Foods that sabotage sleep
And healthy swaps to replace them!
A restless night means tossing and turning, lying awake thinking of the year 2013, and being fidgety. And if you’re sleeping next to someone, a sleepless night might make you and them even more frustrated. A miserable night’s sleep might happen now and again, but when it does, it comes with a wave of tiredness that makes it challenging to complete daily tasks.
There are so many factors that can contribute to poor sleep, including stress, anxiety, depression, sleep hygiene, sleep environment, or even your partner. But have you ever thought it could be the food you ate for dinner? Or maybe dining too close to bedtime? We spoke with Jennifer May, BHSc (Nut Med), founder and director of Sydney City Nutritionist and Food Intolerance Australia, to learn more about which foods sabotage sleep, plus healthy swaps.
It’s common to wind down with a glass of wine or a nightcap before bed. It may help you fall asleep, but it doesn’t exactly help you stay asleep.
“Alcohol depletes B vitamins, which regulate the sleep-wake cycle, and depletes magnesium, which is responsible for relaxation and switching off the stress response,” explains Jennifer. “Drinking just one glass of red wine (if your liver and kidneys are healthy) may induce melatonin production. However, too much wine could lead to becoming unconscious but not technically sleeping.”
Jennifer also notes that sleep is an active process, meaning there’s a lot going on in your body to help repair it and prepare it for the next day. Regular alcohol consumption (or too much in one sitting) can lead to a reduced ability to carry out these processes. Alcohol is also responsible for dehydration, which impairs restful sleep. Opt for chamomile tea to help you wind down before bed.
Unfortunately, dark chocolate won’t help you get a good night’s sleep. Sure, it’s a tasty source of nutrients and antioxidants, but it’s made from the cocoa bean. And cocoa contains caffeine. Additionally, chocolate contains theobromine, a stimulant that increases heart rate and leads to sleeplessness.
“Chocolate is rich in magnesium; however, it’s a very energizing food. It’s best consumed earlier in the day,” explains Jennifer.
Before you decide to have a pizza-and-wine night in, take into consideration that this food might not promote a good night’s sleep. Cheese pizza is high in fat and may take longer to digest, which disrupts sleep. If you opt for a pizza night, schedule it three hours earlier than your bedtime (which shouldn’t be hard, because why wait to eat pizza?!). This timing will give your stomach enough time to digest the cheese pizza before settling into a good night’s sleep.
You might drink coffee to help you wake up in the morning and throughout the day. Or you might drink it because you genuinely enjoy the taste. Either way, coffee contains caffeine, which makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. It’s important to remember that caffeine tolerances and sensitivity depend on the person. If you’re digging the coffee flavor, opt for decaf when it’s closer to bedtime.
“Dark chocolate, coffee, and high-sugar foods are all stimulating,” explains Jennifer. “Going to bed buzzing with energy can inhibit the production of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. As a result, you stay awake later, leading to a restless night and tiring morning.”
Welp, this is awkward. So we shouldn’t have a pizza night or sushi drenched in soy sauce before bed … what’s up with that? Soy sauce is high in sodium and salt, which causes heartburn, especially in those who are prone to acid reflux. It also contains tyramine — an amino acid that helps regulate blood pressure. But it triggers the brain to release norepinephrine, a stimulant that boosts brain activity and inhibits sleep. Tyramine is also found in cheese, cured meats, raspberries, avocado, and nuts. Soy sauce is tasty, but limit the amount you use during dinner to promote a good night’s sleep.
Have you ever felt a little bloated after eating spicy foods? That’s thanks to all the sodium and spices that make it flavorful. While spicy foods do promote fat-burning, they also lead to restless sleep. Spicy foods and cuisine, such as Indian or Thai, may cause indigestion or heartburn. And that “hot” factor actually raises your body temperature, causing sleep disruptions throughout the night. We’re not saying you shouldn’t eat spicy foods because, well, that’s just bad advice. Instead, make sure there’s a window of time between eating a delicious, sweat-inducing meal and bedtime.
Healthy food swaps for a good night’s sleep
Have you ever heard someone say that turkey makes you sleepy when you’re at the table during Thanksgiving dinner? That’s not a food myth! Turkey contains tryptophan, which contributes to creating the sleep-inducing hormone called melatonin.
“Turkey is rich in protein but also contains high amounts of tryptophan, which is a building block from which we make a hormone called melatonin, our natural sleep inducer that puts us into a deep restorative sleep,” says Jennifer.
Green leafy vegetables
Green leafy vegetables, such as kale, spinach, and broccoli, are loaded with calcium and magnesium, which put you in a sleepy and relaxed state of mind. Add green leafy vegetables to your dinner plate for a good night’s sleep.
“Green leafy vegetables and prunes contain high amounts of magnesium and can work wonders for assisting relaxation for a deeper, more relaxed sleep,” says Jennifer.
Sweet potatoes are high in fiber, low in saturated fat, and a great source of vitamins. They’re also the “good” kind of carbs, the type that’s whole and unprocessed and full of flavor. Oh, and eating sweet potatoes helps promote sleep.
“Healthy whole-food carbohydrates are important in the evening meal as we need carbohydrates to carry tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier to manufacture melatonin,” explains Jennifer. “Most will be happy to hear that potatoes are a good food to eat for better sleep. Potatoes are rich in tryptophan and contain vitamin B6, which is used in the production of melatonin.”
When it comes time for dessert or a late-night snack, opt for cherries. They are one of the only natural food sources of melatonin, which we know helps you fall asleep. And when you’re sleeping, cherries help carry out those natural processes that our body performs to boost our immune system.
“Tart cherries and kiwi fruit are said to promote melatonin release,” explains Jennifer. “The strong flavor and contained sugars in these foods may also assist in reducing a stress response. The antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in fruit can assist in healing and detoxification, therefore making sleep more effective.”
A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:
It’s about more than just food. Follow these tips to improve your sleep!
What about taking melatonin as a sleep aid? Does it help, or hurt?