Can’t Sleep? Your Diet May Not Be Helping.
What you eat and drink (or don't) before bedtime may make a difference.
Melatonin gummies. Tart cherry juice. “Sleep-friendly” ice cream? A seemingly endless variety of remedies line our grocery-store shelves with the promise of helping our overworked, under-rested selves get a solid night’s sleep—a key to our overall health and well-being. But despite the recent flood of headlines about the importance of sleep (“Not All Sleep Is Equal When It Comes to Cleaning the Brain,” “Sleeping in on the Weekend Won’t Repay Your Sleep Debt,” “5 Reasons You Should Sleep With Your Dog”), many of us still need more.
Just two-thirds of Arlingtonians get at least seven hours of sleep per night, according to county health rankings released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 (the most recent data available).
Studies suggest the remaining third, who are chronically sleep-deprived, may be at greater risk for a host of health problems, from heart disease to depression. Yet in an area where busyness and workaholism are badges of honor, it can be mighty difficult to squeeze in those recommended z’s.
Avoiding screen time, listening to white noise and maintaining a consistent bedtime are oft-cited best practices for good sleep. But experts say we should also consider the food and drinks we consume in the hours before our heads hit the pillow.
Starting with booze. Can the sedative properties in a glass of merlot or a pint of IPA bring us a reliable and solid night of sleep? “[Alcohol] initially helps people as a little bit of a sleep aid, but then it metabolizes to a stimulant and causes more disruptive sleep,” cautions Lawrence Stein, medical director of the Virginia Hospital Center Sleep Lab. “Alcohol also worsens a lot of underlying sleep disorders, including sleep apnea and sleepwalking.”
Scientifically speaking, alcohol interferes with the natural function of GABA receptors—areas of the brain that react to gamma-aminobutyric acid, an inhibitory neurotransmitter associated with relaxation, stress reduction and other brain functions, explains Vivek Jain, director of the George Washington Center for Sleep Disorders.
“A lot of people who are having chronic insomnia think, Oh, maybe if I drink, I’ll be able to fall asleep,” he says. The problem is, it can backfire. “When alcohol attaches to these GABA receptors, it has a very short half-life and dissociates from the receptors very rapidly. So a lot of people experience what we call a middle-of-the-night awakening with alcohol.”
Alcohol can also suppress REM sleep, Jain says. “The kind of sleep you are getting is very light. That’s part of the reason why, even after an alcoholic night, you feel non-refreshed in the morning. It’s part of the hangover effect.”
Of course this is precisely when many of us, in our groggy state, reach for a mug of coffee (or three) to power us through the day. And caffeine is bound to wreak havoc when we finally crawl back into our beds at night, right?
Perhaps. “Caffeine is very personal,” says Lilian de Jonge, an assistant professor of nutrition at George Mason University. “There are some people who can handle it really well; others get jittery with half a cup of coffee. So a lot of it is just trial and error—feel what you can handle.” For most, that’s no more than four cups of coffee (or 400 mg of caffeine) per day, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Food also factors into the sleep equation. Experts advise restraint if you’re tempted to raid the fridge in the last few hours before bed.
“If you’re going to eat late at night, you want to eat small meals and you want to eat things that are not overly fatty,” Stein says. “Sometimes vegetables are good and sometimes light snacks with protein are good. But you don’t want to eat large meals, and you want to avoid things that are too acidic.” For example, tomatoes, pizza and spicy foods may lead to acid reflux, he says, particularly once you are horizontal.
Are there any foods and beverages that can actually help us log more hours on the pillow?
Yes, according to the nonprofit, accredited National Sleep Foundation (NSF), which is headquartered in Arlington. Its list of recommended bedtime snacks (see sleepfoundation.org) includes complex carbohydrates—choices like popcorn, oatmeal or whole-wheat crackers with nut butter. A cup of herbal tea or a glass of warm milk may also have calming qualities, even if those effects are purely psychological.
Foods that contain melatonin—a naturally occurring hormone and supplement—or antioxidants may also be helpful, according to the NSF. That list includes options like tart cherry juice (or whole tart cherries), bananas, pineapple and oranges. “Other fruits and vegetables that are rich in antioxidants (like berries, prunes, raisins, and plums) may have a similar effect by helping to counteract the oxidative stress caused by a sleep disorder,” notes an article on the NSF website.
“The other thing that is really good for sleep,” Stein says, “is losing weight. [It] tends to help people sleep better. Maybe that’s because there’s less pressure on their joints. Maybe they feel better about themselves. Nobody knows exactly why, but weight loss does seem to be correlated with better sleep.”
Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, tends to make people feel hungrier, and thus exacerbates weight gain, creating a vicious cycle. “The brain is wired so that when we are tired, we equate that to a need for calories,” Jain explains. “It’s like fatigue equals lack of calories. That’s where the term ‘sugar rush’ comes from. When we’re tired, we want to eat—and we want to eat sugary stuff…carbohydrate-rich stuff…fatty stuff. We want to eat the bad things. It does give us a quick sense of energy, but that is very quick and transient.”
What about seemingly magical products such as Nightfood, a line of ice cream and snack bars that purports to be “sleep-expert approved”? The bleary-eyed may be better-served by simply adopting a well-balanced diet, de Jonge says, and a shift in eating patterns. Optimally, the final meal of the day should be wrapped up about two or three hours before bedtime.
Plus one more thing: Folks who are chronically sleep-deprived should consider the reasons why they’re having trouble sleeping in the first place. Though the majority of his patients at the GW sleep center suffer from sleep apnea, Jain says he often sees a common culprit among his insomniac patients.
“Work-related stress is by far No. 1,” he says.
While a handful of nuts may not eviscerate that problem, there is hope for those of us whose office worries keep the hamsters in our minds spinning at night.
“Start creating boundaries between your work space and your sleep space,” Jain suggests. “Don’t have electronics in your room. Don’t have a TV in your room. Don’t eat in your bedroom. Just go to bed when you’re really, really sleepy.”
Food for thought—or sleep, as the case may be.
Eliza Berkon is Arlington Magazine’s digital editor. She specializes in arts, culture and wellness coverage.