Caffeine isn’t the only thing that might be disrupting your sleep
Sip a coffee just before bedtime? We know that’s a bad idea because it has caffeine, a known sleep disruptor. But what about other foods and drinks? What kind of impact do they have on our ability to get a good night’s rest?
The facts are surprising. Many types of food and beverages can stand between you and a good night’s sleep.
It’s not always the things you expect and worth a deep dive so you can modify your diet to make it more sleep-friendly. From important vitamins and minerals to the snacks that will keep you awake and restless, this is a master class in understanding the impact of food on sleep.
Can what we eat really affect sleep?
In a word, yes – and to a significant degree. Just ask anyone who spent the night battling heartburn or tried to fall asleep while their digestive system worked over-time. “Eating a large meal before bed can impact your sleep,” says Heather Hanks, a nutritionist and medical advisor to Medical Solutions BCN. “Big meals are hard to digest and can contribute to digestive problems, especially when you lie down. You may also feel gassy, bloated, and uncomfortable, preventing you from sleeping.”
Heartburn is a common condition – more than 60 million Americans experience it at least once a month. Heartburn happens when the esophageal sphincter (a kind of safety valve to keep food from traveling from the stomach back to the esophagus) fails to close completely. This allows acids to leak, which causes an unpleasant burning sensation. Eating a big meal before or too close to bedtime can be a big a trigger. Lying down makes it worse since gravity works against you and allows those stomach acids to keep wondering. Also, keep in mind that the rate at which we digest food slows while we sleep.
The key to avoiding heartburn and other digestion problems is to watch what you eat at dinner and as the evening progresses. Hanks suggests eating your lightest meal at night. “This ensures you won’t be uncomfortable or trying to digest your food while you’re trying to sleep,” she says. “Aim for a meal that contains lean protein, like chicken or fish, and low-carb veggies. Heavy foods, such as pasta or lasagna, can be very hard to break down, which can lead to gas, bloating and constipation.”
What to avoid for better sleep
What you eat and drink is clearly a factor for sleep quality, say experts. Martin Reed, a certified clinical sleep health educator (CCSH) and the founder of Insomnia Coach, sites alcohol as a common culprit for poor sleep.
“Although alcohol can help us fall asleep, it disrupts sleep later in the night,” he says. “That’s because, as the body breaks down alcohol, it has a stimulant effect – so, although a few nightcaps might help you get to sleep faster, they may lead to nighttime awakenings and more time spent awake later in the night.” Reed suggests limiting alcohol consumption to one or two glasses of wine or beer with dinner, a few hours before bedtime will help minimize sleep disruption.
He cautions against spicy food, too. “Adding hot sauce or mustard to your evening meal can make it take longer to fall asleep and lead to more wakefulness during the night,” he explains. “This may be because eating spicy food can increase body temperature – and this can delay sleep.”
Sadly, that bowl of ice cream you enjoy while streaming your favorite movies and shows before heading to bed may be a habit that needs to change as well. Reed notes: “When consumed at night, the fat and sugar content of foods such as ice cream can put additional stress on the digestive system – and this can lead to more nighttime awakenings and less restorative sleep.”
Prioritize moderation & timing of certain foods before bedtime
Think about limiting high fat and high sugar foods to daytime consumption. A study from 2016 found low fiber, high saturated fat and high sugar intake is associated with lighter, less restorative sleep and more nighttime awakenings.
A 2017 study that showed individuals who ate a diet characterized by a high intake of processed meat, snacks, red meat and takeout foods took longer to fall asleep compared to individuals who ate a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and legumes, says Reed. “Specifically, those who took longer to fall asleep tended to consume more red and processed meat, white bread, soft drinks, beer, eggs and takeout food.”
High protein foods may also make sleep more difficult since protein can interfere with the production of serotonin and increase alertness. “So, broken down to basics, a high carbohydrate snack may be beneficial in the hour or two before bedtime but high protein foods should probably be avoided,” he adds.
Now for the good news… You’ve got plenty of more sleep friendly options for snacks and dinner.
Complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, whole grains, and brown rice, may help promote sleep, according to Reed: “This could be because they can increase serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. On the other hand, foods high in sugar can lead to a burst of energy that can disrupt sleep when consumed too close to bedtime.”
If you’re looking for specific dinner foods that help promote sleep, spinach might be a good choice. It is high in magnesium, vitamin B6, and tryptophan — all of which help can create serotonin, which can promote drowsiness and a sense of calm. Or perhaps kiwi, which has some data to back up its effectiveness. A 2012 study found that eating two kiwis every day (one hour before bedtime) for four weeks, increased sleep duration and sleep efficiency.
Healthy food habits for better sleep
Reed recommends following a regular mealtime schedule to help promote better sleep. The time we eat is one signal used by our internal sleep/wake cycle (also known as the circadian rhythm) to regulate when we sleep and when we’re awake. In terms of when to eat, he advises eating the evening meal no closer than two or three hours before you intend to go to bed.
He also notes that you shouldn’t go to bed on a full (or an empty) stomach. “Going to bed on a full stomach risks indigestion and heartburn which can keep you up at night. Going to bed hungry can also make it hard to fall asleep. If you’re about to you to bed and feel hunger pangs, eat a carbohydrate-light bedtime snack such as crackers, bread, cereal, or fruit.”
One more cautionary note: Those who wake up mid-sleep should refrain from eating since it can send signals to the brain telling it that it’s time to be awake.
The bigger sleep-food picture
Reed says it’s important to note that diet by itself doesn’t perpetuate sleep disruption. “If someone has chronic insomnia, changing their diet is unlikely to improve their sleep.” The best long-term treatment is almost always cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) because it tackles the underlying thoughts and behaviors behind sleep issues.
According to Katie Ziskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Wisdom Within Counseling, your relationship with food deeply impacts the quality of your sleep and how you feel about yourself. “People with eating disorders, disordered eating habits, stuck on fad dieting and people with body image issues may have a troublesome or challenging relationship with food and, therefore, also have trouble sleeping.”
Thinking about the feelings that you feel after eating can help you identify ways to build a more relaxing and nurturing relationship with food. If you have a stressed out or anxious relationship with food, you might be restricting food, counting calories, restricting food groups and also may even be overeating. If you feel depressed or sad, you might be over eating and using food for comfort. If you overeat or undereat, make sure to be self-compassionate and do not judge yourself for these behaviors.
She recommends working with a professional therapist or counselor who can help you look at yourself as a whole person – your mind, body, and spirit – and collaborating to make lifestyle changes to habits related to eating, exercising and sleeping.
Rest well & wake up ready to go!
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