If you use insomnia medication, I hope you know about last week’s announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Manufacturers of prescription sleep aids that contain a sedative called zolpidem are required to reduce the currently recommended doses. (Zolpidem is found in Ambien, Edluar, Zolpimist, and Intermezzo.)
If you’re taking an insomnia drug containing zolpidem — or if you feel drowsy or can’t concentrate the morning after taking any insomnia medication — medical experts suggest talking to your physician about reducing the dosage. Women process these drugs more slowly than men do and are especially likely to experience grogginess and other unwanted side effects the day after, so they may need to reassess dosages.
Better yet, why not explore a safer way to get to sleep, using natural methods like food? My patients are often surprised to hear that what we eat can make a difference in how we sleep — or don’t sleep — each night. Although caffeine’s role in keeping us awake is well established, there are quite a few other mealtime considerations to keep in mind.
Food, Beverages, and Behavior That Promote Sleep
One key to a good night’s sleep is to consume a bedtime snack consisting of good (complex) carbohydrates and the amino acid tryptophan, a recognized sleep promoter. Let’s review why sleep is so important and which foods and beverages can help you get a good night’s rest.
Why Sleep Is So Important
As I’ve mentioned before, sleep is not just a pleasant way to spend a few hours. It’s absolutely necessary for helping your body make repairs that keep the cells and various organs healthy, as well as for producing healing hormones, including human growth hormone and testosterone. Sleep is so important that one of the first questions I ask my patients is, “How are you sleeping?” When I hear an answer like “I only need four or five hours’ sleep,” I cringe!
A patient I’ll call Dennis is typical of the sleep deniers. Dennis was an admitted workaholic who believed sleep was a waste of time, a self-indulgence meant only for babies. Of course, Dennis’s health reflected his disdain for sleep. He had high blood pressure and low testosterone, and he needed to lose about 100 pounds. Yet, he insisted that sleep was for sissies and had nothing to do with his health problems.
It took months to convince Dennis that what he really needed was more rest, but eventually I wore him down. After the first week of sleeping 7 to 8 hours a night, Dennis grudgingly admitted that he was accomplishing a lot more during the day. A year later, all his health markers had improved, and he had lost nearly all the excess weight. That’s the power of a good night’s sleep!
Here are the points I passed along to Dennis and other patients who have sleep issues.
How to De-stress Every Day
Maybe you’ve noticed that sleep is more challenging on days when you’ve dealt with a stressful situation. This is why I encourage my patients to utilize some form of stress management every day. Practicing mindfulness or another form of meditation, listening to relaxing music, praying, and writing in a journal are all valid ways to reduce stress. Of course there are others, which is why I recommend my patients experiment until they find one that works for them.
What to Do if You Can’t Sleep
Research repeatedly shows that staying in bed when you can’t get to sleep is the wrong approach. Instead, after 15 minutes or so of lying awake, try getting up and doing something that’s not particularly exciting, such as reading, knitting, or working crossword puzzles. After 20 minutes or so, you should be drowsy. You’ll probably have to repeat the process for several nights until your body gets the message, but this method is a proven and effective insomnia remedy.
How Foods Containing Healthy Carbs and Tryptophan Can Help
Remember that drowsy feeling you experienced after eating Thanksgiving dinner? Turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid the body can’t produce and that we must obtain from food or supplements. Tryptophan helps us relax and plays a role in sleep. It also assists the body in producing serotonin, a hormone known for its ability to help us unwind and feel good.
Signs of too little serotonin include:
- Irritability and/or impatience
- Problems with focus or concentration
- Weight gain or weight loss without dieting
- Carbohydrate cravings
- Trouble sleeping
In addition to turkey, here are some healthy foods and beverages that are known to encourage relaxation and sleep, including many that contain tryptophan or melatonin (another sleep essential):
Foods and Beverages to Help You Sleep
- Sunflower and sesame seeds
- Tart cherries, fresh or dried
- Nuts, like walnuts, hazelnuts, and peanuts
- Dairy products
- Whole-grain bread
- Warm milk with honey
- Herbal teas, like chamomile and valerian
- Whole grains, like brown rice
Just eating tryptophan-rich foods, however, isn’t quite enough; you need to combine the tryptophan with a food that contains healthy carbohydrates. That’s because getting the tryptophan into your brain, where it can work its magic, requires moving other amino acids out of the way. The healthy carbs provide a target for those amino acids so the tryptophan can access the brain.
As I explained to Dennis, a nighttime snack consisting of healthy carbs from whole grains or veggies paired with a source of tryptophan is a recipe for a good night’s sleep. Here are some examples:
Healthy Bedtime Snacks for Better Sleep
- An open-faced scrambled- or fried-egg sandwich on whole-grain bread
- Whole-grain cereal, like oatmeal, with warm, low-fat milk
- Brown rice with beans or lentils
- Hummus with whole-grain crackers
- An open-faced banana, sesame butter, and honey sandwich
- Chopped bits of turkey on whole-grain crackers
Remember, these sleepy snacks are not supposed to be meals, but very small mini-meals of less than 200 calories. Ideally, you should eat your sleepy snack at least an hour before bedtime to allow yourself time to digest it. And that brings us to my second bit of advice for getting a good night’s sleep …
What Not to Eat or Drink Before Bedtime
The obvious no-no is caffeine before bedtime. But what many people don’t know is that coffee and tea aren’t the only sources of caffeine. It’s also found in chocolate, quite a few sodas, certain prescription medications, and many over-the-counter remedies, particularly pain relievers and “non-drowsy” products.
I recommend avoiding heavy meals with large amounts of fat or protein, as well as spicy fare, before bedtime. These foods tend to rev up digestion, a process that can last for hours.
Staying well hydrated during the day is important, but if repeated trips to the bathroom are keeping you awake at night, try drinking as little water as possible after 6 p.m.
Like water, a nightcap with alcohol can cause numerous bathroom visits during the night. But alcohol has other downsides. Even though many people believe it helps them get to sleep, alcohol actually disrupts the healing processes that occur while we’re sleeping, and it interferes with melatonin production. In addition, when the alcohol wears off, you’re likely to wake up and find it difficult to get back to sleep.
Marian, a long-time patient, discovered the benefits of sleeping without alcohol when she had surgery. Forced to give up drinking while in the hospital for a week, Marian reported that, for the first time in years, she slept through the night all week. “And here all this time, I thought the gin and tonics were the only things keeping me from full-blown insomnia,” she told me after the experience. “I sleep much more soundly without them, though. And no more going to the bathroom two or three times every night.”
Considering all the healing processes that take place while we sleep, I think you’ll agree that getting plenty of deep, restorative sleep is extremely important. You can help make that happen without resorting to prescription drugs with questionable benefits and serious side effects. If sleep is a problem for you, plan to add a small, healthy snack to your evening. If you need additional help, I recommend supplementing with natural sleep aids, including 5-HTP (take 100 to 400 mg daily), GABA (take 400 mg up to 4 times daily), and the antioxidant melatonin (men should take 3 mg about 30 minutes before bedtime; women, take 2 mg). Most of my patients find that the right combination of foods and supplements provides results that are well worth the effort, and I hope you do, too.