Don't wreck your memory for a midnight snack

Even if you can stick to a healthy diet during the day, it's a different ballgame when late-night hunger strikes.

A pint of ice cream never looks so good as when you're curled up in front of the TV with all the lights off.

But according to scientists, if you give into those nighttime cravings -- especially if you're waking up in the middle of the night to eat -- it could ruin more than just your waistline.

It turns out that raiding the fridge or freezer can do a number on the part of the brain used for critical learning and memory.

For the study, a group of UCLA researchers fed two groups of mice at different times -- one when they would normally be sleeping, and one when they would normally be up and about.

When each group's memory was tested after feeding time, the mice that were fed during their normal sleep hours were less able to commit something to their long-term memory.

In contrast, the mice that got to eat during their normal feeding hours showed better long-term memory recall.

The research suggests that tinkering around with the body's natural circadian rhythms -- not just when you sleep, but also when you eat -- somehow reduces the levels of something called CREB, a protein in the hippocampus part of the brain that's key to storing memory.

So even if it's a healthy snack, the mere fact that it's past bedtime is enough to change your brain chemistry.

Of course, more studies need to be done on humans to fully understand the potential implications for us -- but it's been well-established that midnight snacking and other off-schedule eating can mess with your metabolism and heart health.

It can even put you into a pre-diabetic state.

So, if you're regularly heading to the fridge before heading to bed... or you're waking up in the middle of the night with the munchies... try eating a high-protein dinner with lots of fiber to keep you feeling full for longer periods of time.

If you're not hungry but you're eating anyway -- maybe because you're just bored, or even depressed or anxious -- find something else to distract you. Taking a warm bath or a hot shower can do wonders to hit the "reset" button... as can splashing some water on your face.

If you have trouble staying asleep and find yourself snacking to pass the time in the wee hours, natural sleep supplements like melatonin, L-theanine, and 5-HTP have all been proven to help you stay asleep throughout the night.