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School of Medicine
Better Sleep: 3 Simple Diet Tweaks
Caffeine can sneak into your diet in surprising ways, and heartburn triggers can keep you awake as well. Here’s what to watch out for in your diet, plus foods that help you sleep.
We know that caffeine can keep us awake: It’s why many of us start the day with a cup of coffee or regular tea. But caffeine can be found in a wide variety of foods and beverages, says Johns Hopkins sleep expert Rachel E. Salas, M.D.
Consider energy drinks and even unexpected sources like decaffeinated coffees and teas. In fact, a study of popular coffee establishments revealed that some decaf brews contained more than 13 milligrams of caffeine in a 16-ounce serving—as much as some of the same establishment’s caffeinated options. Other surprising sources of caffeine can include certain non-cola sodas, chocolate and cocoa products, ice cream and breakfast cereals.
Of course, these aren’t the only sneaky dietary sources of sleep-disrupting chemicals, says Salas. Here are a few other foods and beverages to limit or avoid before bedtime for better sleep.
Research shows that healthy people who drink alcohol do fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply … at first. However, when alcohol wears off, it can wake people during very important and restorative stages of sleep. Alcohol can also worsen sleep apnea symptoms and, if used regularly, increase your likelihood of sleepwalking, sleep talking and memory problems.
For better sleep: Enjoy a glass of tart cherry juice before bed. Tart cherries are a natural source of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
Eating spicy foods can cause heartburn, which can impact your sleep, says Johns Hopkins sleep expert Charlene E. Gamaldo, M.D. And when you lie down, that acid reflux often worsens. If you have sleep apnea, your symptoms may worsen, too, if the backed-up acid irritates your airway.
What’s more, research shows that consuming red pepper can increase your core body temperature, which is disruptive since core body temperature naturally drops during sleep. (Being overheated can make it more difficult for the body to make this temperature transition.)
For better sleep: Avoid spicy foods within three hours of bedtime. Do the same with tomato sauce and other acidic foods if they give you heartburn or indigestion.
High-Fat and High-Protein Foods
In one study, rats that ate a high-fat diet for eight weeks had more fragmented sleep at night and were excessively sleepy during the day. This may be because high-fat foods brought about weight gain and a decrease in sensitivity to the brain chemical orexin, which helps regulate the body’s sleep clock.
High-protein foods like steak and chicken can also disrupt sleep because they take a long time to break down, which is a problem at bedtime since your digestion slows by up to 50 percent when you sleep. (Your body faces a similar challenge if you dine on a large meal right before sleep.) Also avoid aged or processed cheeses, salami and pepperoni: They contain tyramine, which triggers the release of norepinephrine, which may stimulate the brain.
For better sleep: Eat complex carbohydrates such as whole-wheat toast or a bowl of oatmeal before bed. These foods will trigger the release of the sleepy hormone serotonin, and they don’t take long to digest.