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I tried a new diet to get more sleep. Here's how it went

Can changing what you eat help you sleep better? I tried it and the results went far beyond getting more zzz's.
Sleep Diet Main
Stabilizing your blood sugar throughout the day is important not only for good sleep, but good health, too.TODAY illustration / Getty Images

What's the first thing you do when you wake up? If the answer is to drink a cup of coffee, it shouldn't be. Hey, this is according to science — don't shoot the messenger! A couple of years ago, Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist who's also known as "The Sleep Doctor," came to talk to the TODAY staff. You probably couldn't find a more sleep-deprived bunch. Some of us work into the wee hours of the night, some of us start in the wee hours of the morning, and all of us like to complain about how tired we are. Of all the things Breus told us that day, the coffee tip stuck with me.

According to Breus, when you get up in the morning, your body is flooded with chemicals that bring you from sleep mode to awake mode. Drinking coffee on top of those chemicals, he explained, does very little because your hormones are already dialed up to 11. He said to drink water when you wake up (because you're dehydrated) and wait to drink coffee until 90 minutes into your morning. That's when you'll get the most bang for your buck, caffeine-wise.

I reach for water when I wake up now and try to make it an hour or more before I turn to coffee. It makes my daily cup that much more effective, and it's a tip I recommend to everyone. So when Sleep Awareness Week rolled around this year, I decided to take things one step further and follow a special menu developed by Breus and another psychologist, Nicole Beurkens, who is also a certified nutritionist.

Other than the fact that I work crazy hours, my biggest complaint is that I am a light sleeper and sensitive to noises that can easily wake me up. The menu they sent was mostly foods I eat anyway, with the exception of my favorite chips and cookies. Given my late-night snacking habit, they sent along a few pints of an ice cream called Nightfood they developed for better sleep. I liked the idea that it wasn't a diet to lose weight, but to stabilize blood sugar throughout the day — which is important not only for good sleep, but good health, too.

"When we eat in ways that support our health in general, we're also eating in ways that support our sleep cycle, and vice versa," Beurkens said. She said I could expect to feel more balanced and even-keeled over the course of the day, and have better attention and focus. "People tend to notice that their energy level, and how they're feeling throughout the day, is more steady, which is a good thing."

Breus also suggested some other tactics — like portion control. I groaned. "If you overeat, it overtaxes your system and if your system is overtaxed you won't sleep well," he explained. "So you don't want to eat to the point of feeling full, just to the point of feeling comfortable."

At this point I was remembering why diets can be such a drag, but I was up for the challenge. I'm currently in a house with five family members and two noisy dogs who constantly ruin my sleep. It could only help.

My 7-day 'sleep better' meal plan

Breus and Beurkens gave me the following guidelines and a sample meal plan that I could choose from — here's what I ate and how it went.

The basic rules:

  • No caffeine after 2 p.m.
  • Stay hydrated with water throughout the day.
  • Balance protein and complex carbs at each meal.
  • Avoid foods with high amounts of added sugars.

Foods that generally help sleep include turkey or chicken, nuts (walnuts, pistachios, almonds and cashews), rice, salmon, spinach, bananas, cherries, kiwis and avocado.

Foods that generally disrupt sleep include sugary or diet drinks, spicy foods, caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, acidic fruits and processed foods high in sugar and or fat.

MONDAY

  • Lunch: Kale Caesar salad with chicken and Parmesan (skip the croutons).
  • Dinner: Poke bowl with tuna, rice and plenty of veggies.

TUESDAY

How I slept: I was awakened by the dogs after only six hours of sleep on the first night and was disappointed not to be able to fall back asleep after walking them in the sunlight, which Breus explained had told my body to stop producing melatonin. I vowed not to make this mistake again.

  • Lunch: Grilled chicken with black rice and veggies.
  • Dinner: Turkey burger (whole grain bun) and sweet potato fries.

WEDNESDAY

How I slept: I was awakened by the dogs after six hours again but this time I ignored them and was able to fall back asleep for a couple of hours. Victory!

  • Lunch: Grilled chicken with black rice and vegetables.
  • Dinner: Taco bowl with rice, beef, cheese, salsa and guacamole.

THURSDAY

How I slept: Slept seven hours before I was awakened by noise and decided that was good enough although not ideal.

  • Breakfast: Egg, ham and cheese sandwich on English muffin.
  • Dinner: Chicken stir fry with broccoli, bell peppers and carrots served with rice.
Will a healthy breakfast counteract being awakened by an unruly dog? Courtesy Emily Gerard

FRIDAY

How I slept: I made it almost eight hours before I was awakened by noise!

  • Breakfast: Plain Greek yogurt with berries, walnuts and honey.
  • Dinner: Whole grain pasta with tomatoes, spinach and shrimp sauteed in olive oil and garlic.

SATURDAY

How I slept: I was awakened by my family way too early and was very sad not to be able to sleep in. I moped into the kitchen to make a breakfast sandwich when I realized all hope of going back to sleep was lost.

  • Breakfast: Egg, ham and cheese sandwich on English muffin.
  • Dinner: Salmon with whole grain pasta, tomatoes, and garlic spinach.
A breakfast sandwich that’ll do you well at lunchtime, too.Courtesy Emily Gerard

SUNDAY

How I slept: Success — a perfect nine hours of sleep! I felt like a champion waking up after all that uninterrupted rest.

  • Breakfast: Egg, ham and cheese sandwich on English muffin.
  • Dinner: Beef chili and twice-baked potatoes.

The results

By the end of the week I noticed I was sleeping much more soundly through the night even when awakened by dogs or family — and I definitely felt more balanced throughout the day as I made choices to keep blood sugar stable, which I don't usually think about. I noticed that my mood, attention and focus were all good, too. "Mood stability helps with sleep," Breus said when I told him how it went. "When people aren't mood-stabilized they have higher levels of anxiety. ... So when you're mood-stable because you've eaten well and you've slept well, you're calmer and the cycle continues."

Beurkens agreed: "Stabilizing blood sugar is helpful for us all the way across the board — it improves our functioning during the day and our sleep at night, and that improves our functioning the next day."

What’s broccoli doing on my cookie sheets? Courtesy Emily Gerard

3 expert tips for better sleep

As I ended my sleep experiment, the experts shared their best tips for getting quality sleep:

  • Eat for better sleep. Beurkens said it's important to be aware that "what you eat throughout the day is absolutely connected to how you sleep at night."
  • Be consistent with your routine. Breus recommends having a consistent schedule — routine bedtimes, wake-up times and meal times, so your body knows what to do and when to do it.
  • Put a time limit on caffeine and alcohol. Breus suggests eliminating caffeine by 2 p.m. and stop alcohol consumption at least 3 hours before bed, or it will wake you up during the night.

Breus recommended nixing the alcohol all together, which didn't go over too well with Savannah, Craig, Hoda and Al, but, hey, there's always room for improvement. At the very least, like any diet, remember you can always start tomorrow.