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5 foods that'll help you sleep better — and 6 to avoid

Want to get more zzz's? Here's what to eat and what to skip.
Sleep is important for brain health, including learning function, as well as healing and repair of our heart and blood vessels.
Sleep is important for brain health, including learning function, as well as healing and repair of our heart and blood vessels.Adene Sanchez / Getty Images

As a nation, we’re sleep-deprived. Even prior to the pandemic, sleep was in short supply in our country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study in 2014 on sleep patterns in the United States. The study found that people who didn’t get at least seven hours of sleep within a 24-hour period were more likely to report 10 health conditions, including heart attack, coronary heart disease, stroke, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, arthritis, depression, kidney disease and diabetes.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, and 1 in 3 adults do not get the recommended amount of sleep needed to protect our health.

Sleep isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity as vital as the air we breathe and the food we eat. According to the NIH, sleep is important for brain health, including learning function, as well as healing and repair of our heart and blood vessels. Sleep also regulates the hormones that make us feel hungry and full, which is why when we’re sleep-deprived we may feel hungrier than normal. Additionally, sleep affects how our bodies respond to the hormone insulin, which controls our blood sugar. Being deficient in sleep leads to higher blood glucose levels in the body, which can increase your risk of diabetes. And let’s not forget our immune system. Not getting our 7 to 8 hours of shut-eye nightly can weaken our defenses, setting us up to get sick.

How foods affect sleep

So many factors affect our sleep, from caffeine intake to exposure to technology to the food we eat and when we consume it. Let’s break down the best — and worst — foods for sleep and how to create an eating pattern that sets us up for sweet dreams.

Sleep saboteurs

1. Caffeine

We’ve all been there. It’s 4 pm and you’ve hit a wall. You’re distracted and can’t stop yawning, but you have to keep going to meet that deadline or pick your kids up from school — or both. So, you make a fresh pot of coffee and just drink one cup — that won’t keep you up — right? While you may not feel especially energized after drinking that coffee, its affects will stay with you for hours, potentially causing sleep issues at night.

Everyone is unique and processes caffeine differently, but many people will struggle to fall asleep if they have caffeine in the late afternoon. Learn what your personal cut-off is (mine is 2 pm) and stick to it. And remember, caffeine is found in many drinks these days, including kombucha and other teas, yerba mate, sports drinks and soda, as well as some sparkling waters.

2. Chocolate

Enjoying a piece of really good chocolate at the end of the day can be a wonderful way to unwind. But if you’re sensitive to caffeine, even the 20 mg in a 1.4-ounce dark chocolate bar or mug of hot chocolate can be enough to keep you up. And the same goes for those premium ice creams with all the delicious chocolate chunks. And that brings us to our next sleep saboteur — sugar.

3. Sugar

Oh sugar…we love you so, but we have to break up. Sugar has been linked to so many health issues, from inflammation to cavities and weight gain. And yes, it can also mess with your sleep. A 2016 study found that people who included more refined sugar and saturated fat in their diet and consumed less fiber had less restorative sleep and woke up more during the night. See below for some smart swaps for nighttime sugar cravings.

4. Alcohol

Many people like to unwind with a glass of wine or beer at the end of the day. Alcohol is a depressant and can make you feel more relaxed, but unfortunately having too much or consuming it too close to bedtime can negatively impact your sleep.

Just one drink can cause snoring and sleep apnea in normal sleepers. And in the 2 to 4 percent of Americans with chronic sleep apnea, alcohol exacerbates the condition and increases the risk of heart attack, stroke and sudden death.

Keep in mind that moderate drinking is one drink per day for women and two drinks for men. Try cutting back and see if it helps improve your sleep quality.

5. Spicy food

Most of us have experienced heartburn at some point in our lives. Heartburn — that burning sensation when the contents of your stomach flow back up to your esophagus — is common and can happen to anyone. Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) is when heartburn persists for a long period of time, potentially causing complications. About 20 percent of the U.S. population has GERD.

Various things can exacerbate GERD symptoms, from eating late at night to eating spicy and acidic foods. If you experience symptoms of GERD at night or when you’re lying down, avoid eating for 2 to 3 hours prior to sleep, as well as foods that can trigger your symptoms.

6. High fat foods

Rich, high fat foods like fried foods, burgers, cheese, creamy desserts and red meat take a while to digest. If you eat them before bed, your body will need to work hard to digest them, which can cause discomfort or unwanted trips to the bathroom. Stick to smaller, lower fat meals in the evening and save the steak for special occasions.

Slumber Superstars

1. Oats

Carbohydrates can help send you off to dreamland. You just need to choose the right ones. Instead of sweetened carbs like cookies and cake, reach for whole grains, like oatmeal. Oats are high in the amino acid tryptophan, which gets converted to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps us relax. Skip heavily sweetened oatmeal and instead top it with some chopped nuts or berries. Or try a Chocolate Chip, Raspberry and Oat Cookie (skip the chocolate if you’re super caffeine sensitive) an hour before bed, or try that late-night favorite, whole grain cereal and milk.

2. Tart cherries

Cherries have been touted for promoting post exercise recovery, but the fruit is also helpful for getting a better night’s sleep. One study found that elderly subjects who drank Montmorency tart cherry juice twice daily for 14 days were able to sleep for 84 minutes longer than the placebo group. An extra hour of sleep is pretty significant in my book! Try this tangy TropiSoCal Smoothie for a pre-bedtime treat.

TropiSoCal Smoothie

3. Grapes

Naturally sweet and heart healthy, grapes also contain melatonin, a hormone that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Instead of ending the evening with a sugary or rich treat, like ice cream or cake, try munching on a bunch of fresh grapes. Or if you’re hungry, make a peanut butter sandwich with grapes instead of jelly.

4. Milk

Mom always recommended a warm cup of milk before bed to help you sleep, and like she was about so many other things, mom was right. Milk contains the amino acid tryptophan, which gets converted to serotonin. Also, an 8-ounce glass of milk (whether skim or whole) has 8 grams of protein, which may help you feel more satisfied before heading off to bed. Finally, the comfort that a glass of warm milk can provide may be just the thing to help soothe your nerves. Soothing chamomile tea may also do the trick, or even a Blueberry-Chamomile and Mint Popsicle.

If you’re lactose intolerant, try warm cashew milk. Cashews contain magnesium, a mineral involved in the sleep-wake cycle that’s known to help with relaxation. Whichever type of milk you choose, make sure to enjoy it an hour before you hit the hay so that you’re not woken up by a trip to the bathroom.

5. Fatty fish

Fatty fish, including salmon, tuna, herring, and sardines, is seemingly a miracle food. A staple of the Mediterranean Diet, it offers a good source of protein, along with significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, which are both involved with the regulation of serotonin, a neurotransmitter than effects sleep, among other things. The Dietary Guidelines recommend eating fish 2 to 3 times per week anyway, so get the nutrients you need and a good night’s sleep with Valerie Bertinelli’s Salmon Salad-Stuffed Avocados.

How to get your best night's sleep

Making a plan to sleep better is smart for your overall health. In general, the recipe for good shut-eye is to get moderate daily exercise, limit caffeine in the afternoon, eat a light dinner, go easy on the booze (if at all), and include sleep-promoting foods. And a small pre-bed snack or warm drink might be just what you need to ensure solid slumber. Sweet dreams!Ready to feel rested? Try our 7-day sleep plan!