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.
What NOT to eat/drink 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 have a caffeinated drink 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 3 p.m. if you hit the sack at 11 p.m.). 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.
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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 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.
However, 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 snacks should be no more than 200 calories.
Bedtime snacks for children
- 1/2 cup low-fat vanilla pudding
- One cup skim milk with a bunch of grapes
Bedtime snacks for teenagers:
- One cup healthy cereal with skim milk
- Low-fat granola bar
- Scoop of vanilla or strawberry low-fat ice cream
Bedtime snacks for adults:
- 6-8 oz container of nonfat, flavored yogurt topped with 2 tablespoons low-fat granola cereal
- 3 cups low-fat popcorn – sprinkled with optional 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Two popular sleep-aid supplements
Melatonin has gotten a great deal of attention in the past few years since this hormone controls the body’s circadian rhythm, our internal 24-hour clock that tells us when to sleep and when to wake up. As we get older, we produce less melatonin, which may account in part for insomnia in older adults. That said, I would not recommend supplemental doses without speaking with your physician first. Studies have not been conclusive in regard to its effectiveness, and these supplements may interact with other medications.
Valerian root is an herb that is believed to have a calming, relaxing effect on the body. It has been used for centuries to treat insomnia, mild anxiety and restlessness. The exact mechanism of action is unknown. However, it may act as a depressant to the central nervous to produce a mild tranquilizing effect. As with melatonin supplements, first speak with your personal physician to find out if it’s an appropriate option, and certainly first try avoiding caffeine, nighttime liquids and experimenting with a light serotonin-producing snack.
For more information on healthy eating, visit Joy Bauer's Web site at joybauernutrition.com
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