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 the insomnia turns these little things into annoyances. According to the CDC, sleep deprivation is linked with poor quality of life and well-being, injury, chronic disease, mental illness, and decreased concentration or productivity. Sleep deprivation can be from difficulty falling asleep or poor sleep quality and there are several dietary habits that can exacerbate both.
A well balanced diet will maintain a consistent energy level but instead, most Americans reach for the stimulant caffeine in coffee, tea, soda or energy drinks for their pick me up. Coffee drinking averages 3 cups a day in the US, reports the National Coffee Association, and that caffeine habit can be affecting your sleep. The pharmacological effects of caffeine can be long lasting. Caffeine can take 3-15 hours to metabolize depending on the person and their hormonal state. A recent study at Duke University medical center found that levels of adrenalin and noradrenalin remained elevated at night even when subjects hadn’t had caffeine since lunch. The National Sleep Foundation reports the effects of caffeine can cause problems falling asleep as much as 10-12 hours later in some people. Other stimulants that can affect sleep are chocolate, nicotine and spicy foods. Alcohol, while initially sedating can actually decrease the amount of time you are asleep so you wake up earlier or have restless sleep. A nightcap is fine, but more than 2 ounces of hard alcohol or 2 glasses of beer or wine can cause sleep disturbances. Instead of turning to these stimulants during the day to balance your energy, eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated.
Heartburn or Gastro Esophageal Reflux (GER) 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 the pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). Foods that decrease LES pressure are 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. Having a light dinner earlier in the evening will help to decrease any discomfort these foods cause. 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 GER.
In general, exercise decreases stress helping to alleviate insomnia, but exercising close to bedtime can undermine your best efforts to sleep. Exercise increases adrenaline and increases the 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, antioxidants like 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 white turkey meat, milk, nuts, eggs, and fish.
The Cleveland Clinic recommends these tips for good sleep “hygiene”:
• Not going to bed until you are tired
• Setting a regular schedule to get up in the morning, even on weekends
• Not napping during the day
• Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine at night
• Not watching TV, eating, or reading in bed
• Following the same bedtime rituals each night
• Avoiding rigorous exercise three hours before bedtime
• Getting out of bed when you can’t fall asleep