Carbohydrate Near Bedtime Improves Sleep, Say Two Books

Janet Rosenbaum, a professor of epidemiology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Brooklyn, writes:

Has anyone mentioned the connection between the honey/banana before bedtime and the advice to have an ounce of simple carbohydrate without protein before bedtime? There have been at least two books on this idea: Potatoes, not Prozac by Kathleen DesMaisons and The Serotonin Power Diet by Judith Wurtman. The first book suggests a small baked potato and bans alcohol and sugar during the day. The second book allows an ounce of any carbs such as pretzels. The proposed mechanism is that eating protein during the day, and carbs before bed without protein increases serotonin production over night, and my own experience is that it improves sleep and creates more vivid dreams.

I cannot easily get the Serotonin book here in Beijing but I found this related to the Potatoes book:

Now that you are having three meals a day at regular intervals, let’s add Mr. Spud to your routine. Have a potato (with its skin) every night three hours after dinner. It will help your body raise your serotonin level and make you feel more confident, competent, creative and optimistic. You can eat your potato baked, mashed, roasted, cut into oven fries or grated into hash browns. Just be sure you eat the skin. And you can top it with anything you like except foods that contain a protein. (Protein eaten along with the potato at bedtime will interfere with your serotonin-making process.) Good toppings are butter, salsa, mustard, spices, or olive oil. Toppings you should NOT use are cheese, sour cream, bacon bits, or cream of chicken soup.

I found when I ate honey with cheese the sleep-improvement effect of the honey was much reduced, in agreement with what is said here about avoiding cheese.

Here’s what happened when one person tried this. I am quoting only the parts about sleep:

[Day 1] I had the infamous potato at the recommended time. That potato really kept me up. I barely slept. What was this about her saying that a potato helps you get a good night’s sleep? But I’m willing to give it some time. I never get a good night’s sleep so it will be nice to see what that’s like again.

[Day 2] This night, I could not sleep at ALL. I was up till around 4 am. How can a little potato keep a person up so much?

[Day 3] I finally had that promised sleep that the author was talking about. WOW. I haven’t ever felt quite like this before.

[Day 4] A blissful night’s sleep.

[Day 9] Those potatoes really work on making one’s sleep much better.

[Day 23] I am not eating potatoes at night most of the time, which is part of the PNP [Potatoes Not Prozac] diet, but not something that you start from the beginning. [Nothing about sleep.]

Maybe she stopped the bedtime potato because she wanted to lose weight faster.

A potato near bedtime will surely increase blood glucose during sleep, supporting the idea that a better supply of blood glucose is what improves sleep.  Presumably it’s important to do this without (a) triggering too much insulin production or (b) increasing brain activity so much you wake up. Whether glycogen, in the liver or elsewhere, has anything to do with this I have no idea. Glycogen is one source of new glucose as the brain burns thru blood glucose but another is not yet digested carbohydrate in what you’ve recently eaten (e.g., potato).


13 Replies to “Carbohydrate Near Bedtime Improves Sleep, Say Two Books”

  1. A spoonful of honey seems, to me anyway, a much easier solution than eating a potato (with the skin) every night.

    Seth: True. But both fruit and potatoes have fiber, honey doesn’t. Mr. Heisenbug has convinced me that fiber is very important.

  2. I have suffered from cluster headaches, which wake me up regularly around 4 AM near every morning. Since starting a tablespoon of honey, I have only woken up once with a headache and was easily able to go back to sleep. I have slept all the way through to my alarm and actually don’t want to get up. I haven’t done that in maybe a decade. This last Saturday, I actually slept until 8:30. This is all definitely new territory for me. I have tried so many things from melatonin to holy basil extract and nothing has come close to the honey. It took several days before I noticed a difference and I almost gave up. Thankfully, I didn’t.

    One protocol I followed for a short period was taking glycine, which is recommended by some for sleep problems. I wonder if it might be a similar mechanism in place for both?

  3. So, it’s great that two books speculate about this, but did either include any actual experimental evidence? As in, systematically recorded interventions and data collection with objective metrics collected by eg an actigraph?

  4. And, why not a sweet potato…there’s over 5 times the amount of sugar…so you should be able to eat 1/5 of a sweet potato and get the same effect.

  5. anyone read the ‘Potatoes, not Prozac’ book…

    looking at the excerpts above, it seems that eating the potato skin (as well as ‘flesh’) is important (critical?) for it to ‘work’, does it mention why in the book?

  6. i found some related text which hooks in to this topic on a site here,
    (caveat, i know nothing of the credentials of this site or author).
    some of the text,
    “Carbohydrate-rich meals often increase serotonin levels. However, manipulating serotonin levels through food may be very difficult to achieve because serotonin’s properties may have varying effects in different people. Some people may experience a temporary lift in mood after a carbohydrate-rich meal, while others may become relaxed or sleepy. Certain foods that increase serotonin levels aren’t the healthiest choices either.
    Believe it or not, candy and sweets, which are simple carbohydrates, have the greatest impact, but the effect will only last 1 to 2 hours. Complex carbohydrates (rice, potato, pasta) may increase serotonin levels, but not to the same extent because the protein content of these foods might actually inhibit serotonin production.
    Here’s a brief explanation of the mechanism behind the effect of food on serotonin levels: after consumption of a carbohydrate-rich meal, the hormone insulin is secreted. Insulin lowers the blood levels of most amino acids (the building blocks of protein), except for tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin). Amino acids compete for transportation across the blood-brain barrier, and when there is a larger proportion of tryptophan, it enters the brain at a higher rate, thus boosting serotonin production. To make matters more interesting, tryptophan is present in many protein-rich foods, which have been found to prevent serotonin production. So, you can see how intricate and complex this system is.
    In terms of the effects of actual foods on serotonin, here are some suggestions from nutritionists:
    If you’re having trouble falling asleep, try a small snack of carbohydrate-rich food. Warm milk may work for the psychological comfort, but also because milk contains a moderate amount of carbohydrate in the form of lactose (milk sugar)”

    “The carbohydrate/tryptophan/serotonin pathway is simply a hypothesis at this point. Since each of us is unique, in order to get a “desired effect” from food, you would need to experiment eating different foods and observing how your body reacts to each of them. You’ll also need to take into consideration your other lifestyle choices — how much sleep you get, whether or not you exercise regularly, the medications you take, your stress levels, etc. — when figuring out what affects your moods in what manners”

  7. Certainly the protein foods are big consumers of energy in the digestion process, so a handful of nuts or soybeans prior to sleep seems risky to me. Carbs like potato, rice, oats etc., that digest quickly and easily, yield a higher percentage of net energy. The fiber provides the slow release effect, making the energy from the gut longer running. The honey, of course, requires almost no converting, i.e. energy input prior to utilization by the cells.

    All foodstuffs need a ‘net energy’ score, as some take almost as much energy to utilize as they yield, and this is strongly influenced by how efficient the metabolism of the individual is. So a young person will get a better ‘yield’ owing to a strong digestive system, whereas an old person can at time get a negative result, i.e. it took more energy to process than what it delivered.

  8. This makes me wonder about the mechanism behind “carb backloading”, the protocol of the physics guy/bodybuilder Kiefer. If Seth or others are familiar with this protocol (go nuts on carbs a few nights a week), maybe all the hand waving about mTOR is a side show, and what is really happening is that a late carb meal is causing better sleep, and better sleep the muscle gains ?

    Anyway, my point is that other healthy-oriented bloggers have found a connection between carb timing and health.


    Seth: Good point.

  9. “[Day 3] I finally had that promised sleep…”

    i wonder why in this anecdote, it took till the 3rd night for this person to see an improvement in sleep (a vast improvement by the sounds of it).
    in fact on nights 1 & 2 the person reported worse sleep.

    …anyone have any ideas/theories (why it took till 3rd night to work)…?
    …& any possible explanations/reasons why nights 1 & 2 would be worse…?


    Seth: I agree, that’s a good question. One possibility is that there is large random variation in his sleep and on the first two nights it would have been unusually bad had he not taken the honey.

  10. The Serotonin aspect reminds me of SSRIs like Sertraline (Zoloft). They have listed as common side effects BOTH somnolence (excessive sleepiness) AND insomnia. People starting SSRIs commonly feel stimulated or even anxious, presumably due to the greater Serotonin activity going on. If it is too bad, sometimes the doctor will have them reduce the dose. Often it just improves after a while on its own. Perhaps the lady had deficient Serotonin activity for a long time & the sudden increase due to the potato led to her reaction. Makes me wonder if reducing the dose to half a potato during the acclimation period would have helped.

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