Can’t Sleep? Your Diet May Not Be Helping.
What you eat and drink (or don't) before bedtime may make a difference.
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?