Ambien. Halcion. Lunesta. Restoril. Silenor. Those are just five of the popular prescription sleeping pills on the market, and more than 10 million Americans use one of them to get to sleep every night. (1) Millions more use non-prescription pills or holistic supplements like Unisom, Benadryl or melatonin to encourage a restful sleep.
But why would they, if they can just eat some honey before bed and sleep like a baby?
The use of honey as a sleep aid isn’t limited to today’s old-fashioned mothers and grandmothers. North American and European folk healers have long recommended honey and warm milk, for traditional Mexican healers it’s honey and chamomile tea – even an old Chinese proverb suggests that people eat honey every night before bed.
That’s in direct contradiction to modern medical suggestions to avoid eating anything after dinner, though.
Which is the right approach? Let’s find out.
Reasons to Stop Eating At Night
There are very good reasons why nutritionists tell us to put away the food after dinner.
The most obvious one is that eating at night generally means eating additional food beyond your normal diet. But it can also lead to more fat being stored in the body, higher cholesterol and higher triglyceride levels, since circadian clocks are normally “set” to store fat and metabolize lipids differently during day and night. The end result: a greater possibility of becoming obese. (2)
Nighttime eating also negatively affects the way the body controls blood sugar, and may even harm memory function. (3)
Generally speaking, our body clocks are set to work in very specific ways depending on the time of day. Eating at night fouls that all up, often with undesirable results.
The Exception: Honey
Medical experts say that if you are going to eat at night you should stick to foods with a low glycemic index, because of the blood sugar regulation problems that high-GI foods can trigger.
Honey’s glycemic index is somewhere around 50, which is considered “moderate.” But it’s one of the only exceptions whose benefits definitely outweigh risks when consumed before bed.
The reason that eating honey is different? It involves long chains of glucose called glycogen. Glycogen is responsible for storing energy in the body – and it’s the key source for the energy needed by the brain to function.
The Role of Glycogen
The more you learn about the body, the more amazing it becomes. Each bodily process is incredibly complicated, and each has developed to perfectly perform a certain function. Here comes a little science, but we’ll try to make it easy to digest.
Speaking of digestion, let’s talk about eating. When we eat carbs, they’re usually converted to the glucose which the body uses for energy. At the same time, higher blood glucose levels tell the pancreas to produce more insulin.
If not all of the glucose is needed right away, increased insulin levels signal the liver to convert the excess glucose to glycogen synthase which is stored in the liver, muscle tissues and if needed, fat cells. The muscles convert the glycogen back into glucose to be burned as necessary. Meanwhile, the glycogen in the liver stays there until it’s needed. When it is, it’s converted back into glucose and sent to the brain (which uses more energy than any other part of the body).
When might that glycogen be needed? One good example is when you’re asleep, since your blood sugar levels drop when you’re not eating regularly. As the night progresses, there’s less and less glucose remaining in the blood, so the brain obtains it from stored liver glycogen. Eventually, that glycogen runs out too.
As the brain runs out of glucose it begins to panic, and its response is to signal the body to produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline stimulates the conversion of glycogen stored in muscle tissue, producing the new glucose that’s badly needed by the brain.
That’s why you may wake up in the middle of the night: the brain is running out of glucose. And it’s why you may wind up staying awake for a while – the rush of adrenaline keeps you up. Good bye, sleep quality. Good bye, good night’s sleep.
There’s one other problem created when the body’s glucose supply runs low. The cortisol produced when the brain is in stress mode encourages the storage of body fat, which leads to weight gain.
How do you avoid this disastrous glucose and glycogen shortage?
The answer, as you may have guessed, is eating honey before bed.
Sweet, Sweet Honey
Honey is actually a form of complex sugar. It’s primarily made up of two different simple sugars, fructose and glucose.
Your ears perked up there. “Glucose, did you say?”
Exactly. The high sugar content of honey includes about 30% glucose. Eating a teaspoon of honey before bed (aw, it’s so good let’s make it a tablespoon of honey) refuels your body with glucose, which is available in the blood and also converted to glycogen in the liver. So the honey you eat late at night supplies your brain with the energy it needs, in the form of glucose and available glycogen, to make it through until breakfast.
(Most doctors warn against recommend intermittent fasting for weight loss, but many people try it anyway. In that case, honey before bed is always one component of the program, because it keeps blood sugar levels balanced through the night and speeds up the body’s metabolism to supposedly encourage fat burning.)
All That and Melatonin, Too
The body doesn’t just use honey for necessary late-night fuel. There’s a secondary benefit to having a spoonful of honey before bed.
When the body’s insulin levels increase, the amino acid tryptophan is released into the brain. Tryptophan allows the production of serotonin, which the brain then converts into the hormone melatonin.
Your ears just perked up again. Yes, that’s the same melatonin that you can take in supplement form as a sleep aid, but in a naturally-produced form it works even faster. Melatonin governs the body’s sleep cycle, and a ready supply allows you to sleep through the night without waking.
The Other Health Benefits of Honey
No matter what time of day you eat it, all types of honey provide a wealth of other medical and health benefits. So when you drink honey mixed with warm water or tea late at night (or eat it straight out of the jar), it’s helping your body do much more than just fall and stay asleep.
Raw honey (which hasn’t been pasteurized, gone through ultrafiltration or had extra sweeteners added) has potent antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It can strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure, fight many inflammatory diseases, help wounds to heal – and of course, ease that sore throat you may be going to bed with. There’s research showing it helps fight heart disease, and may even help the body fight cancer.
One final benefit of honey before bed: going to sleep with a sweet taste in your mouth encourages sweet dreams. No, there’s no medical research on that – but it’s what our mother always told us.