We’ve all been there. Tossing and turning in bed, regretting the late spicy meal we had just hours before. As you’ll already be acutely aware — your food choices can mess with your sleep in some very direct ways.
What you may not know, though, is that sleep and diet are intertwined in both directions. So, not only does a bad diet negatively impact sleep, but regular poor sleep can cause a poor diet. As a result, your dinner diet is more important than you may think.
What not to eat before sleep
While you may think that an early dinner will solve any sleep issues related to your diet, the answer is not that simple. Sure, a late meal can disrupt your sleep but, on the other hand, going to sleep on an empty stomach can activate the stress hormone cortisol. We’ll get onto what the science says you should eat before bed shortly, but first, what shouldn’t you eat and why?
- Spicy foods
This is the most commonly-known food type that induces a poor night’s sleep. That’s because spicy foods can impact digestion even after you’ve fallen asleep. Spicy food also contains high levels of capsaicin, a phytochemical that increases metabolism and thermogenesis, a process that produces heat. So, if you are a big fan of spicy foods, you might be better off saving them for lunch or an early dinner.
There’s a common misconception that alcohol helps with sleep, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. While alcohol has sedative effects that can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, the consumption of alcohol – especially in excess – impacts sleep cycles. Since alcohol is a sedative, sleep onset is often shorter for drinkers and some fall into a deep sleep rather quickly. As the night progresses, this can create an imbalance between the stages of our natural sleep cycle. This decreases overall sleep quality, which can result in shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions.
- Fried and fatty foods
Aside from increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and cancer, filling up on greasy, fried foods also makes it harder to sleep at night. Along with slower digestion, consuming high-fat foods can alter levels of orexin, a neurotransmitter involved in wakefulness and sleep.
- High-sugar foods
It’s no secret that indulging in too many sweets and sugary treats can negatively impact your health, but they also impact your ability to get a good night’s sleep too. Foods that are high in sugar like candy, cookies and soda cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels — and energy. They can also reduce the release of melatonin, a hormone that plays a central role in regulating your circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock).
- Caffeinated beverages
Not only can caffeine make it harder to fall asleep initially, but it can also impact the body’s total sleep time. Some studies have even found that consuming caffeine six hours before bedtime reduces total sleep time by up to one hour! This is why the old tale that you shouldn’t drink caffeine after 3 pm holds some truth.
As a general rule of thumb, you should also avoid having big meals shortly before bed. Trying to fall asleep with a full belly is far from comfortable, and continuing with digestion through the night requires energy. Eating larger lunches and lighter dinners tends to help promote sleep. Also, having your dinner earlier can give your body more time to digest your food before you lay down to sleep.
What to eat before sleep
Now that we know what and when not to consume before we try to reach the land of nod, what foods should we be looking to eat in the evening?
To understand this, we first need to delve into the role of melatonin. Melatonin is a chemical responsible for sleep. It is produced by the pineal gland and functions as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. Melatonin production is regulated by light, so it increases in the evening and decreases in the morning, signalling to the body that it is time to either go to bed or wake up. Some people choose to take a melatonin supplement to help combat their insomnia, but it is also possible to get melatonin directly from food.
While almonds have been associated with lower risks of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, they have also been linked with good sleep. This is because almonds, along with several other types of nuts, are a source of the hormone melatonin. Almonds are also an excellent source of magnesium, providing 19% of your daily needs in only one ounce. Consuming adequate amounts of magnesium may help improve sleep quality, especially for those who have insomnia.
It’s certainly not a go-to source of protein for meat eaters, but turkey can help with sleep! Most notably, it contains the amino acid tryptophan, which increases the production of melatonin. The protein in turkey may also contribute to its ability to promote tiredness. There’s evidence that consuming moderate amounts of protein before bed is associated with better sleep quality, including less waking up throughout the night.
- Chamomile tea
Chamomile tea and other teas are renowned for their antioxidants. One of these antioxidants is apigenin, which binds to certain receptors in your brain that promote sleepiness and reduce insomnia. Various studies have backed this theory up, with one revealing that those who consume 270 mg of chamomile extract twice daily for 28 days fell asleep 15 minutes faster and experienced less nighttime wakening compared to those who didn’t consume the extract.
According to multiple studies, Kiwifruit may be one of the best things to eat before bed. While more scientific evidence is required to understand why studies have revealed this trait, experts have put it down to the fruit’s impact on serotonin, a chemical that helps regulate your sleep cycle. It has also been suggested that the anti-inflammatory antioxidants in kiwifruit, such as vitamin C and carotenoids, may be partly responsible for their sleep-promoting effects.
- Tart cherry juice
Another relatively unknown thing to consume for a good night’s sleep is tart cherry juice. In one small study, adults with insomnia drank eight ounces (240 ml) of tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks. They slept 84 minutes longer and reported better sleep quality compared to when they didn’t drink the juice. Similarly to almonds, the reason behind these results was put down to the juice’s high levels of melatonin.
- Malted and nighttime milk
Malted milk is made by combining milk and a specially formulated powder that contains primarily wheat flour, malted wheat, and malted barley along with sugar and an assortment of vitamins. It’s these vitamins that are thought to improve sleep quality. Normal milk itself also contains melatonin, and some milk products are melatonin-enriched. When cows are milked at night, their milk has more melatonin to provide a higher amount of the sleep-producing hormone, so look out for these on the shelves!
While improving your dinner diet isn’t necessarily going to solve all long-term sleep issues, good nutrition certainly has the power to give your body the best chance of getting a good night’s sleep. To reap the benefits of these melatonin-packed sleep-enhancing foods and drinks, nutritionists believe it is best to consume them 2–3 hours before bed. Just like a spicy curry, eating immediately before going to sleep may cause digestive issues that can keep you tossing and turning late into the night.
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