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3 food tips to beat insomnia

By Kerri-Ann Jennings, July 5, 2011 - 12:23pm

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Lately, the only thing keeping me from a full night’s sleep has been the sun blasting through my window at 5 a.m. But there have been times when I’ve spent wakeful hours unable to sleep. During those spells of insomnia, I break out every tip I know to get normal sleeping patterns again…relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, getting into a “bedtime routine” of winding down, even journaling those stressful thoughts that keep my mind jumping. While these tips can help, I’m also interested in how to use food to beat insomnia (after all, I’m a registered dietitian and associate nutrition editor at EatingWell Magazine).

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So I asked some of EatingWell’s nutrition advisors what foods they use (or avoid) to help them get a good night’s sleep. Here’s what they said:

Tip 1: Limit alcohol
Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., EatingWell advisor and director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts, limits herself to one alcoholic drink per day (the recommended guideline for women). David Katz, M.D., EatingWell advisor and director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, also notes that alcohol can impair sleep. Says Katz, “I love good wine, but I certainly notice adverse effects on my sleep if I overindulge. So I am careful about alcohol intake, both by drinking a moderate amount and by drinking with a meal several hours before bedtime.”

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Why it works: Even though alcohol can make you drowsy and help you fall asleep, too much of it can make you wake up at night. In a past issue of EatingWell Magazine, Rachel Johnson, Ph.D., M.P.H, R.D., EatingWell advisor and professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont, reported that alcohol may suppress the REM (rapid eye movement) sleep state that’s critical to a good night’s sleep. Follow Katz’s advice and have your drink a few hours before bedtime, if at all.

Tip 2: Curb caffeine
Both Johnson and Katz find that caffeine affects sleep. Johnson avoids it altogether, while Katz avoids it after 4 p.m., at the latest, and usually doesn’t have any after 2 p.m.

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Why it works: Caffeine affects people differently. If you find that you’re sensitive and it’s keeping you up at night, you’d do best to cut back or limit it to the morning only (and if you still are having trouble sleeping, try cutting it out altogether). Caffeine may also impair sleep more as you get older, according to research in Sleep Medicine. Remember that while coffee, tea and soda are big sources of caffeine, chocolate also delivers caffeine (an ounce of dark chocolate has about 25 mg of caffeine, equivalent to a quarter cup of brewed coffee).

Tip 3: Eat a bedtime snack
Dietitian and host of Food Network's Healthy Appetite Ellie Krieger says that if she feels hungry at bedtime, she’ll have a carbohydrate-rich snack, such as an apple or clementine or a few crackers. Said Krieger, “I think that by triggering serotonin, it relaxes me a little.” On the other hand, eating too large a meal close to bedtime may also impair sleep, say both Krieger and Katz.

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Why it works: A light bedtime snack can help make you sleepy, primarily because hunger is a known sleep robber. As Krieger suggests, carbohydrates make a good bedtime snack, because they may promote serotonin production, which can make you drowsy.

What do you eat or drink to get a good night's sleep?

Kerri-Ann, a registered dietitian, is the associate editor of nutrition for EatingWell Magazine, where she puts her master’s degree in nutrition from Columbia University to work writing and editing news about nutrition, health and food trends. In her free time, Kerri-Ann likes to practice yoga, hike, cook and bake.

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Kerri-Ann Jennings
Kerri-Ann Jennings is a registered dietitian with a master's degree in nutrition from Columbia University.

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