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1 food that can help you sleep—and 5 that might not

By Michelle Edelbaum, March 11, 2010 - 11:32am

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1 food that can help you sleep—and 5 that might not

Since I’ve become a mom, it’s a challenge for me to get enough sleep. It’s become harder for me to fall asleep because I’m thinking about work, the baby, all the stuff that needs to be done around the house, what to make for dinner the next night...and the list goes on. (At least I’ve got a handle on the dinner thing—I either make one of these cheap, 30-minute dinner recipes or make a super-easy meal in my slow cooker.)

I’m not OK with getting less than the recommended 8 to 9 hours per night, since sleep is so important to my health and my figure (research links weight gain with sleep loss). (Find 5 foods that do the weight-loss work for you here.)

So in the interest of giving myself the best chance for a good night’s sleep (especially with the spring time change), I took a look at advice from EatingWell Nutrition Advisory Board member Dr. Rachel Johnson on which foods and drinks can help promote better sleep. Here’s what the research says:

Carbohydrate-Rich Dinners (This one works!): A light bedtime snack can stave off hunger, a known sleep robber. But eating quickly-digested carbs (a.k.a, “high-glycemic-index” or “GI” carbohydrates such as jasmine rice) hours earlier at dinner—might also help. A study found that 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-GI jasmine rice rather than lower-GI long-grain rice. The study authors speculated that the high-GI meals triggered greater amounts of insulin, which increased the ratio of tryptophan relative to other amino acids in the blood, allowing proportionately more to get into the brain and make people drowsy.

Warm Milk: Decades ago, scientists looked into this folk remedy and posited that tryptophan, an amino acid in milk (and turkey), might be responsible for its supposed sleep-inducing effects. Earlier research had shown that when tryptophan is released into the brain, it produces serotonin—a serenity-boosting neurotransmitter. But when milk (and other tryptophan-rich foods) were tested, they failed to affect sleep patterns, perhaps because other amino acids in those foods competed with tryptophan to get into the brain. Warm milk at bedtime may be comforting, but it won’t boost sleep-promoting serotonin.

Herbal Tea: Chamomile, lemon balm, hops and passionflower are all touted for their sleep-promoting properties. You’ll often find them in “sleep-formula” tea blends, but unfortunately their effectiveness hasn’t been proven in clinical studies, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Some experts say that these teas may work for some, and a warm liquid before bed may make you sleepy by generating body heat. That said, a cup of “sleep-time” tea might be worth a try.

Caffeine: Caffeine affects everyone differently, so if you’re sensitive it might be worth trying to cut down—or limit caffeine to the morning only. This can mean more than just cutting out a cup of coffee. The major sources of caffeine in Americans’ diets are coffee (71 percent), soft drinks (16 percent) and teas (12 percent) but chocolate is also a source. Our ability to excrete caffeine decreases with age so while you might have tolerated four cups of coffee a day when you were 20, you’ll probably need to cut down as you get older. Cut down on caffeine or limit it to the morning; if insomnia persists, consider going cold turkey. Try this drink to cure a headache & 4 more home remedies for common ailments.

Alcohol: Though a glass of wine may help you fall asleep, excessive alcohol use can make you wake up in the night. One theory is that alcohol suppresses the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep state that’s critical to a good night’s sleep. Drink moderately, if at all; avoid drinking within a few hours of bedtime.

Sleep Supplements: Shelves in supplement stores are stacked with sleep formulas. According to one NIH survey conducted in 2002, 1.6 million people tried complementary or alternative therapies like these, and over half of them reported their insomnia improved “a great deal.” However, those glowing anecdotes haven’t been backed up by rigorous scientific study; evaluations of most nutritional supplements haven’t shown any effects whatsoever. The one exception is valerian root, which seemed to help improve sleep (with rare, and mild, side effects, such as stomach upset). But finding an effective formulation of valerian root is tricky, since the FDA doesn’t regulate herbal supplements. Don’t waste your money on sleep supplements; hold off on using valerian until standardized formulations become available.

What foods help you sleep? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Michelle Edelbaum, Health Blog, Diet, Weight loss, Wellness

Michelle Edelbaum
Michelle is the digital editor for EatingWell Media Group. She puts her background in journalism to work online at EatingWell.com and in EatingWell Magazine, authoring the Good Questions interview with interesting people in the world of food and health.

Michelle asks: What foods help you sleep?

Tell us what you think:

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