mere 6 hours” by keeping peanut butter by his bed. Downside: he’s now useless for testing the magic vibrating bracelet I’m so hyped about.

This is very easy to test. Keep some nuts by your bed; if you wake up, eat some. If you fall back asleep, congratulations on fixing your problem. There are more complicated things you can do with your evening diet to try and prevent early wake-ups entirely but I feel very muddled about these and don’t have good suggestions.

If you’re doing intermittent fasting, ketone esters (affiliate link) don’t work for many people but are great if you’re one of the lucky ones (I am), and ~don’t count as eating. MCT oils (affiliate link) work on the same principle and so may be an alternative, but I haven’t tested them personally.

I am not a doctor, anything with a real effect can hurt you, be careful not to choke or attract ants, etc. 

*It’s not clear to me if this is actually low blood sugar as measured glucose in your bloodstream, or naturopathic “low blood sugar”, meaning problems you fix by eating, but I don’t care. 


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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:41 PM

Wholely agree with the 'if it works it works' perspective.

Two minor niggles are worth mentioning:

  1. As I understand it, eating any amount will signal the body to stop fasting. The overnight fast is the only one most people have and it seems to be quite important for long term metabolic health.
  2. Your body has several inputs to its internal clock, and the two most significant ones are light and food. So there's a pathway where this 'solution' might also be reinforcing the problem.

Niggles aside, if it works it works. And nothing is more important than sleep for health. If you are currently chronically sleep deprived and the usual things aren't helping - absolutely try this.

Thanks Elizabeth for sharing another potential tool for helping people.

I agree concerns about short-term fixes reinforcing the problem long term are a very big deal, and that either of the mechanisms you point to could create that effect. But...

[basically all of the following is nullified because you took care to specify sleep was the most important thing. I'm using this as an opportunity to discuss patterns around health advice specifically because you avoided the problems, so it doesn't feel like picking on someone. Which I realize is annoying, and I apologize for that]

There's a pattern in online health advice. Most of it is written by people who are putting a lot of thought and energy into optimizing for very high performance, or are very sick and putting that same amount of effort into becoming just okay. That advice is hard to do well because it's an amount of effort most people won't put in, and because optimal input at that level varies a lot from person to person. 

It's really easy for someone lower on the health ladder to read advice for optimizers and get discouraged or overwhelmed so they do nothing at all. "Okay I need to eat more protein... but not from pork, that might cause an immune reaction to myself... no cows because of global warming...fake meat is artificial and fortified and has the dreaded seed oils...eggs cause has mercury... legumes have phytins that leach nutrients...oh look a cookie"

My suggestions tend to focus on low hanging fruit for people who aren't putting in much effort. Things that pay for themselves quickly, have strong feedback loops, and don't vary that much from person to person. It's possible I should start specifying this in the relevant posts.

My guess is that it is healthier to arrange one's diet to avoid needing 3 AM snacks, for the reasons you mention, but I don't know how to tell people to do that. I have some ideas, but they're vague, effortful to implement, and harder to measure their results. My guess is there are lots of people who will be helped by the advice "try peanut butter" but bounce off if I start describing multiple vague dietary changes they could try and laboriously measure the impact of. 

I'm glad you wrote this comment. It's good for people to have threads to follow up on once they move up the health ladder, and it's good to puncture the authority bubble people sometimes project onto me, a holder of a BA in an unrelated section of biology. "Short term gains long term costs" is exactly the failure mode of this kind of advice and it's good to highlight that.  And you did several things to avoid exactly the failure mode I describe, by prioritizing sleep above all else. I think it would have been cool if you'd gone into more detail on your concerns, but it's not like I put any effort into justifying the importance of sleep so I can't throw stones. 

But I do wish people in general kept "the perfect is the enemy of the good" and "who is the target audience?" in mind when giving health advice in general.  And writing this out helped me realize that I should make that easier by clarifying my audience. 

I can't vouch for this personally and don't even recall the source (always a great way to start advice...), but I remember reading once that a pinch of sugar sublingually with a touch of salt might also help for quickly returning to sleep.

Eating at night/before sleep is supposedly not good for your microbiome, so I'm unsure whether this is a good solution.

Can you say more about this?

I've read that in multiple sources, e.g. the book "The Gut Health Protocol". The general recommendation is to not eat 4 hours before going to sleep.

I'm looking for much finer gears on this. Some examples would be:

  1. what does "not good for your microbiome" mean? What, specifically, is it hurting? is it encouraging bad bacteria? putting potentially-good bacteria in a bad state?
  2. What are the consequences of whatever it is doing to your microbiome? discomfort? worse nutrient absorption? 
  3. how noticeable are those consequences?
  4. why four hours? what's the curve on eating closer to bed?

People need this information in order to weigh the costs and benefits.

It's true I didn't include any math on why sleep is good in my post. But the benefits of sleep are extremely well established, and huge, and people are typically competent to assess their own sleep quality (although there are traps from things that are locally helpful and long term harmful). The benefits of a good gut biome are... probably numerous, but vague, and hard to measure. 

It's cruxy for me that I only suggest this for people who are actively experiencing the problem, at the moment they experience it. If I was saying "eat before bed for nebulous sleep improvements", the math comparing costs and benefits would be much harder.

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