The Harmful Myth of the Midnight Snack


The healthfulness of the "midnight snack" is a topic that has been examined frequently in recent years, often in the light of emerging diet and lifestyle trends. Gallons of proverbial ink have been spilled examining the "healthiest" midnight-meal options, often attempting to justify them -- and the concept of the midnight snack itself -- within the greater narrative of healthy living.

But the reality is, eating before bed simply is not good for you. The very notion of the "healthy midnight snack" is a myth. Indeed, a veritable constellation of myths have sprung up around eating before bed, and many of these incorrect notions can -- if followed over time -- cause us harm. Some may sound like good sense at first blush--like eating a slow-digesting protein like chicken or turkey breast before bed is good for building muscle, or that popcorn as a midnight snack is "easy" on the body and won't compromise your diet. But putting food in your body before you go to sleep not only compromises your diet, it also wreaks havoc on your body's natural energy production. And here's why.

Eating within the day's last energy cycle is inconsistent with what the body is trying to accomplish during sleep, which is lower energy production to achieve slow and efficient repair and recovery. The efficiency of first-stage digestion -- churning food in the stomach and then moving it to the intestines - burns a lot of energy, and when there is undigested food in the stomach at night, it consumes already sparse energy reserves that should be used for repair and recovery.

When food is added to the mix during sleep, it disrupts sleep patterns, changes the melatonin-serotonin production cycle that is key to both scavenging free radicals during nighttime repair and recovery cycles and next-day alertness, and interferes with the body's production of new energy.

Patterns of late-night eating result in short term deficiencies in repair and recovery as described above. In the long-term, however, midnight snacking diminishes the body's ability to physiologically adapt to our ever-changing environments; more insidiously, it even advances our aging process - because if repair and recovery cycles are consistently inhibited, the body ages faster and earlier, and may lead to looser skin and wrinkles, a weaker immune system, and a host of other ailments.

If you absolutely must eat before bed, have a smoothie, milkshake, or ice cream, as foods that don't require chewing are more easily digestible and energy-friendly. Think twice before eyeing that old pizza at 1 A.M. -- it isn't worth your health.



The Life-Stress Conundrum 


As much as we try to avoid it, stress remains a part of what we are as human beings. We've been shaped by it ever since we stood up on two legs to survey the African plains for potential predators all those millions of years ago. Stress was - and still is - integral to our development; it aids in the triggering of human adaptive mechanisms from the womb to the grave. At every level, stimuli from our environment - be they biological, chemical, physical, spiritual, or interpersonal - trigger epigenetic changes that "switch on" certain genes and "switch off" others. We are what we are in no small part because of stress.

But in the modern era, especially in the developed western world, we shouldn't be feeling so much of it. The days of fleeing saber-toothed tigers across the plains are long behind us, yet our biological responses to mundane, "modern" stresses (stresses that arise from non-life-threatening stimuli) are no different from the constant life-or-death encounters we as a species dealt with all those thousands of years ago. Our stress response today is a relic of those bygone days, and it remains part of our biology in much the same way that dogs have vestigial appendages like dewclaws - it is simply not needed anymore on a persistent basis. But, it is there.

Persistent stress is bad for your health. Major stress events trigger immediate and severe biochemical changes in the body. When we stress out, adrenaline is released into our system, triggering the "fight or flight" response that has kept our species alive and kicking for so long. This adrenaline constricts the peripheral blood vessels in our extremities - including the brain - while blood vessels in our core expand. The result of this is diminished small-muscle coordination and increased strength. This is why you hear stories of people exhibiting almost superhuman strength during times of extreme stress. It's also in large part why athletes like baseball pitchers "lose their feel" and hang curve balls during stressful parts of games, or throw wild, high pitches after giving up a home run. And, it is also why when a person has a 'meltdown' because of anxiety or anger, they tend to not remember what happened - this is because the limited supply of blood to the brain that is the result of restricted blood vessels prevents event retention.

Knowing this, it's it's safe to say that adrenaline isn't something you want to tap into all the time - it's a survival mechanism, not a crutch. Unfortunately, chronic stress is a problem facing millions of Americans. But even with "normal" traumatic life events - such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, witnessing a horrible accident, fighting in a war where lives are taken - post traumatic stress reactions are expected and are more normal than not. However, when adaptation is stunted or inefficient, or when the damaging effects of the stressor are persistent and cause biological conversions where the stress triggers physical responses like irritable bowels, psoriasis, environmental sensitivities, or when phobias and other irrational fears appear, the return to normal does not occur and the condition can become an anxiety disorder or a 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder'.

To combat stress, employ a technique called "flexion breathing," where deep breaths are taken and held while the large core muscles are tensed and then relaxed upon exhaling. This is "real time adrenaline mitigation," and helps to stop unwanted adrenaline production in its tracks. To fight chronic stress, grow your adaptive capacity.


The modern world seems to both grow bigger by the day and smaller by the hour; innovation and invention continue to push the boundaries of human ingenuity, improving the lives of many. But with that wildfire innovation comes uncertainty, and with uncertainty, risk. Our world is overlaid a thousand times over with new and emerging environmental stressors like pesticides in our food, lead and agricultural runoff in our water, and, in just the past generation, manmade electromagnetic fields in the space all around us. These outside stressors influence human biology and can induce adverse health effects in some people.

So, what can individuals living amidst this environmental morass do to protect their health? One answer is to make changes to your own habits, in your own home environments, in real-time. These changes can add up to adaptive changes in your biology—changes that will help your body win the constant battle of damage (and illness) versus compensation (and good health).

Going forward, this blog will help to inform you of healthful ways to adjust to the new world around us.

Onward and Upward,

The Adaptation Project Team