March 4, 2010 at 2:37 PM ET
You’re lying there wide awake, your tummy rumbling. Could it be that big burger you ate for dinner that’s keeping you up? The after-dinner cocktail? The chocolate cake you couldn’t resist? Or are you simply hungry for a late-night snack?
Turns out that the foods you eat—or don’t eat—can make a big difference in how well you sleep. Even the timing of your meals and snacks can affect your rest. While noshing on the right foods can nudge you toward sweet slumber, eating the wrong ones can keep you tossing and turning. Here’s how you can manage your food for better sleep.
Cut the Caffeine
If you’re having trouble with sleep, try eliminating caffeine from your diet by lunchtime, says Andrea Dunn, R.D., L.D., C.D.E., advanced practice dietitian for the Cleveland Clinic. As a natural central nervous system stimulant, caffeine can rev you up, sometimes for hours. “Caffeine has a half-life of three to four hours,” Dunn says. “That means that half the amount of caffeine you have at lunch is still in your system three to four hours later.” One study found that poor sleepers metabolize caffeine at a slower rate.
Banish the Booze
An evening nightcap may wash away the day’s stressors, but it may also keep you up at night. At first, alcohol enhances the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger in the brain, which signals you to relax and makes you sleepy. Because the effects are enhanced, the brain cells that secrete GABA stop making so much of it. “When the alcohol effects are gone two to three hours later, your brain is still not synthesizing enough GABA, so you have a relative GABA deficiency that results in poor sleep during the latter half of the night,” says Sam Fleishman, M.D., medical director of the Sleep Center for Cape Fear Valley Health Systems. Ultimately, you get less sleep.
Try Early Bird Dining
Nodding off too soon after you’ve just downed a hefty meal can make it hard to doze off. Lying down slows the digestive process and can send stomach acids involved in digestion creeping back up into your throat, which results in indigestion and acid reflux. “It will make you feel uncomfortable and possibly keep you awake,” says Joy Bauer, R.D., author of Joy Bauer’s Food Cures. Instead, keep your dinners small. “I recommend eating a dinner that has no more than 600 calories and optimally at least three hours before bed,” Bauer says.
Go Mild, Not Hot
Fatty foods linger in the stomach longer during the digestion process, causing the stomach to secrete more acid. The result? Heartburn and reflux, says Beth Czerwony M.S., R.D., L.D., a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic. “The more acid there is, the more uncomfortable you may feel lying down.” The same is true for spicy foods, which also trigger more acid production.
Stop eating tonight three hours before lights out. If you must, try 3 cups of air-popped popcorn sprinkled with Parmesan cheese or six whole-grain crackers with peanut butter. The carbs will trigger the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that makes you calm and sleepy, while the fat and protein will help you feel full.
By Winnie Yu
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.