Health & Fitness

Certain foods may impact sleep cycles

Strawberries are rich in B vitamin folate, which can help reduce leg cramps when sleeping.
Strawberries are rich in B vitamin folate, which can help reduce leg cramps when sleeping. Miami Herald staff

You leave work late, grab fast food at the drive-through and before long, you’re falling asleep on the couch watching TV. At 3 a.m. you’re back up surfing the Web.

Or maybe you had the late-night munchies and ate a bowl of guac and chips before bed. Again, you’re up at 3 a.m., reading emails.

There are lots of reasons people miss out on a good night’s sleep. Some are based on serious problems, including sleep apnea, depression or anxiety, said Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Ketan Deoras, a psychiatrist with a specialty in sleep medicine. Other reasons could be medications, stress or what you’re eating or drinking.

“In the long term, if you don’t eat a healthy diet, you can become obese and you’re at risk for sleep apnea,” a serious disorder, with breathing interrupted during sleep, Deoras said.

Researchers are looking at other ways in which our diet impacts our bedtime. A 2013 study by the University Pennsylvania suggests that a good night’s sleep and a good diet are related. There aren’t yet conclusive findings, but experts point to some connections.

“The later you’re going to eat, the lighter your meal should be,” said Cathy Clark-Reyes, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health Primary Care. “A huge steak is going to sit on your stomach for a long time, but lean fish is not going to take as long to digest or process.”

Dietitians advise allowing at least two to three hours after a meal before turning in.

Eating a big meal might initially make you sleepy, but “you can wake up with a stomachache or indigestion,” Cleveland Clinic of Florida dietitian Gina Sweat said. “I tell patients to switch their meal pattern. Have their bigger meal at lunch time.

“A lot of foods can interfere with sleep,” she said.

Another offender: spicy foods. You’ll want to skip mouth-numbing dishes for dinner if you’re prone to heartburn or acid reflux, said Rocio Garcia, a dietitian at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“You also want to avoid foods with a lot of sugar,” because they’re a stimulant and can cause weight gain, she said.

Even foods with tryptophan aren’t necessarily a good idea for dinner, Sweat said. Tryptophan is an amino acid that creates seratonin, thought to make people drowsy. The tryptophan in turkey is blamed for putting guests to sleep after Thanksgiving dinner. Chicken has even more tryptophan, Sweat said, but watch your portion size. Too much protein, even chicken or turkey, takes a long time to digest if you’re eating late.

What you drink can also interfere with your sleep cycle. Caffeine and alcohol are the chief culprits.

“After having a drink, people may be sleepy, but alcohol won’t keep them asleep,” Deoras said. “People wake up much more frequently during the night after consuming alcohol.”

He tells patients with sleep problems to abstain from alcohol or at least skip drinks close to bedtime.

The same philosophy is true for coffee, though “how people react depends upon their tolerance,” Sweat said. “People who drink 10 cups of coffee a day can probably drink a cup two hours before they go to bed without having an effect. Others can’t have any coffee after noon.”

Also consider that there’s caffeine in tea, hot cocoa, chocolate, soda and even decaffeinated tea and coffee.

Cutting down on any drinks an hour or two before bedtime is a good idea to limit trips to the bathroom, Sweat said. If you get thirsty at night, have a glass of water on the nightstand and just take small sips.

Picking the right bedtime snack is also important. Don’t overdo it or a snack will turn into a meal. Keep your treat to under 150-200 calories. And allow an hour after a small bedtime snack before turning in.

Some other bedtime snack tips:

▪ You can drink the milk but forget the cookies (too much sugar). Even better, make it a warm cup of milk for a soothing bedtime ritual. Pair it with some whole grain crackers or graham crackers (no more than five, Sweat recommends). Another option is a warm herbal tea such as linden or camomile, Garcia said. Try adding a few dried dates.

▪ Greek yogurt with a few walnuts, almonds or berries.

▪ Whole wheat toast with almond butter.

▪ For people who wake up and snack during the night, try a bedtime snack of peanut butter and crackers to ward off hunger, Deoras said.

▪ Make sure you’re really hungry before making any snack, Clark-Reyes said. “If you’re not hungry, you don’t need a bedtime snack. Most people tend not to eat before 7 or 8 and they’re going to bed at 10.”

While eating well doesn’t guarantee a peaceful night of slumber, some nutrition experts suggest adding these vitamins and minerals to your diet:

▪ Magnesium: The mineral has a lot of roles in your body but one involves sleep. People with a lack of magnesium can have insomnia, irritability or wake with leg cramps. Some ailments, including an intestinal virus, can affect your magnesium levels. You'll find magnesium in dark leafy greens, whole grains, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, beans, lentils and mackerel. Some dietitians recommend magnesium citrate.

▪ Calcium: Researchers have found that calcium levels in the body are higher during deep sleep and that a shortage of calcium could lead to disturbed sleep. Good sources of calcium include dairy products, collard greens, kale and other leafy greens, broccoli, beans, peas, sardines and dried figs.

▪ B vitamin folate (folic acid in your vitamin bottle): Low levels can contribute to leg cramps, depression and other ailments that can keep people awake. Folate-rich foods include dark green leafy vegetables, dried beans, peas, asparagus, oranges, avocado and strawberries.

▪ Melatonin: This gets mixed reviews. But if you’re a fan, one source is unsweetened cherry juice, Garcia said. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try 4-6 ounces.

Food may impact our sleep cycle, but our sleep patterns also affect our eating habits.

“Sleep deprivation increases our levels of ghrelin,” a hormone that increases appetite, Baptist’s Clark-Reyes said. And a lack of sleep also “decreases the hormone leptin, which is the one that helps you feel full.”

Being sleepy can also cause a lack of motivation, so you might wind up skipping that important stop at the gym — just make it early and not before bedtime or working out can keep you up. And you don’t want to opt for a sugary pick-me-up at the vending machine because you’re groggy.

“When you’re tired, it definitely affects your eating habits,” Clark-Reyes said.

Aside from eating, creating bedtime habits helps people sleep.

“It’s important to create a nice environment for sleeping,” Cleveland Clinic’s Sweat said. “Read a good book.”