A well-balanced diet will maintain a consistent energy level—but many Americans reach for caffeine, in coffee, tea, soda or energy drinks, for a pick-me-up. Learn the best foods for sleep as well as other healthy habits for a good night's rest.

It’s 2 a.m. and you are wide awake.

The alarm clock casts a green glow on the walls, the refrigerator hums, your dog pants; if you were asleep, you wouldn’t notice, but insomnia turns these little sounds into big annoyances. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sleep deprivation is linked with poor quality of life and well-being, injury, chronic disease, mental illness, as well as decreased concentration or productivity.

Sleep deprivation can result from difficulty falling asleep or poor sleep quality, and there are several dietary habits that can exacerbate both.

The Diet and Sleep Connection

A well-balanced diet will maintain a consistent energy level—but many Americans reach for caffeine, in coffee, tea, soda or energy drinks, for a pick-me-up. Coffee drinking averages 3 cups a day in the U.S., according to the National Coffee Association, and that caffeine habit can affect sleep.

Caffeine can take three to 15 hours to metabolize, depending on the person and his hormonal state. A recent study at Duke University medical center found levels of adrenalin and noradrenalin remained elevated at night even when subjects hadn’t had caffeine since lunch, while the National Sleep Foundation reports the effects of caffeine can cause problems falling asleep as much as 10 to 12 hours later in some people.

Other stimulants that can affect sleep include chocolate, nicotine and spicy foods. Alcohol, while initially sedating, can actually decrease the amount of time you sleep, so you wake up earlier or have restless sleep. A nightcap is fine, but more than 2 ounces of hard alcohol or two glasses of beer or wine can cause sleep disturbances.

Heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux can also affect a person’s ability to fall asleep. Heartburn is exacerbated by ingesting fatty foods, eating foods one is allergic to and eating foods that decrease pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).

Foods that decrease LES pressure include chocolate, alcohol, carbonated beverages, tomato products, citrus juices, sugary foods, coffee, peppermint and spearmint, milk and dairy products, vinegar, and peppers or jalapenos.

It’s best to not eat these foods in large quantities for dinner. In addition to decreasing or eliminating these foods, you can talk to your doctor about other needed lifestyle changes if you suffer from heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux.

Healthy Habits

In general, exercise decreases stress and helps alleviate insomnia, but exercising close to bedtime can undermine your best efforts to sleep. Exercise increases adrenaline and increases body temperature, keeping you more alert.

Exercising daily before early afternoon is optimal for solid sleep, as it takes five to six hours for the body temperature to drop after exercise.

If stress is keeping you up, then in addition to exercise you can add these stress-fighting nutrients to your diet: vitamins B2, B6 and B12, such antioxidants as vitamin C, E, A, beta-carotene, zinc and selenium, calcium, magnesium, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.

Complex carbohydrates help you sleep by providing tryptophan, the nutrient needed to convert melatonin to serotonin. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, helps control sleep patterns, appetite and pain. Foods, such as whole grains, and starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, squash, pumpkin and carrots, fall into the complex-carbohydrate category. Other foods rich in tryptophan are turkey breast, milk, nuts, eggs and fish.

About the Author

Erin Zimniewicz Williams, C.N., L.M.P., is the owner of EZ Balance in Redmond, Washington. She is a certified nutritionist and licensed massage therapist as well as a yoga and Pilates instructor

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