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