Americans are terrible sleepers — there’s no short supply of evidence to support this idea. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported only about 65 percent of adults aged 18 to 60 get their recommended seven hours, while the remainder of the population schleps through the week sleep deprived. Not only does sleep deprivation lead to an increased risk for serious health conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, but it can also wreak havoc on our emotions and self-control.

Perhaps the most heavily debated side effect of sleep deprivation is weight gain. Many believe eating before bed prolongs the waking period and cuts into those seven hours. When sleep finally does come, the body is more likely to store that food as fat; however, the argument is a bit more nuanced than that.

So in honor of National Sleep Awareness Week, spanning now through March 13, Medical Daily enlisted the help of nutritionist Rania Batayneh, author of the best-selling book The One One One Diet: The Simple 1:1:1 Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, and Dr. Kelly Glazer Baron, director of behavioral sleep medicine training at Northwestern University, to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between food and sleep. Specifically, we wanted to answer the one question on everyone’s mind: Is it bad to eat before bed, or is it bad to eat certain things before bed?

Your body on sleep deprivation

First, sleep deprivation can increase appetite and hunger. Shortened or disrupted sleep prevents the body from knowing when to stop producing the stress hormone cortisol, and higher levels of stress result in fewer, less diverse gut microbes, according to BrainCraft host Vanessa Hill. She explained in a recent video that the sleep-wake cycle is intertwined with the gut microbiome, and a lack of sleep could have adverse effects on metabolism and appetite.

A study newly published in the journal SLEEP, however, suggests the endocannabinoid (eCB) system can activate weight gain when people haven’t gotten enough shut eye. On days when participants slept for 4.5 hours rather than eight hours, they reported an increase in hunger and appetite at around the same time that they had higher levels of 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) — the compound that binds and activates eCB receptors. They were also more likely to go for snacks with 50 percent more calories and twice the fat.

"If you have a Snickers bar, and you've had enough sleep, you can control your natural response," said study author Dr. Erin Hanlon, research associate in endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at the University of Chicago, in a press release. "But if you're sleep deprived, your hedonic drive for certain foods gets stronger, and your ability to resist them may be impaired. So you are more likely to eat it. Do that again and again, and you pack on the pounds."

Eating before bed

When it comes to eating at night, there's some confusion about the body's processes, which refers mostly to how the body responds to calorie intake and insulin levels. Glazer-Baron told Medical Daily there’s been observational and experimental data that suggests eating at night is associated with weight gain independent of calories, but this is dependent on both what and when people are eating.

"A lot of your physiological functions have a circadian rhythm, such as body temperature, and it affects the way you process food," she said. "[But] the central circadian rhythm is not controlled by food. There are some circadian processes influenced by timing in animal research, but overall, individual disorders are not necessarily a problem."

There is a condition called night eating syndrome, a combination of a sleep and eating disorder, where people consume greater than 30 or 40 percent of their daily intake after their evening meal. However, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, this only affects 1.5 percent of the population. Glazer-Baron’s recommendation, then, is to not eat a large meal before bed, but don’t go to bed hungry.

'You have to be able to relax'

Sleep deprivation can clearly take a toll on your eating habits, but generally speaking, if people go to bed hungry, it’s because they haven’t had enough to eat during the day, Batayneh said. Skipping meals or skimping on certain ingredients, like satiating fiber and protein, during the day can lead to late-night hunger pangs. This can be uncomfortable, and in order to fall asleep, Glazer-Baron said you have to be able to relax. Luckily, certain foods contain nutrients that promote both relaxation and sleep.

"You want to look for low-fat, high-fiber foods to fill you up," Batayneh said. "Complex carbohydrates — whether they come from beans, whole grains, quinoa, or lentils — contain B Vitamins. Getting B Vitamins in your diet helps maintain healthy serotonin levels."

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that can promote relaxation, U.S. News & World reported, and outside of B vitamins, you can increase levels when you eat foods containing the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, Batayneh said. Tryptophan is sent to the brain and is used to make serotonin, which can induce relaxation and eventually sleep. It is most often associated with Thanksgiving turkey, but it’s hardly the only food to contain the amino acid.

Healthy midnight snacks

Below are Batayneh’s picks for healthy foods to eat when you can't fall asleep. But as you go to stock your night stand, remember that eating for sleep is best when done in the context of a healthy sleep routine. One of Glazer-Baron’s goals when treating her patients is to make their relaxing food of choice, from a banana to decaffeinated tea, part of a routine. Which of the following will you add to yours?

Fruit: Bananas and cherries are the two of the best to fruits to pick from. Bananas contain tryptophan and potassium and magnesium — two nutrients that act as natural muscle relaxants, Batayneh said. And fresh, dried cherries are one of the only natural food sources of the sleep hormone melatonin. Tart cherry juice works well if the fresh stuff isn’t on hand.

Yogurt: Calcium is directly related to our cycles of sleep, Batayneh said. A study published in the European Neurology Journal found that "calcium levels in the body are higher during some of the deepest levels of sleep, such as the rapid eye movement ( REM ) phase." Disturbances in sleep, especially during REM, may be related to a calcium deficiency. Not only is yogurt rich in calcium, but it packs protein and has a positive influence on the digestive tract and gut microbiome. Chobani Simply 100 Yogurt is "smooth, creamy, and low in sugar," Batayneh said.

Chickpeas: Chickpeas are one of the healthiest food sources of B Vitamins, including choline, as well as fiber, protein, and magnesium, Batayneh said. Go for a can of chickpeas if you want, but know that these beans now come in snack form. Crunchy Chickpeas from Saffron Road are satiating, low in fat and calories.

Cereal: This one is kind of a classic, though when it comes to inducing sleep, look for options that contain whole grains. Batayneh enjoys the KIND Healthy Grain Clusters that feature a five super grain blend – oats, millet, buckwheat, amaranth, and quinoa.

Crackers: Crackers can also be tricky, but again, you want whole grains. Bonus if crackers also contain seeds, healthy fats, and some protein. Batayneh likes the Pumpkin Seed Cheddar Crispbread snacks from Doctor Kracker.