If you’re among the estimated 65 percent of Americans who have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week, you’re probably tired of hearing about all the possible culprits for your bedtime woes, from too much caffeine and late-night TV to not enough exercise or unwind time in the evenings. While all of these factors certainly play a role in your quality of shut-eye, there’s one sleep saboteur that often goes unrecognized even though it can have a profound effect on how soundly you snooze—your diet.
In fact, food and sleep actually affect one another: If you don’t eat right, you lose sleep; and when you’re sleep-deprived, your eating habits suffer, says Sally Kravich, a holistic nutritionist and author of Vibrant Living: Creating Radiant Health and Longevity (SPK Publications, 2003). “It’s the ultimate catch-22,” she says. “A lack of sleep causes leptin, an appetite-regulating hormone, to crash, which causes you to eat more,” she says. “Not only does eating more eventually lead to weight gain and an increased risk of obesity—both of which can affect how well you sleep—but the foods you’re most likely to reach for when you’re tired will keep you up at night.” So what’s an insomniac to do?
For starters, get clear about which foods promote good shut-eye, and which have the potential to keep you up at night, and adjust your diet accordingly.
Whole grains. Fiber-rich foods, such as brown rice and quinoa, do more than keep you full; they contain large amounts of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that increases the levels of serotonin (a feel-good neurotransmitter that calms the nervous system) and melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone secreted in response to darkness) in the brain. What’s more, whole grains slowly nourish the body throughout the night after you digest them, says Lauren Taylor, CTN, a naturopath in Boulder, Colorado. That makes them an especially good choice for anyone who wakes up hungry during the night. Whole-grain carbohydrates also have a soothing effect. “Certain grains, like oats, act as natural relaxants and help calm the nervous system,” says Taylor.
Legumes. The high levels of B vitamins in legumes, such as black-eyed peas and lentils, also help calm your nervous system, says Kravich. Adds Taylor: “Legumes can be a great choice for an evening meal because they often replace animal protein, which can cause sleep problems.” But legumes are not for everyone, warns Taylor. They can be hard for some to digest. To know if you fall into this category, pay close attention to how you feel after you eat them. If the legumes satisfy your hunger without making you feel overly full or gassy, they could be a good addition to your sleep-inducing arsenal. Have an upset stomach or feel sluggish after a meal of legumes? Skip them altogether or eat them only in moderation.
Herbal teas. Tempted to have a glass of vino to unwind at night? Kravich recommends reaching for a cup of tea instead, especially blends with chamomile, lavender, and mint. “Drinking caffeine-free tea, particularly gentle herbal varieties, relaxes the body, calms digestion, and soothes the stomach,” says Kravich. Taylor agrees, but also says that the environment in which we eat potentially relaxing foods can have a profound effect on our nervous system. “That calming chamomile tea isn’t necessarily going to be so calming if you drink it while you’re on the computer paying your bills at 10 o’clock at night,” says Taylor. Instead, take your tea to a cozy spot where you can relax, smell the tea, and fully enjoy drinking it. “Unwinding in the evening—emptying out—that’s what’s important,” says Taylor. “It’s a way of clearing your nervous system. If you haven’t let go of the day’s activities, where is all that energy going to go? If it remains pent up inside of you, it’s certainly going to affect your ability to sleep.”
Fruit. Especially high in sleep-inducing tryptophan, bananas, mangoes, and dates are also great substitutes for higher-calorie desserts. “It’s all about changing your habits,” says Kravich. “Instead of cutting out dessert completely, replace cake and cookies—which can keep you up at night because of their high sugar content—with fruits that will satisfy your sweet tooth and help promote sleep. While fruits do contain sugar, it’s natural—not processed—and fruit also comes packed with fiber.” Another benefit from fruits: their high antioxidant content. “Think of nighttime as clean-up time for the body,” says Taylor. “If you go into the evening having just eaten foods that are cleansing and detoxifying, you’re helping that clean-up cycle. Vegetables and fruit are the most detoxifying foods you can eat.”
Soups and stews. Adding sleep-inducing foods to your diet will certainly help you get your beauty rest, but you should also pay attention to how you prepare them. “Cooking sleep-inducing foods at low temperatures for long periods of time is ideal,” says Taylor. “Soups and stews—particularly those filled with fiber-rich veggies and legumes—and low-fat casseroles are much more calming and relaxing than seared meats and hot, spicy foods because when you cook something for a long time, the cooking process acts almost like our own digestive system,” says Taylor. Long cooking times break down the starches and sugars in foods, so your body doesn’t have to work very hard to access their nutrients.
Fatty, high-protein foods. We all know how important it is for good heart health to ease up on saturated animal fats, but doing so can also help the state of your adrenal glands—important not only for good sleep but also for your overall health. Red meat contains high levels of the amino acid tyrosine, which causes the adrenal glands to pump cortisol through your body. This hormone is part of the fight-or-flight reaction that prepares us to face or run away from danger—and certainly puts us in a heightened state that’s hardly conducive to falling and staying asleep.
“Under normal circumstances, your adrenal activity is at its highest when you wake up and then descends throughout the day so it’s at its lowest ebb before you go to sleep,” says Taylor. “To promote good sleep, you need to support this adrenal rhythm with the foods you eat.” And for most that means turning the typical American diet upside down. Because high-protein foods stimulate the body, eat them in the morning and at midday, suggests Taylor. For dinner, steer clear of meats and other high-protein foods that will spike your adrenal glands and opt for vegetables and plant-based sources of protein instead.
Caffeine. While you may think that morning cup of joe or two won’t interfere with your ability to wind down later in the day, think again. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Although most doctors say it takes between four and seven cups of regular coffee a day to hinder sleep, caffeine—like red meat—revs the body up. “Caffeine can overstimulate the adrenals, which actually compounds fatigue as it wears off,” says Kravich. If you must have your morning cup, eat something nutritious with it and add milk or soy milk to dull the negative effects of the caffeine.
High-sugar, empty-calorie sweets. “Think of cakes and cookies as the other end of the spectrum from whole grains,” says Taylor. “Sweets give you quick energy followed by a crash,” she says. “Because the energy you get from sweets isn’t long and sustained, odds are you’ll wake up because you’re hungry.” Instead of typical desserts, opt for fruit or even some healthy fats and whole grains, such as a quarter of an avocado spread on whole grain toast. “Healthy fats are satisfying, and they calm the nervous system,” says Taylor.
Cold foods. Even during the hot summer months when you might be craving cold foods, such as salads, smoothies, and ice cream, do keep in mind that they’re not necessarily the best for promoting sleep, says Taylor. “When you eat cold foods, your body has to work hard to bring the food’s temperature up to your body temp,” she says. “If the food has been cooked, your body doesn’t have to spend as much energy breaking down the food, which is ideal for evening meals when the goal is to help your body unwind and work less.” Instead of a cold salad, for example, steam veggies and eat them at room temperature with a good olive oil drizzled on top.
Monica Bhide is a Dunn Loring, Virginia–based food writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Food & Wine. Her book, Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen, was released this month by Simon & Schuster.