Eating and sleeping are basic human needs that go hand in hand in many ways. It’s no surprise that what you eat before going to bed affects the quality of your sleep.
“The foods we eat before bed can give us the nudge we need to make good sleep great — or they can keep us up all night,” says Dr. W. Christopher Winter, medical director of the Sentara Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Here, we explore the best and worst foods to eat before nodding off.
BEST FOR SLEEP
For Example: Tart Cherries
You don’t have to take a melatonin tablet to boost your levels of the sleep-inducing hormone. In a 2014 study from Louisiana State University, insomniacs who drank melatonin-rich tart cherry juice every day slept about an hour and a half longer each night compared with those who downed a placebo. Walnuts are another great source of naturally occurring melatonin, Winter says.
A WARM DRINK
For Example: Warm Milk
While dairy is rich in tryptophan, calcium and vitamin D — all of which have been linked to improved sleep — the best thing about warm milk is that it’s, well, warm, Winter says. When you spike your core body temperature with a hot drink, your blood vessels respond by dilating and letting off heat as quickly as possible — the exact same process that naturally occurs as you drift off to la-la land, he says. Hot caffeine-free teas will also do the trick.
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For Example: White Rice
The fact that white rice has a high-glycemic index isn’t always a bad thing, suggests a 2014 Cell Reports study. It found that insulin spikes actually help induce sleep. Researchers believe high-GI foods may improve tryptophan and melatonin production. (FYI, carbs are the real culprits behind your Thanksgiving Day coma, not turkey.) Bananas and granola also work.
For Example: Cottage Cheese
To boost your body’s levels of the drowse-promoting amino acid tryptophan, turn to protein, Winter says. An even better bet: casein protein. A slow-to-digest form of protein that’s abundant in cottage cheese, casein (consumed before bed) can increase your ability to recover from your workouts and build muscle all night, according to research published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Greek yogurt is another great source.
WORST FOR SLEEP
For Example: Wine
“Alcohol is one of the biggest body-clock disruptors out there,” says Laura Cipullo, RD, author of the “The Women’s Health Body Clock Diet.” “It decreases the amount of time you spend in the deepest sleep stages and, consequently, your level of wakefulness the next day.” In fact, a 2015 University of Melbourne study found that nightcaps trigger alterations in sleepers’ brain waves akin to those associated with electric shocks. For each glass, give yourself at least an hour before attempting sleep.
FRIED OR FATTY FOODS
For Example: Cheesesteak Sandwiches
“Eating a fried meal high in fat is likely to sit in your stomach and cause you to experience gastric reflux upon lying down in bed,” Cipullo says. What’s more, the body tends to shunt heavy proteins like beef toward the production of dopamine, which promotes wakefulness, Winter says. Slot any super-heavy meals for lunchtime.
For Example: Chocolate
Caffeine is all about staying awake. This you know. But you may not realize how sensitive some people can be to caffeine — and that chocolate has more caffeine than you think, says Winter. A dark chocolate bar contains nearly as much caffeine as a full cup of joe. Even “lightly caffeinated” teas and and “decaf” coffee can stand between you and your sleep.
For Example: Chili
“Hot sauce makes chili taste awesome, but spicy foods near bedtime can trigger indigestion and reflux, ultimately waking you up throughout the night,” Cipullo says. Avoid eating any spicy foods within three hours of bedtime, she says.
Written by K. Aleisha Fetters, a health and fitness writer, contributing to online and print publications including Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World, TIME, USNews.com, MensFitness.com and Shape.com. She is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the NSCA. You can read more from Aleisha at kaleishafetters.com, or follow her on Twitter @kafetters.