Health & Fitness

Can’t sleep? Try these foods to help avoid 3 a.m. wake-up call

Chamomile tea
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It’s 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. and you can’t fall asleep. The night stretches on, and you’re staring at the clock, stressed, frustrated and miserable.

You’re not alone.

“At least 30 percent of the population has insomnia at some point in their lives,’ said Dr. Belen Esparis, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach. ”At least 10 percent suffer from chronic insomnia.”

Insomnia can be caused by a lot of factors, including anxiety, depression, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome and poor sleeping habits. In turn, lack of sleep has health repercussions, as well.

“Poor sleep quality worsens every chronic condition including depression, heart disease, high blood pressure and different types of cancer,” said Dr. Ashwin Mehta, medical director for Integrative Medicine, a holistic approach to supplement traditional treatment methods, at Memorial Healthcare System. “If you have a chronic health concern and you’re sleep deprived, you’re setting up a recipe for disaster.”

Experts also point to the link between lack of sleep and obesity.

“It has been shown that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to gain weight and be obese than people who get the amount of sleep they need,” Esparis said. “This is regardless of what you eat so sleeping enough is as important as your diet.”

And diet can be important in getting those much-needed Zzzs.

“Foods and nutrients contribute to every body process,” said Sheah Rarback, a registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and a Miami Herald columnist. “There are certain foods that help us sleep by doing certain things in the body.”

Green, leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, edamame, bananas, avocados, beans, and nuts and seeds are all foods rich in magnesium, which helps muscles relax and induces a sleepy state, Mehta said. A lack of magnesium can cause restless leg syndrome and muscle spasms.

Certain foods contain an amino acid called tryptophan. We usually associate tryptophan with our post-turkey nap on Thanksgiving, but many meats and other proteins have it as well. Tryptophan is a sleep-enhancing amino acid that helps produce serotonin and melatonin, the “body clock” hormone that sets your sleep-wake cycles.

“A body that isn’t nourished during the day is not going to be in a restorative state at night,” Rarback said.

While a good diet has been known to promote better sleep, there’s “not significant evidence that the amount of food you’re eating can change sleep patterns,” said Gina Sweat, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic of Florida in Weston.

“When you’re eating is just as important as what you’re eating,” Mehta added. “You want to wait at least two to three hours between your last meal and when you actually go to sleep.”

Sweat suggests eating dinner at least four hours before going to bed and perhaps having a snack no later than two hours before you go to bed.

How much you eat can be an issue, said Julie Rothenberg, a registered dietitian for Oncology Nutrition Services at Mount Sinai. Being too full can cause reflux symptoms, including heartburn, she said. “But if you eat too little, your body is craving nutrients and that also causes stress on your body and prevents you from having a deep sleep.”

What to avoid

Knowing what foods and drinks to avoid is part of the happy sleeping equation. Caffeine, alcohol, high-fat meals, sugary snacks and spicy foods may all be culprits ruining a good night’s sleep.

“Caffeine is hidden in so many of the foods and drink we have,” Mehta said. “One cup of coffee in the morning can potentially impact sleep quality. It depends on a person’s metabolism.”

It takes six hours to metabolize caffeine so consider your intake of coffee, tea, soda, chocolate and other foods that contain caffeine during the day, Rothenberg said. The notion of having a nightcap, a small cocktail, before going to bed isn’t necessarily going to lead to deep slumber either.

“Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant,” Mehta said. “It may seem like having a drink helps people sleep, but it actually ends up being counterfeit sleep.”

Studies have shown that while alcohol may have helped people fall asleep more quickly, their sleep was more disrupted during the second half of the night. It’s recommended that you have no more than one 4.5-ounce pour of wine, one 11-ounce glass of beer or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor in an evening, Mehta said.

While one beverage — water — is always seen as beneficial, aim to drink up during the day and cut back on fluids a few hours before bedtime to help limit trips to the bathroom.

You also want to avoid certain foods before bedtime, like a greasy burger or big piece of cake.

“Fats create more stomach acid and increase the likelihood of reflux,” Rarback said. “Really spicy food can also cause some people to have stomach distress.”

You might as well forget about that grandmotherly snack of milk and cookies — or at least the cookies part. “Sugar and other high-glycemic foods can cause stress on the body,” Rothenberg said. “It raises the cortisol level, which makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.”

Milk’s a ‘soothing drink’

Milk can be helpful as long as you’re able to tolerate dairy products.

“Milk has different good things in it,” said Dr. Andres Lichtenberger, an internal medicine specialist with Baptist Health Primary Care. “It’s a soothing drink especially when it’s warm and can help you relax.” Calcium also helps the body’s process of producing melatonin.

Instead of a sweet snack, it’s better to have a handful of pumpkin seeds with Brazil nuts and a fig — no more than what fits in the palm of your hand, Mehta said. “Anything more than that is excessive.”

Proteins are the building blocks of tryptophan and carbohydrates make tryptophan more available to the brain, so try snacks that pair both, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Consider peanut butter or hummus on whole wheat toast or crackers, plain Greek yogurt with some nuts, apples and peanut butter, a banana and milk.

Exercising during the day can help your overall sleep patterns, but making a stop at the gym right before you go to bed can keep you awake, Lichtenberger said.

The idea is to ease into sleep with a consistent, relaxing pattern.

“Cue the body” for bedtime, Mehta said. “The body responds to a routine.”

Have a cup of chamomile tea. Turn off the TV. Remove your cellphones and computers from the bedroom. Try aromatherapy oils. Keep the room dark so you don’t interrupt your sleep cycle.

Foods to aid sleep

To help boost your chances of a good night’s sleep, here are some foods that could help you get that needed shut-eye:

Bananas: The fruit is a good source of potassium and magnesium, which help to relax muscles. They also contain Vitamin B6, which may improve sleep, and tryptophan.

Chamomile tea: “It helps calm the brain and helps put you to sleep sooner,” said Mount Sinai’s Rothenberg. Decaffeinated green tea, which contains the amino acid theanine, can also help reduce stress, UM’s Rarback said.

Cherry juice: Specifically, you want tart cherry juice, which has melatonin in it, nutritionists said. “Make sure it’s in its natural form without added sugar,” Rothenberg said.

Chickpeas: Legumes are a good source of magnesium. Eat them on their own or create a hummus dip. Edamame is another good source of magnesium.

Green leafy vegetables: Such vegetables, including kale, spinach, turnip greens and collard greens, are a top source of magnesium and calcium.

Lean proteins: Chicken, turkey, fish, eggs and other proteins, which contain tryptophan. But avoid high-fat cheeses and deep-fried chicken or fish.

Nuts and seeds: Brazil nuts are an excellent source of selenium, a mineral that helps you get a restful sleep. Almonds and pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of magnesium. “Nuts and seeds contain a good balance of proteins and fats that help you feel satiated,” Mehta said.

Whole grains: Barley, couscous, buckwheat and other complex carbohydrates help convert tryptophan into melatonin and serotonin. Avoid simple carbohydrates, including pasta, breads made with white flour and sweets like cookies, cake and other sugary foods.

Yogurt: It contains calcium, which helps produce tryptophan. Choose plain Greek yogurt without sugar. You can add a few nuts or dried fruit as a garnish.