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Foods That Help You Sleep

woman sleeping
December 29, 2014 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

I worry about my patients who always take insomnia medication to get to sleep. Not only is it common for sleeping pills to leave you groggy and lethargic the day after, but high doses have led people into all sorts of dangerous activities while sleeping: cooking, sex, and driving, just to name a few.

If you’re always grabbing an Ambien or a ZzzQuil before bed, 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.

Why Sleep Is So Important

Sleep is not just a pleasant way to spend a few hours. During sleep, your body repairs organs and produces important hormones, including human growth hormone and testosterone. One of the first questions I ask my patients is, “How are you sleeping?” If I hear, “I only need four or five hours’ sleep,” I cringe!

A patient I’ll call Dennis is typical. Dennis thought sleep was a luxury for children. He stayed awake until all hours to indulge his workaholic tendencies. Predictably, Dennis was 100 pounds overweight and had low testosterone and high blood pressure.

After my explanation of how sleep deprivation was hurting him, Dennis agreed to try experimenting with more sleep. After his first week of sleeping seven to eight hours every night, he admitted that he was getting things done faster and better during the day. One year later, his testosterone was up and his blood pressure and weight were both way down. Dennis’s experiment was a success!

Here are the points I passed along to Dennis and other patients who have sleep issues.

How Healthy Carbs and Tryptophan Help

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.

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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:

  • Depression
  • Irritability or impatience
  • Problems with focus or concentration
  • Weight gain or weight loss without dieting
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Overeating
  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping

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 meals, but nibbles of less than 200 calories. 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

  • Caffeine: You already know not to have caffeine after noon. But you may not have considered where it’s hiding in your life. Outside of coffee and tea, caffeine’s found in chocolate, some sodas, certain prescription medications, and many over-the-counter remedies, particularly pain relievers and “non-drowsy” products.
  • Heavy meals: Avoid 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.
  • Excessive water: Drinking enough water in a day is important. I recommend one-half ounce of water for every pound you weigh. But try to drink it all before six p.m. if you regularly wake up to use the bathroom. Other beverages cause the same issue, so keep the liquids to a minimum.
  • Alcohol: Even though many people believe it helps them get to sleep, when the alcohol wears off, you’re likely to wake up and find it difficult to get back to sleep. In addition, alcohol disrupts the healing processes that occur while we’re sleeping and interferes with melatonin production.

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 every night. “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.

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