How you eat affects so many of parts of your life, but did you ever wonder how it might influence your sleep quality and patterns? We know all about sleeping clean (thanks to health queen Gwyneth Paltrow) and how using screens at night can throw off our sleep patterns, but it turns out that what and when you eat can also have a major impact on your shut-eye. We chatted with a couple of experts to find out what food choices will help us get a good night’s sleep.
What You Eat Before Bed Matters
You might not think about how your last meal of the day affects your sleep, but nutritional biochemist and author Shawn Talbott, PhD, gave us the deets: “Diet can be extremely important for sleep quality. Eating the wrong things can interfere with our ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and get good quality sleep.” On the other hand, eating the right things during the day and before bed can actually improve the quality of our sleep. Dr. Nada Milosavljevic, a Harvard-trained physician with expertise in both traditional and integrative medicine, agrees. “What you eat or drink hours before sleep can create breakdown products that impact and stimulate the brain to impede sleep,” she explains.
What to Skip at Bedtime
Dr. Milosavljevic recommends staying away from foods high in protein or fat and anything caffeinated before you turn in. “Let’s say you eat a high-protein food before sleep,” she offers. “It takes a lot of digestive power to break down that food, and your digestive juices are activated. Your GI tract requires energy and is fully engaged in the process, which requires blood flow to be directed to that part of the body.” When she puts it like that, it makes total sense that it’s tougher to fall asleep when your body is working hard to digest what you just ate.
Talbott points out that stimulants can also have a bigger impact than we might expect. “Many find it surprising that stimulants (like caffeine and nicotine) can stay in your system for up to eight hours, depending on the person and the amount,” he shares. So if you’re having trouble falling asleep despite the late hour, the culprit could be your afternoon latte. Other things to stay away from? Spicy foods can cause your stomach to secrete acid, which in turn can cause heartburn and acid reflux, making it hard to get comfortable enough to drift off. It’s also not a great idea to eat a lot just before turning in: Talbott recommends putting a two-to-three-hour window between your last big meal and your bedtime. “Eating too much can put pressure on the diaphragm, making it difficult for some people to inhale and exhale fully,” he explains. “The lack of oxygen makes it difficult to relax and fall asleep, and it may make nighttime awakenings more common.”
Foods That Can Actually Help You Sleep Better
Just because you shouldn’t eat dinner right before bed doesn’t mean you can’t have a snack. (Yay for snacks!) “I actually LIKE people to eat something before bed,” Talbott clarifies — just not a *huge,* meal-sized amount of food. Eating the right kind of snack can help you “relax, fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and get into the deeper stages of restorative sleep.” His go-to pre-bedtime snack is an oatmeal cookie, a handful of cherries, and a glass of milk or herbal tea.
“The oatmeal and cherries help the body to make more of its own melatonin as needed,” Talbot explains, “and they both also contain just enough sugar — about 10 to 20 grams, or 40 to 80 calories — to help the brain relax.” The small dose of sugar can help enhance the entry of tryptophan into your brain (you know, that sleepy amino acid you always hear about around Thanksgiving). As for milk, it contains a protein chain that helps you feel more relaxed. We knew that whole thing about having a glass of milk before bed wasn’t totally bunk! Lastly, herbal teas like chamomile, lavender, and lemon can help relax you, though Talbott points out they’re not powerful enough to put you to sleep on their own.
If you don’t love the idea of this particular snack, Talbott’s suggested alternatives are fruit-sweetened yogurt with granola, cheese and crackers, or bananas and dark chocolate. Next time you’re wondering what you can nosh before bed that won’t mess with your REM cycles, give one of these options a try!
Do you have a go-to bedtime snack? Tell us what it is @BritandCo!
(Photos via Getty)