16 Ways Your Diet Could Be Wrecking Your Sleep
What you eat—and when—could mean the difference between sound sleep or tossing and turning. Here are the secrets to a better night's sleep.
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Is what you eat to blame for your sleep problems?
The food you eat during the day and before bed could ruin your sleep in more ways than one. Here’s what dietitians and sleep experts recommend skipping—and what to eat instead for a good night’s sleep.
Chowing spicy stuff
If you’re a late-night snacker, stay away from the salsa and chips. You may even want to avoid spicy foods at dinner if you have trouble sleeping. Hot peppers and other spicy ingredients can cause acid reflux and digestive upset, especially if you eat them close to bedtime. But registered dietitian Amanda Kostro Miller, an advisory board member for Family Living Today, explains another reason spicy food could prevent you from sleeping well: “Capsaicin, a substance in most spicy peppers, can increase your internal body temperature, but your body temperature needs to drop when you’re falling asleep.”
Instead of dousing your meal in hot sauce, add some mild guacamole. Avocados are rich in unsaturated fats which can raise levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in sleep regulation. Plus, avocados contain magnesium, a mineral that can promote more restful sleep.
Drinking peppermint tea
While that cup of peppermint tea may seem like a soothing bedtime ritual, it could be causing some tossing and turning. Peppermint relaxes the muscle that separates your stomach and your esophagus, which can cause stomach acid to rise into your chest and throat. This could cause heartburn and discomfort—not exactly sensations conducive to asleep.
If you enjoy your evening herbal tea, switch to one that some research has found helps promote rest and relaxation: Lavender tea has shown potential in helping postpartum women reduce fatigue and depression. And it could be partly the smell of it. Lavender aromatherapy with essential oils or candles can also help with stress reduction.
Downing coffee or tea
Caffeine is a stimulant that raises your heart rate, says registered dietitian nutritionist Rebecca Shenkman, the director of the MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education at Villanova University‘s College of Nursing. “Caffeine can potentially stay in the bloodstream for up to 6 hours after consumption,” she says, pointing to research indicating that daily caffeine may disturb sleep leave you feeling tired during the day.
A better evening option would be an herbal drink, like chamomile tea: According to Mary Purdy, a registered dietitian, there is evidence that chamomile tea may be helpful in promoting better sleep, especially in postpartum women. “Whether it’s a placebo effect or not, having a peaceful routine in the evening may help set the brain up for a more peaceful slumber,” Purdy says.
Indulging in soda
Soda is often loaded with sugar, which may spike your blood glucose level, and caffeine. That’s a double whammy when it comes to sleep disruption. Caffeine actually binds to receptors in the body that can disrupt the sleep/wake cycle, Purdy points out. She also emphasizes that genetically, some people process caffeine more slowly than others. If you think you might be sensitive to caffeine, it’s best to stop drinking caffeinated beverages much earlier in the day—possibly before midday.
While it’s not the same thing, a warm cup of milk before bed can really help, Shenkman says. It delivers two substances that promote sleep: “With the potent combination of tryptophan and melatonin, milk can be both soothing and sleep-promoting,” says Shenkman. (Make sure you learn about the strange things that can mess with your sleep.)
Snacking on junk
Low in fiber, high in saturated fat, and loaded with sugar—junk food like donuts and chips may spell disaster for a good night’s sleep. According to registered dietitian Kimberly Gomer, Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center, studies suggest eating low-fiber, high saturated fat and sugary foods was associated with lighter, less restorative, more wakeful sleep.
No surprise that fruit is a much better option if you want a snack before bed—and kiwis might be the best. Research published in Advances in Nutrition suggests that kiwi fruit can improve sleep quality. Part of the reason for this benefit could be the fruit’s high antioxidant content (kiwis are an excellent source of vitamin C) and serotonin-boosting effects, says Ofer Jacobowitz, MD, PhD, a sleep surgery and sleep medicine specialist.
Eating a greasy meal
Have you ever had fish and chips and felt like you swallowed a rock? Deep-fried foods are famously tough to digest. Fat slows the rate of gastric emptying—so food stays in your stomach longer. Kostro Miller points to research suggesting that fatty foods can disrupt your sleep and your internal body clock (your circadian rhythm), leading to daytime sleepiness and late-night hunger.
Think instead of a meal that induces sound sleep—Thanksgiving. Turkey, chicken, and fish all have tryptophan, an amino acid that boosts serotonin. For even more sleep-boosting potential, serve a sweet potato alongside. You’ll get a slow, steady release of carbohydrates to further boost serotonin. Plus, sweet potatoes are rich in potassium, which can help promote muscle relaxation.
Noshing on white bread
It’s not only excess sugar that can disturb sleep—eating refined carbohydrates such as white rice, pasta, crackers, and bread can do the same thing, says Purdy. These foods can disrupt the “deep sleep” stage, due to blood sugar fluctuations, and they may also cause energy dips throughout the day that can interfere with the body’s circadian rhythm. (Here’s how to get your circadian rhythm disorder under control.)
Having a nightcap
It might help you fall asleep, but booze will most likely wake you up a few hours later. “Research on alcohol and sleep suggests that drinking more than the recommended amount of two standard serving drinks for men and one standard drink for women can prevent falling into the deep stage of sleep,” warns Shenkman.
If you’re looking for something to replace that night cap, try tart cherry juice. The fruit contains melatonin, a natural hormone that helps balance your circadian rhythm, according to 2018 research published in Nutrients. Cherries are also rich in phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory properties. “Studies have shown that intake of tart cherry juice intake can increase total sleep time, sleep efficiency, and shorten the time it takes to fall asleep,” Dr. Jacobowitz says.
Eating cold pizza
It’s a popular late-night snack, but it will do a number on your sleep. You already know the sleep issues with white flour (crust) and cheese (saturated fat), but add to this the acidity of tomato sauce and you’re looking for trouble, says Terry Cralle, RN, a certified clinical sleep educator. “Pizza’s high-fat cheese and acidic tomato sauce can trigger the production of acid in the stomach and lead to sleep-inhibiting acid reflux [heartburn], making this popular nighttime dish a no-no before bed.” (Heartburn is just one of 11 health conditions that could be messing with your sleep.)
While abstaining from pre-bedtime snacks is your healthiest choice, if you must, go for low-fat protein (say, turkey breast) paired with whole-grain crackers. Lower fat cheese substitutions might include part-skim mozzarella, light cheddar, or ricotta.
Eating dinner late
While it’s common for dinner to be the largest meal of the day, it isn’t the healthiest habit, especially if you’re sitting down to dinner after, say, 8 p.m. An overly full stomach spells disaster when it’s time to sleep, says Shenkman. Lying prone soon after eating a large meal will delay proper digestion. This can lead to heartburn and physical discomfort in your belly, which makes it difficult to fall and stay asleep, she says. (Here are the things nutritionists don’t eat late at night.)
Drinking too much water
Evenings are the one time of day health experts recommend slowing down on the hydration. Drinking too much fluid—whether it’s water, herbal tea, or soup—makes it more likely you’ll need to wake up to pee in the middle of the night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Frequent waking means you could miss out on restorative sleep cycles, which will leave you feeling tired the next morning.
Not drinking enough water
Cutting down on fluids before bed doesn’t mean you want to dry yourself out entirely. Make sure you get plenty of water throughout your day, says Shenkman: “Dehydration can lead to leg cramps, dry mouth, and a parched throat which can disrupt sleep.” Check out these clever ways to get more fluids throughout your day.
Yes, a full stomach can prevent you from sleeping well, but so can failing to eat enough, says Purdy. Research suggests you may miss out on enzymes and nutrients your body needs to produce sleep-inducing substances in the body, she says. Plus: “Skipping meals during the daytime can have a negative effect on blood sugar balance, which may lead to nighttime waking and disrupt the circadian rhythm.”
Eating a diet high in saturated fat
According to Dr. Jacobowitz, studies are pretty clear on this: “High-fat diets have been associated with reduced slow wave [deep] sleep and reduced REM sleep.” Just be careful not to replace fat with simple carbohydrates like those in white rice, pasta, and white bread: High carbohydrate diets are also linked with worse sleep. (Watch out for these 22 sleeping mistakes that are messing with your rest.)
Missing out on fiber
People who don’t get enough fiber in their diet tend to sleep poorly compared to those who get plenty of fiber, a 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Interestingly, the researchers report that just one day of low-fiber eating can disrupt sleep. When participants followed a higher fiber plan, they fell asleep almost twice as quickly and slept sounder throughout the night. (Here are 30 ways to get more fiber in your diet without even trying.)
Failing to get enough protein
You don’t have to follow a high-protein plan to sleep well, but you should make sure you’re getting enough of this macronutrient essential for maintaining muscle mass and strength. As Purdy explains, protein helps balance blood sugar and keep you feeling full; research in Frontiers in Endocrinology suggests it can also provide building blocks for the synthesis of serotonin and melatonin. To make sure you’re getting enough protein, try to include a serving of protein-rich food at every meal and snack. This could be a couple of eggs at breakfast, lentil soup at lunch, a handful of almonds for a snack, and 3 to 4 ounces of chicken or fish at dinner. Next, check out the foods that can help you sleep better.
- Amanda Kostro Miller, RD, an advisory board member for Family Living Today
- Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing: "Effects of Lavender Tea on Fatigue, Depression, and Maternal-Infant Attachment in Sleep-Disturbed Postnatal Women."
- Rebecca Shenkman, MPH, RDN, is the director of the MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education at Villanova University's College of Nursing
- National Sleep Foundation: "Caffeine and sleep"
- Mary Purdy, RD
- Journal of Advanced Nursing: "Effects of an intervention with drinking chamomile tea on sleep quality and depression in sleep disturbed postnatal women: a randomized controlled trial."
- Kimberly Gomer, RD, Director of Nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center
- Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: "Fiber and Saturated Fat Are Associated with Sleep Arousals and Slow Wave Sleep"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality."
- Ofer Jacobowitz, MD, PhD, a sleep surgery and sleep medicine specialist
- Advances in Nutrition: "Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality1,2"
- Advances in Nutrition: "An integrative review of sleep for nutrition professionals."
- Nutrients: "A Review of the Health Benefits of Cherries"
- Terry Cralle, RN, a certified clinical sleep educator
- National Sleep Foundation: "Is Using the Bathroom in the Middle of the Night Normal?"
- Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: "Fiber and Saturated Fat Are Associated with Sleep Arousals and Slow Wave Sleep."
- Frontiers in Endocrinology: "Melatonin Target Proteins: Too Many or Not Enough?"