On any given night, over 50 million Americans are having difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night or unable to call it quits and head to bed instead of playing one more game on their smart phone or turning another page in a book.

“Nothing is healthier than a good night’s sleep,” says Leelarani Chigurupati, RD, CSO, a Board Certified specialist in Oncology Nutrition, one of just a few in the state and a Clinical Dietitian.

Sleep is restorative, offering more advantages than just feeling good and energized in the morning. It’s linked to a strong immune system, clearer thinking, lowered blood pressure, preventing heart disease as well as a trim waistline and a young-looking complexion.

“Many people have difficulties falling asleep or staying asleep,” says Lori Granich, Registered Dietitian at the Midwest Bariatric Institute at Franciscan St. Margaret Health in Dyer. “Getting an adequate amount of sleep is important to reduce stress and even plays a role in preventing overeating. It is important to sleep in a dark, quiet room, but nutrition can also play a part.”

There are sleep friendly foods and foods to avoid when nearing bedtime.

“A lot of people have the impression they shouldn’t eat before we go to bed,” says Kim Kramer, RDN, LDN, Ingalls Wellness Dietitian, Kids Eat Right Crew Illinois Representative and the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Media Spokesperson. “And we shouldn’t if it’s out of boredom but foods like yogurts, apples, a little bit of peanut butter are all thought to be good for night time eating.”

According to Peter Litchfield, author of The Smart Sleep Diet Guide - Eat Your Way to Better Sleep [Amazon Digital Services; Kindle Edition $2.99), over the last century, the human diet has evolved to include numerous foods which negatively impact the sleep-wake cycle. Without knowing it, we’re consuming more and more non-friendly sleep foods instead of sleep-friendly foods that promote healthy and restorative sleep.

Litchfield says we’re sleeping 20% less than we did 100 years ago, and it’s costing us. The problem is so bad that 10 million Americans use prescription sleep aid and lack of sleep is linked to all sorts of health problems including weight gain, weakened immunity, depreciating cardiovascular health and increased risk of depression, not to mention the risk of accidents – the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA) estimates fatigue is involved in one in six fatal road accidents.

“It’s pointless having a healthy sleep routine if your diet is anti-sleep,” says Litchfield. “But it isn’t just coffee and sugar that keeps you up at night.”

Litchfield says sleep-friendly foods include almonds, turkey and whole grains.

“Complex carbohydrates like brown rice, cereal and grains contain Tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce serotonin which helps makes melatonin which helps us sleep,” says Chigurupati. “Simple carbohydrates—white bread, sugar—spike your blood sugar—making it difficult to sleep. Lean proteins are also high in Tryptophan while fat proteins take longer to digest and bring the serotonin levels down.”

Granich points out that many people drink caffeinated beverages too close to bedtime.

“Caffeine increases heart rate so it is important to avoid it 6 hours before bedtime,” she says. “Nicotine is also a stimulant so smoking before bed can prevent you from falling asleep. Other common mistakes are drinking too much fluid or having a high fat meal before bed. High fat meals take longer to digest and can cause heartburn which can make it hard to sleep.”

Fiery foods with lots of hot peppers or stimulating spices may make for a great meal but aren’t typical sleep friendly.

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“Lying down too soon after eating a spicy meal can cause heartburn,” says Chigurupati.

Kramer says it’s important not to eat a lot of sweets before bed as they can cause our glucose levels to spike and then drop, causing us to wake up.

“Don’t go to bed hungry,” she adds. “It’s not as restful and that can cause someone to go through all the cabinets in the middle of the night.”

Before reaching for an over-the-counter sleep aid, Chigurupati says to read the labels and see what’s in the ingredients.

Though OTC meds can provide temporary relief, they often become less effective over time. Also, many rely on the sedative effects of antihistamines and that can cause tiredness in the morning and make concentration difficult. Even the melatonin found in OTC sleep-aids can cause dizziness and drowsiness which is why it’s better to get melatonin from food rather than in the bottle.

And there’s always a well-honored sleep time tradition.

“Tea has also been suggested to aide in helping people sleep because it helps with relaxation,” says Granich. “Chamomile tea, in particular, is known for is calming qualities.”

Sidebar: Sleep-Friendly Foods

Several studies out including an article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine suggest soporific foods for those wanting a good night’s sleep. Though Granich notes there is some controversy on the effectiveness of foods high in tryptophan and their ability to promote sleepiness, eating healthy foods before bed time are benefitical if only for their nutritional value.

According to these studies, when healthy sleepers ate carbohydrate-rich suppers of veggies and tomato sauce over rice, they fell asleep significantly faster at bedtime if the meal included high-glycemic-index (GI) jasmine rice rather than lower-GI long-grain rice.

When adults with chronic insomnia drank a cup of Melatonin-rich tart cherry juice twice a day they experienced some relief in the severity of their insomnia.

Calcium-deficient may make it difficult to fall asleep so boost your calcium uptake with dairy products like yogurt, cheese and milk.

Bulgur, barley and other whole grains are rick in magnesium—and consuming too little magnesium may make it harder to stay asleep.

Bananas, well-known for being rich in potassium, as well as chickpeas are also a good source of Vitamin B6, which is needed to make melatonin.