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updated 4/18/2007 12:24:55 PM ET 2007-04-18T16:24:55

Insomnia has many different faces. It can mean difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking throughout the night, or waking up too early in the morning.

It is not unusual for just about anyone to have difficulty sleeping once in a while, particularly in times of stress, or during travel, or if the environment is too hot, cold, noisy, or bright. These types of short-term insomnia are annoying, and can certainly affect the way you function the next day, but they are often easily remedied.

On the other hand, if insomnia occurs at least three nights a week for a month or longer, it is considered chronic. At this point, lack of sleep becomes more than just an annoyance, it can be life altering. Almost all cases of chronic insomnia can be traced to a medical condition, a lifestyle habit, or a psychological preoccupation. I strongly urge anyone who has experienced long-term insomnia to see a doctor, no matter what you think the cause is, no matter whether it is based in physiology or psychology. Help is available.

How food affects sleep
Combating insomnia through nutrition is about eating the right combination of foods in the evening, and — perhaps even more importantly — knowing what foods to avoid.

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What not to eat before bed

It should be obvious, but you should avoid caffeinated drinks and foods — coffee, tea, many soft drinks, and chocolate — several hours before bed. Caffeine is a natural chemical that activates the central nervous system, which means that it revs up nerves and thought processes. For people who are sensitive to caffeine, that excitation is not pleasant, making them feel jittery and slightly ill. If you drink caffeinated drinks too close to bedtime, chances are it will keep you awake. Of course, what “too close” means is totally individual. Sensitive people should stop drinking caffeine at least eight hours before bedtime (that means by 3pm, if you hit the sack at 11pm). You can play with your particular timing … just don’t experiment on a night when you absolutely must get a good night’s sleep.

Although many people use alcohol to help them relax before bed, the effects can wear off, so they wake up in the middle of the night. Over time, alcohol-induced sleep becomes less restful, so sleepiness will become a constant fact of life. I’m not saying you need to give up alcohol, but don’t use it like a sleeping pill; and if you have insomnia, I strongly recommend omitting alcohol for a few weeks to see if your sleep problem resolves.

Large meals close to bedtime
Eating a huge dinner, or even a large before-bedtime snack, may make you feel drowsy, but the sleep won’t necessarily take. When you lie down and try to sleep, your digestion will slow down, make you feel uncomfortable, and possibly keep you awake. I recommend eating a dinner that has no more than 600 calories (and optimally at least three hours before bed). The good news: all the dinner meal plans in my book are designed to have no more than 600 calories.

Stop liquids 90 minutes prior to bed
The single best piece of advice I can give to those of you who wake up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom is to not drink water or fluids within 90 minutes of bedtime. It takes that long for your body to process liquid of any type. If you must drink to take medication, take a small sip. If the medication requires a full glass of water, take it earlier in the evening if possible.

What you should eat for a good night’s sleep
Serotonin producing bedtime snacks

Among the best natural sedatives is tryptophan, an amino acid component of many plant and animal proteins. Tryptophan is one of the ingredients necessary for the body to make serotonin, the neurotransmitter best known for creating feelings of calm, and for making you sleepy. How sleepy? A 2005 study of people with chronic insomnia found that diet made a big difference. After three weeks, those who ate foods with high amounts of tryptophan with carbohydrates, or who took pharmaceutical grade tryptophan supplements had improvements on all measures of sleep … and food sources worked just as well as the supplements.

The trick is to combine foods that have some tryptophan with ample carbohydrate. That’s because in order for insomnia-busting tryptophan to work, it has to make its way to the brain. Unfortunately, all amino acids compete for transport to the brain. When you add carbs, they cause the release of insulin, which takes the competing amino acids and incorporates them into muscle … but leaves tryptophan alone, so it can make its way to the brain and cause sleepiness.

Bedtime snack examples (each 100 to 200 calories)

  • One cup skim milk with one cup grapes
  • 6-ounce container of non-fat, flavored yogurt  

Supplements to consider
If you are plagued by insomnia and want to consider supplements, the two that have been supported by scientific research are:

  • Valerian. This herb has been used as a sedative for hundreds of years. Like a few popular sleep medications, valerian seems to enhance the action of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma amino butyric acid), which acts to calm us down and make us sleepy. If you want to try valerian, look for an extract standardized to contain 0.4 to 0.6 percent of valerenic acid. Take 400 to 900 milligrams per day, two hours before bedtime. Although valerian has been well researched for safety, it shouldn’t be taken for longer than 30 days. Common side effects include headache, itchiness, dizziness, and gastrointestinal distress. You should not take valerian if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you are also taking a prescription sedative. Although valerian has not been shown to have any significant interactions with medications, it is always best to talk with your doctor before beginning any herbal supplement.
  • Melatonin. This neurohormone has long been linked to sleep. Research shows that people with some forms of insomnia have lower-than-normal levels of melatonin. Reviews of the medical literature suggest that taking melatonin may help some people with insomnia, in particular, some older people and so-called nightowls who naturally have a hard time falling asleep before 2 am. Other people may also benefit, but the research is less clear. Melatonin seems to be safe if taken for only a month or two, with no known cautions. The most common side effects are nausea, headache, and dizziness. If you want to try melatonin, the recommended dosage is 0.3 milligrams per day. If you have trouble falling asleep, use immediate-release form; if you have trouble staying asleep, use sustained-release form. You may need to take it for several days before you see any results; but if you don’t see results after two weeks, chances are it won’t work for you at all.

Recipe: Banana-Mango Parfait (on this page)

For more information on healthy eating, visit TODAY nutrition expert, Joy Bauer’s Web site atwww.joybauernutrition.com.

Recipe: Banana-Mango Parfait

You’ll love the rich, decadent flavor in this sleepy-time snack. And because it’s comprised of three fabulous ingredients — banana, mango, and fat-free ricotta cheese — your body gets a blast of nutrition before bed. I like it super cold, chilled for at least an hour.

  • 1 ripe medium mango, peeled and cubed
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 cup fat-free ricotta cheese
  • 1/4 cup mint leaves, finely sliced, plus 3 whole sprigs for garnish
  • 1 large banana, thinly sliced

Puree the mango and sugar in a blender until smooth. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the ricotta and sliced mint.

Spoon 2 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture into each of 3 parfait glasses. Top with half of the banana slices, and another layer of ricotta. Top with the remaining banana, and then the remaining ricotta mixture.

Garnish each glass with a sprig of fresh mint. Serve immediately, or chill up to 4 hours.


Nutritional information: 164 calories, 8 g protein, 33 g carbohydrate, 0 g fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 201 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

Serving Size

Makes 3 servings


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