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Foods That Help or Hinder Sleep

Do you lay awake at night? Still adjusting to the time change, or too much on your mind or a bout of insomnia you can’t seem to shake?

You probably already abstain from coffee or other caffeinated beverages close to bedtime, but turns out what you ingest can play a big role in the quality of your sleep each night.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

AARP offers a list of 12 foods that sabotage sleep. Some might surprise you more then others. Check out what you should avoid eating (and drinking) for several hours before heading off to bed:

 1. Celery

Celery and other foods with a high water content (i.e., cucumbers, watermelon, radishes) are natural diuretics that may cause you to wake in the middle of the night with a full bladder.

 2. Tomatoes

Tomatoes are rich in tyramine, an amino acid that triggers the brain to release norepinephrine, a stimulant that boosts brain activity and delays sleep. Other tyramine-rich foods include eggplant, soy sauce, red wine and aged cheeses, such as brie and Stilton.

 3. Cheese Pizza

Foods high in fat and fried foods take longer to digest and can cause discomfort that interferes with sleep.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

 4. Alcohol

Although a nightcap or a glass of wine before bed may help you doze off quicker, it disrupts sleep later in the night and robs you of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

 5. Black-bean chili

The body has a hard time digesting beans, so stomach-rumbling gas pains will keep you from a good night's sleep, says Helen Rasmussen, a research nutritionist at Tufts University.

 6. Dark chocolate

A small piece of dark chocolate each day helps keep your heart healthy—but don't nibble it right before you go to bed. Dark chocolate, hot cocoa and tea all contain caffeine, and if you're caffeine-sensitive, you may find yourself staring at the ceiling instead of snoozing.

 7. Gumdrops

A handful of gumdrops (or any candy) may cause your blood sugar levels to spike and then fall rapidly as the body releases insulin to bring them under control. You may fall asleep easily, but these fluctuations make it difficult to stay asleep.

 8. Tacos

A taco liberally sprinkled with hot sauce may set your taste buds tingling, but eating it within a few hours of lights-out can set you up for a bad case of heartburn and a restless night. Same goes for any spicy foods.

9. Steak

Foods high in protein and marbled fats, such as steak and roast beef, are slow to digest. If your body is busy digesting food, there's more of a chance that you'll have a restless night.

10. Carbonated soft drinks

Caffeine, that sneak thief of sleep, can turn up in unexpected places, including root beer and lemon-lime soda. Added to a food or beverage, caffeine must be listed as an ingredient; if it occurs naturally (coffee, tea, chocolate), it doesn't. Check the label.

11. Dagwood sandwich

A heavy meal just before bed can rob you of the shut-eye you need. Allow at least three hours post-meal before you turn in so your body has a chance to digest the food and you don't feel too uncomfortable to sleep.

12. Broccoli

Broccoli is a nutrition powerhouse, but its slow-to-digest fiber will keep your body working hard into the night. Broccoli and its relatives cauliflower and Brussels sprouts also contain an indigestible sugar that will produce large amounts of gas.

On the flip side are foods (and beverages) that go a long way towards improving the quality of your sleep.

Organic Gardening suggests the following nine foods to help you sleep:

1. Cherries

In one small study, participants drank eight ounces of tart cherry juice in the morning, and another eight ounces in the evening, for two weeks and reported better sleeping habits. Why does it work? All varieties of cherries are naturally high in melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

2. Fish

Fish are rich in tryptophan, a natural sedative, with shrimp, cod, tuna and halibut having the highest levels, even more than turkey. But since not all seafood choices are healthy (some are high in contaminants) or for the planet (many are overfished, or methods for catching them kill other species), stick to catches like Pacific cod from Alaska or pole-caught Albacore tuna from the U.S. or British Columbia.

3. Lemon Balm

This lemon-scented member of the mint family has been a sleep-inducing superstar for ages, but it seems to be most effective in combination with another herb called valerian. In one study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, 81 percent of people with minor sleep problems who took a combination of the herbs reported sleeping better than people on a placebo. Both can be purchased as supplements, or you can make a tea by steeping 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried lemon balm and 1 teaspoon of valerian root in 1 cup of hot water for 5 to 10 minutes. (If you take other medications, though, ask a doctor or pharmacist about any potential herb-drug interactions.)

4. Chamomile

Another herb that works as well as lemon balm, chamomile has been used as an herbal remedy for insomnia for thousands of years. In one animal study, it calmed down mice as effectively as tranquilizers, and in the only human study to study the effectiveness of chamomile, the herb reduced mild to moderate generalized anxiety disorder much better than placebo. Ready-made chamomile teas are sold in every supermarket, so it’s an easy remedy to get your hands on.

5. Bananas

These perfectly snack-sized superfruits are packed with potassium and magnesium, two minerals that promote muscle relaxation. In fact, magnesium deficiencies are related to restless leg syndrome and nighttime muscle cramps, two conditions that can certainly interfere with your sleep.

6. Spinach

In addition to being rich in potassium and magnesium, spinach is high in calcium, yet one more mineral that plays a role in sleep. Calcium helps the body generate melatonin, the hormone that helps your body maintain its circadian rhythm. You can get the same benefits from other dark leafy greens, such as Swiss chard, kale, turnip greens and collard greens.

7. Dairy

Like spinach, dairy products are rich in melatonin-boosting calcium, and a number of studies are finding that calcium deficiencies are linked to poor sleep quality. So there may be something to that old adage that a glass of warm milk will help you sleep, after all!

8. Almonds

They’re full of magnesium and yet another source of calcium. You can eat a handful of almonds or spread some almond-butter on a piece of whole grain bread, which will help you get to sleep for another reason (keep reading).

9. Carb/Protein Combos

There’s some debate as to how well your body handles tryptophan, and a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that getting it from high-protein foods can work against you, because protein can prevent tryptophan from entering your brain. But when you combine high-protein foods with carbs, the insulin your body produces in response to the carbs makes it easier for tryptophan to break through your brain’s barriers. So think oatmeal with bananas and almonds, for a real sleepy snack, or whole-grain cereal with organic milk.

Pros at the Cleveland Clinic break down sleep-aiding or -sabotaging foods by category:

1. Complex carbohydrates

Embrace whole-grain breads, cereals, pasta, crackers and brown rice. Avoid simple carbohydrates, including breads, pasta and sweets such as cookies, cakes, pastries and other sugary foods. These tend to reduce serotonin levels and do not promote sleep.

2. Lean proteins

Lean proteins include low-fat cheese, chicken, turkey and fish. These foods are high in the amino acid tryptophan, which tends to increase serotonin levels. On the flipside, avoid high-fat cheeses, chicken wings or deep-fried fish. These take longer to digest and can keep you awake.

3. Heart-healthy fats

Unsaturated fats will not only boost your heart health but also improve your serotonin levels. Examples include peanut butter (read the label to make sure peanuts are the only ingredient) and nuts such as walnuts, almonds, cashews and pistachios. Avoid foods with saturated and trans fats, such as french fries, potato chips or other high-fat snack foods. These bring your serotonin levels down.    

4. Beverages

Certain drinks can promote or prevent sleep. A good, soothing beverage to drink before bedtime would be warm milk (your mother was right) or herbal tea such as chamomile or peppermint. As for caffeinated drinks, I recommend that my clients who are having difficulty sleeping consume that last cup by 2 p.m. Caffeine can affect people differently, and even the smallest amount of stimulant can keep you awake. 

5. Fresh herbs

Fresh herbs can have a calming effect on the body. For example, sage and basil contain chemicals that reduce tension and promote sleep. Try making your own homemade pasta sauce with sage and basil. It’s easy to do, and homemade sauces tend to be lower in sugar than store-bought versions. However, avoid herbs such as red pepper or black pepper at night, as they have a stimulatory effect.

Feeling dire? Helpguide.org lists a bunch of tips for getting a good nights’ sleep, from a bedtime snack and beyond food.

Visit EcoWatch’s TIPS and HEALTH pages for more related news on this topic.

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