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​Eat Well to Sleep Well
Linda May-Zhang, PhD


According to the CDC, one in every three Americans are not getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is linked to a host of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, high-blood pressure, obesity, depression and more.

In addition to sleep, Americans are also not getting enough important vitamins and nutrients. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one of every three Americans are at risk for at least one vitamin deficiency or anemia. 95% of adults and a whopping 98% of teens are not getting enough vitamin D. 61% of adults and 90% of teens do not get enough magnesium.

Sleep, eating habits and nutrition are closely linked. Poor sleep is linked to overeating – and not of healthy fruits and vegetables. As a result, your sleep also suffers. When your sleep suffers, you end up comfort-eating and rely on consuming highly caffeinated beverages every morning – which becomes an unhealthy cycle.

Sometimes, you may not even realize that the foods or drinks that you consume may be adversely affecting your sleep. Here, we describe some foods/beverages you should avoid before bedtime and offer some alternatives that may help you sleep better.


We know that caffeine helps us be alert and that coffee has plenty of it. There is about 95 mg of caffeine in an 8 oz cup of joe. The half-life of caffeine is 5 hours, which means that it takes 10 hours for your body to get rid of 75% of it. Everyone metabolizes caffeine differently but if you think you may be sensitive to caffeine and suffer from poor sleep, you may need to pay attention to what you are consuming, particularly unexpected sources of caffeine. For example, if you think having a cup of decaf coffee after dinner is safe, think again. Although the caffeine content ranges depending on the supplier, decaf coffee can still contain up to 15 mg of caffeine per 8 oz!

Other sources of caffeine include teas, soft drinks, nutritional shakes, yogurts, and ice cream. Although green tea contains less caffeine than black tea, its caffeine content still ranges between 30-50 mg per 8 oz. Soft drinks like can contain 50 to 70 mg per 12 oz serving. Nutritional shakes can contain a whopping 100 mg caffeine in 11 oz serving. Finally, coffee flavored yogurts or ice cream can contain 15-30 mg caffeine per 4 oz serving! If coffee-flavored ice cream is your favorite flavor, then perhaps having it as a post-lunch dessert rather than a post-dinner is a better choice.

Sleep-supporting alternatives: A cup of chamomile tea, which does not contain caffeine, can help the body relax into sleep. Chamomile contains a compound called apigenin which induces sleepiness by binding to GABA receptors in the brain. Other non-caffeinated herbal teas that have calming effects include valerian and passionflower tea.


There is a tale that alcohol makes a great nightcap and helps you sleep. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth! While drinking alcohol may certainly help you relax and knocks you out quicker, it is also linked to poor sleep quality. Usually our normal sleep cycle consists of 3 stages of non-REM sleep and one stage of REM sleep which cycles throughout the night. The last stage, REM sleep, kicks in about 90 minutes after a person falls asleep. This period is considered important for restoration and memory. Although alcohol may help a person fall asleep, it causes an imbalance between non-REM and REM sleep cycling, which results in sleep disruptions and less overall sleep.

This is one reason why people with alcohol use disorders commonly experience insomnia and feel excessively sleepy the following day.

Alcohol can also exacerbate symptoms of sleep apnea, including disruptive breathing episodes as well as heavier snoring. Consuming alcohol can increase the risk of sleep apnea by 25%.

Sleep-supporting alternatives: You should stop drinking alcohol at least 4 hours before bedtime. Instead, try drinking a cup of soothing herbal tea. You can also enjoy a glass of tart cherry juice. One research study showed that adults drinking two 1 oz servings of cherry juice experienced better sleep and a boost in their production of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles1.

Spicy foods

There’s another old tale that eating spicy foods before bed will cause nightmares. There is also no evidence to support this but research does show that consuming spicy foods can disrupt sleep. Normally when you sleep, your body temperature drops by 1 to 2 degrees. A lower temperature helps you fall and stay asleep through the night. Consuming spicy foods causes your core body temperature to rise, which not only disrupts your ability to fall asleep but also causes a less restful sleep.

Sleep supporting alternative: For better sleep, you should avoid spicy foods within three hours of bedtime. If you are needing a snack before bed, try a handful of nuts. Nuts are an excellent source of magnesium and tryptophan which boost serotonin levels in the brain.

Fatty foods

Consuming foods high in fat, particularly in saturated fat, causes you to lose some deep REM sleep. In addition, one study showed that men who consume high fat foods are more likely to sleep at night, feel excessive daytime sleepiness, and more likely to be diagnosed with sleep apnea2.

Sleep supporting alternative: There isn’t one food or a group of foods that will guarantee better sleep, as factors that influence sleep are multifaceted and no one diet fits all. However, striving for a well-balanced diet complete with tryptophan-rich protein (the body uses tryptophan to help make melatonin and serotonin), nutrition-packed vegetables, and serotonin-boosting carbohydrates will certainly help support sleep compared to a diet low in nutrition and high in fat. A great example for a well-balanced meal with these three components would consist of turkey, a side of sautéed greens and a sweet potato. So if you ever wondered why you are sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner, it's in part due to the foods that you ate!

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1. Howatson F, Bell PG, Tallent J, et al. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. European Journal of Nutrition. 2012; 51: 909-916

2. Cao Y, Wittert G, Taylor AW, et al. Associations between Macronutrient Intake and Obstructive Sleep Apnoea as Well as Self-Reported Sleep Symptoms: Results from a Cohort of Community Dwelling Australian Men. Nutrients. 2016; 8(4): 207.


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