According to the National Sleep Foundation, almost six out of ten Americans report having insomnia and sleep problems at least a few nights a week. While many people treat sleep as a luxury, it is a vital component to leading a healthy life. There are so many things that can contribute to good or bad night’s sleep it could make someone dizzy just trying to keep it all straight.
We are all pretty familiar with the basics — keep a routine, a proper mattress and pillow, allow appropiate “wind down” time . . .But did you know that FOOD could also play a role in how well (or badly) you may sleep?
There are a lot of articles that run through the “Top 10 Foods to Help You Sleep” or “5 Foods to Avoid Before Bedtime”, but after reading several of them I realized I had more questions afterwards, like “how” and “why” and “whaaat??”. So I decided to go through the most common listed foods and detail out the why and how it could effect your sleep. This way, when you are having a hard time falling a sleep, even after you ate 5 bananas (the article said so!), you can understand why (because you snuck that piece of dark Dove chocolate right before you brushed your teeth).
I will be mentioning some key players of the sleep soap opera a few times: Seratonin, Melatonin, and Tryptophan. So you can understand how everything relates to each other, keep in mind:
Some minerals, like Calcium, help Tryptophan get to the brain, tryptophan helps produce Seratonin (the “happy” hormone), who then helps produce Melatonin (a hormone that causes drowsiness, lowers body temperature, slows metabolic functions, and puts the body into sleep mode).
In general: Stick to light meals at least a couple hours before you go to sleep.
Cherries – Naturally contain Melatonin.
Calcium rich foods — Calcium helps the brain use tryptophan. In one study, published in the European Neurology Journal, researchers concluded that disturbances in sleep, especially the absence of REM deep sleep or disturbed REM sleep, are related to a calcium deficiency. Calcium levels in the body were reported to be higher during some of the deepest levels of sleep.
Food options: milk, almonds
Trytophan rich foods — helps produce Melatonin and Seratonin.
Food options: turkey, walnuts
Potassium rich foods — Potassium is considered a natural muscle relaxant. You will fall asleep faster and be less likely to have restless sleep if your muscles are relaxed. Every wake up with a charlie horse??
Food options: banana, sweet potato, lima beans, and papaya
Certain Hot Teas – Valerian and Chamomile are popular teas known for “sleepy” benefits. But there are no hard studies showing they actually promote sleep like some of the other mentioned foods. It is a popular solution, so there may be something to it, including the ritual of making the tea (wind-down time) and the warmth makes you feel comfortable and relaxed.
Magnesium rich foods — A deficiency in magnesium could be keeping you up at night. When low on this mineral your brain may have a hard time settling down. Pay attention to how much magnesium you are consuming or see a doctor before snacking on some spinach or nuts before bed.
Carbs —Promotes tryptophan getting to the brain (who then helps with Seratonin and Melatonin production).
Food options: oatmeal, cereal, and popcorn
Lettuce — Contains lactucarium, a natural sedative.
Jasmine Rice — A study at University of Sydney showed it reduced the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. The same study showed that plain long-grained rice did not have the same effect, so they believe the high-glycemic index has something to do with it. But they aren’t sure of the exact cause . . .so maybe hold off on investing in large quantities of Jasmine rice just yet.
In general: Avoid heavy meals at least a 4-5 hours before you go to sleep.
Spicy foods — Elevates body temperature. Studies show that a body has an optimum sleeping temperature. If it is too high the sleep cycles will be interrupted (you’ll wake up from being too hot). A study from the International Journal of Psychophysiology found that subjects who ingested Tabasco sauce and mustard with their dinner had elevated body temperatures during their first sleep cycle, causing sleep disruption and more awake time at night.
Caffeine — Stimulant that stays active in our bodies for up to eight to ten hours. Different people handle caffeine in different ways, but if you are having trouble sleeping this is one of the first things you should analyze about your diet.
Alcohol – Acts as sedative at first, but then disrupts the sleep cycle when blood alcohol dips back down. This causes the sleeper to wake up or toss and turn restlessly.
High fat content— Induces stomach issues and heartburn, causing sleeper to wake and/or sleep apnea.
Chocolate — Contains caffeine and Theobromine (a lesser stimulant, similar to caffeine). The darker the chocolate the higher the caffeine and theobromine content. A dark chocolate candy bar can have as much caffeine as a can of soda.
High protein — Protein takes a longer period of time to digest, not allowing your body to settle and stay relaxed, therefore causing tossing, turning, and even waking up.
Sugar and B6 — I found that many of the food and sleep articles mentioned Sugar and B6, but many of the entries were contradictory to each other. Sometimes it is listed that it helps, other times it is listed that it hurts or has no effect at all. I couldn’t locate any hard evidence about them either way. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell your kids that sugar doesn’t actually make you hyperactive)
So if you are having a hard time falling asleep, you could combine some of the “best” foods like cereal and milk (in a small bowl, of course) with a cup of warm tea for a triple whammy. I suppose this means I need to avoid my nightly bowl of chocolate ice cream . . . But wait — it has calcium!
Maybe the lesson here is that moderation in everything is best, as well as learning what may specifically help or hurt your sleep goals by paying attention to your body’s reactions.
For references and more info on food and sleep, visit these web sites:
by Angela Chism