What you eat may lead to restless sleep, or even keep you awake. Learn which foods hinder your ability to sleep so you can avoid them near bedtime to get a good night's rest.

By Brierley Horton, MS, RD
January 30, 2020
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Here’s a not-so-surprising statistic: More than three in 10 Americans get less than seven hours of sleep each night. That means many of us are falling short of the National Sleep Foundation's recommendation of getting between seven and nine hours of shuteye a night. It’s not just about how long you're under the covers either; the quality of your sleep matters, too.

4 Foods Bad for Sleep

To help you get to sleep and stay asleep it's helpful to know which foods can help or hinder a night of good rest. These foods prevent sleep, by either keeping you awake or disturbing your slumber.

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The popular ketogenic diet (and others similar to it) may help you lose weight, but could hinder your sleep. In studies where people ate variations of low-carb, high-fat diets (some of which included participants going into ketosis), researchers found subjects’ REM sleep (that’s the kind of sleep critical for memory) was reduced and their middle-of-the-night wake-ups increased. Interestingly, though, their slow-wave sleep, which is the deep sleep that restores you, increased. Unlike other studies looking at diet and sleep, changing when you eat your low-carb, high-fat diet (for example, at least four hours before bedtime) doesn’t seem to matter, but also the research on the timing of this diet and sleep quality is limited.

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Many of us drink coffee throughout the day for its caffeine; it’s a delicious stimulant. That’s the key word: stimulant. As you might expect, research shows consuming caffeine before bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, plus overall sleep quality is reduced. Another interesting finding: older adults may be more sensitive to caffeine than younger adults. Per a recent review study, there isn’t a universal cutoff before bedtime to stop drinking coffee. Some people experienced sleep disturbances if they drank coffee six hours before bed, others weren’t impacted if they had coffee three, or even one, hour before going to bed. Because caffeine is the sleep stealer, don’t forget about less obvious sources of caffeine like chocolate, tea, and colas.

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When researchers (in a very small study) gave kids either milk with glucose (aka straight sugar) or milk with honey an hour before bed, the kids who drank the glucose-spiked milk woke up more during the night than their counterparts who drank honey milk. The milk with glucose is considered “high glycemic index (GI),” meaning it causes a quick spike (and then fall) in blood sugar and insulin. (Conversely, the honey milk is low GI causing a slower rise and fall in blood sugar and insulin.) Other high glycemic index drinks are sodas, sports drinks, and rice milk. Although this study was quite small, other research has found an association between people who regularly drink sugar-sweetened beverages and lower sleep quality.

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A glass of wine, beer, or a cocktail might help you fall asleep, but it hinders restful slumber. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it turns on the alpha activity in your brain, which is supposed to happen when you’re resting quietly, not sleeping. Alcohol also throw off your circadian rhythms and blocks REM sleep.

There are other foods that some say could impact your sleep, too, such as spicy foods, which can cause heartburn, or natural diuretics like celery, parsley, tea, or alcohol, which lead to extra middle-of-the-night bathroom trips. There isn't a lot of research around these yet.

Foods That Help You Sleep

Fortunately, there are also foods that can encourage sleep. According to a review study in the journal Advances in Nutrition, these three foods show promise for helping you get a good night’s rest.

  1. Tart cherries or tart cherry juice: a double dose of cherries each day (this could be an eight-ounce glass of tart cherry juice like R.W. Knudsen Tart Cherry Juice ($5.98, Walmart) in the morning and at night or about a cup of fresh cherries after lunch and dinner) may help you get more sleep and also boost your melatonin levels, the hormone that helps you sleep.
  2. Kiwifruit: eat two kiwifruits one hour before bed and the research suggests you’ll sleep longer and have a less restless slumber.
  3. Milk: drinking a glass at night, up to as late as 30 minutes before bed, may help you sleep more soundly.

If a good night’s sleep is a top priority (and, let’s be real, we all need it!), be mindful of the food and sleep connection. There’s another diet reason restful sleep is key: people who don’t get enough Zs are more likely to eat less healthy foods (think: fats and white, refined carbohydrates) than those who are well-rested.

All of this said, there’s one caveat. How much a food disturbs your sleep varies person to person, especially in younger adults. If you don’t typically eat before bed, adding even one of these "good" foods to your routine might be more of a hinder than help. If you do typically eat closer to bedtime, adding one of these foods to your pre-sleep routine is more likely to help.

Consider doing a little “research” on yourself before you completely eliminate or add one of these items from your evening routine to find out what helps you rest best.

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