Whether it’s overall stress, anxiety related to the coronavirus or other factors, Americans just aren’t sleeping well. Pinpointing the exact cause can be tough, but sometimes the problem — and the solution — are right on your plate or in your cup.
There’s undoubtedly a link between the drinks and foods consumed throughout the day, especially closer to bedtime, that can result in tossing and turning. HuffPost consulted with dietitians to learn more about what foods to eat (or avoid) for a more restful night.
Though no particular food is a magic cure, there are certain food groups or properties that are beneficial to overall health. It’s also important to note that while everybody may need a different amount of sleep (as much as 10 hours or as little as six), many experts define sleep as “good” if it results in you waking up feeling rested.
Look for foods that are high in melatonin
Melatonin is a natural hormone that’s sometimes referred to as the sleep hormone.
“Melatonin is a hormone that your brain produces in response to darkness. It helps with the timing of circadian rhythms and with sleep,” registered dietitian nutritionist Shana Minei Spence told HuffPost.
Though melatonin is produced in the body, you can also consume foods that contain it, like almonds, which you can snack on throughout the day.
And then there’s tryptophan, which you’ve likely heard of in reference to the Thanksgiving turkey that has been rumored to make you sluggish. But foods like cottage cheese and plain yogurt also contain tryptophan, which increases the production of melatonin and can help you get a good night’s sleep, Spence said.
There’s no real magical hour to consume melatonin, but “the more you consume, the greater effect it will have,” she told HuffPost.
If you’re consuming a large portion of melatonin-rich foods or taking a supplement, Spence recommends waiting at least an hour or 30 minutes before going to bed, respectively, which is the amount of time it takes for the melatonin to have an effect on the body.
Look for foods that contain magnesium
Similar to melatonin, magnesium is another winner when it comes to catching more Zzzs.
“Magnesium’s role in promoting sleep is thought to be related to its ability to reduce inflammation. Additionally, it may help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is known to interrupt sleep,” Spence said.
Some studies have estimated that up to 75% of Americans are actually magnesium deficient. However, loading up on magnesium-rich foods isn’t too hard, as it’s found in leafy greens, almonds, peanut butter, flax and sunflower seeds.
Kylene Bogden, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and wellness adviser for Love Wellness, calls magnesium “nature’s sleep aid.”
Bogden’s go-to is a hearty Buddha bowl that contains “your favorite nuts, seeds, legumes, greens and tofu.”
“It’s the absolute best and easy-to-digest dose of magnesium for dinner,” she said.
Eat whole foods, not processed foods
Whole foods, which are typically defined as being minimally processed and packed with fiber, are another food category to consume from throughout the day so your stomach is happy at night.
“Whole foods, including complex carbohydrates that are slower digesting, can help keep the body balanced in this way,” said Celine Beitchman, director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education.
These foods contribute to overall, balanced nutrition and ultimately prove helpful when it’s time to hit the hay. They help settle the digestive system, while sugary or overly processed meals can lead to spikes in blood sugar.
A few options that Beitchman recommends include a breakfast consisting of whole grain porridge with dried or fresh fruit and toasted nuts, or eggs with 100% whole grain bread.
For lunch or dinner, try a pan-seared salmon with bulgur pilaf, which is also packed with magnesium. The fish can easily be swapped out for tofu, tempeh or seitan to make the meal vegan.
Drink a warm, caffeine-free beverage before bed
Bogden recommends drinking a cup of chamomile tea, calling it an “all-natural sleep aid.” But there’s another nighttime beverage she loves.
“I swear by golden milk, a turmeric-based almond milk with dates, as a sweetener,” she said.
The drink — which is traditionally made with either cow’s milk or plant-based milk — gained popularity among the Western world a few years ago. Turns out, it’s quite beneficial to sleep.
“Turmeric is a powerful, anti-inflammatory spice that promotes a sense of calm and aids in digestion, thereby enhancing sleep quality,” Bogden said.
However, she recommends keeping the drink plant-based.
“Cow’s milk can be extremely inflammatory for some, leading to gas and bloating ― not ideal before bed,” she said.
All of the experts agree that it’s not just what you eat, but also when you eat.
“Allow two hours or more between your last bite of food and bed, no matter what you choose to eat, and one hour before when it comes to beverages,” Bogden said.
And Beitchman suggests spacing your meals four to five hours apart so your body has time to digest the food.
Stay away from caffeine
That late-afternoon cup of coffee might just have you tossing and turning in the middle of the night and into early morning.
“Caffeine — coffee, soda and chocolate — should be stopped for at least four to six hours before going to sleep. Caffeine can stay in the system for up to 12 hours,” Spence said.
Also, if you think you’re playing it safe by consuming a decaffeinated beverage, think again.
“Decaffeinated still has caffeine,” she said. “The stimulant effects can keep you up at night.”
Sipping on a glass of wine or downing a few beers to relax in the evening can end up hurting you.
“Most people look to a night cap in order to sleep better, when in fact alcohol before bed can impair sleep quality,” Bogden said, noting that while alcohol might make us fall asleep, it disrupts our REM cycle, “otherwise known as the most restorative component of our sleep cycle.”
Bogden said she asked her clients to use a smartwatch to track their sleep, and they all found that when they cut back on alcohol before bedtime, they experienced less movement and instances of waking up at night.
Keep spicy foods to a minimum
“Spicy foods can be irritating as they work their way through your digestive system,” resulting in discomfort or even pain as the food moves through your gastrointestinal tract, Beitchman said.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to swear off spicy foods altogether.
“Just make it a part of the plate, not the dominant feature,” to achieve optimal sleep, Beitchman said.