5 Food + Drinks Sabotaging Your Sleep
By Leah Kleinschrodt, MS, RD, LD
June 11, 2019
Perhaps you’ve started to notice your own correlations between what you eat and how you sleep. Many people find that dark chocolate keeps their brains buzzing and of course coffee is another similar culprit. Beyond that, many of my nutrition counseling clients are surprised at just how many foods and drinks can impact their sleep. Correcting sleep is really, really, important to overall health as lack of sleep can lead to a host of issues, such as a weakened immune system, doubled risk of cancer, and increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, obesity and depression; pretty scary stuff.
I see a lot of clients for many reasons, and sleep problems, more often than not, is one of the things they want to work through. Considering that you’ve found your way here, I’m guessing sleep is an issue for you as well. To get you started on a restful night’s sleep, here are five items I am sure to go over with my clients:
Sugar / Processed Foods – Sugar and refined, processed carbohydrates are a one-way ticket to disturbed sleep. Some common examples that I run across with my clients are cereal, ice cream, and chips. These items are easy to grab, pop open, or pour out, and tend to look mighty appealing at the end of a long, stressful day. However, a typical bowl of cereal (around 2 cups) will net you over 20 tsp of sugar and leave you hunting for more. And who stops at 4 potato chips (1 tsp of sugar) or ½ cup of ice cream (almost 4 tsp sugar)? I explain to my clients that these foods start a blood sugar rollercoaster, and I have yet to meet someone who can sleep through a rollercoaster ride! The sugar and refined carbohydrates in these foods cause a surge, or spike, in your blood sugar before you hit the hay. This might actually make you feel sleepy initially, but the problem arises when that blood sugar comes crashing down at 2 or 3am. A lack of sugar and energy to the brain sends the brain into distress mode, waking you up and causing many people to experience brain chatter or recycled thoughts (aka, worrying).
Soda / Coffee – If you’re a regular reader or Dishing Up Nutrition listener, by now you are probably aware of the many harmful effects of both regular and diet soda. However, doesn’t coffee make us healthier, more productive human beings? Maybe not if it’s affecting your sleep.
One common denominator between soda and coffee is that they both contain caffeine and caffeine can disrupt sleep in several ways. For the average person, caffeine has a half-life of about 7 hours; this means that if you start your day with 200 milligrams of caffeine (roughly two cups), that will stay in your system full force for seven hours. Then over the next seven hours, the effects are at their half-life (100 milligrams of caffeine). Finally, at 21 hours, you are still feeling the effects of about 50 milligrams of caffeine. Caffeine is affecting your system for quite a while, and for some of my clients, this is enough to prevent a restful nights’ sleep.
Additionally, since caffeine is a natural diuretic, you may be making an extra trip or two to the bathroom at night instead of sleeping the night through. Interrupted sleep has been proven to be more detrimental to our moods than shortened, uninterrupted, sleep. So maybe the answer to a mood pick-me-up during the day is not a trip through the coffee shop drive-thru, try a caffeine-free beverage instead, such as herbal tea, sparkling water, or low-sugar kombucha.
Alcohol – Many people find relief from a stressful day in a glass of wine or beer. However, these nightcaps actually make for a more restless night’s sleep (which in turn sets you up for another stressful, sleepy day tomorrow). One reason is because alcohol is metabolized into sugar, which we know leads to poor sleep as mentioned above. Many people think that because they get sleepy after alcohol it is helping with sleep. In reality, it leads to the same blood sugar spike-and-dip cycle, causing people to wake frequently in the middle of the night and have difficulty getting back to sleep. Alcohol also affects the body’s natural rhythm of alternating between light and deep sleep, leading to more “surface sleeping” or less restorative sleep.
Gluten – Time and time again my colleagues and I see gluten as a surprising source of poor sleep. From children with restless sleep to adults who have been struggling with sleep their entire lives, once they give up gluten they are able to sleep through the night. For those with a gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease, gluten proteins damage their intestinal lining, inhibiting our ability to produce serotonin. Serotonin is a calming, relaxing neurotransmitter. Without adequate serotonin, many people experience brain chatter or increased anxiety or worrying – not exactly a recipe for a restful night’s sleep.
(Too Much) Protein – While we at Nutritional Weight & Wellness encourage protein at every meal and snack, it’s not necessary when it comes to your bedtime snack (more on that below). Some people find a little protein keeps them satiated through the night (say, a few spoonful’s of chicken or salmon salad on a gluten-free cracker), but sitting down to a steak dinner an hour before bed is likely to keep you tossing and turning. Protein and the ensuing digestion revs up your metabolism (and you), which is helpful during the day, but not so much when it’s time to relax and sleep.
Bedtime Snacks to Help You Sleep
For a better night’s sleep, having a bedtime snack with a healthy carbohydrate and fat (like one-half apple and one or two tablespoons of peanut butter or a half cup of your favorite berries and one to two tablespoons of full-fat heavy cream) is very helpful. This will help stabilize your blood sugar through the night to help you sleep soundly. It surprises many people to learn that a blood sugar crash is often the cause of wakeful nights! Also, if you often wake up with headaches that could be due to low blood sugar as well. A bedtime snack can help ease that painful start to the day.
One more tip, 400 – 600 mg of magnesium glycinate before bed relaxes your entire body and can help you fall and stay asleep. If you’ve cut out the foods above, eaten a delicious snack and still have trouble sleeping, try magnesium about before bed.
Hopefully we’ve inspired you to have some sweet dreams! But if you’re a bit overwhelmed and wondering how these things will impact your body that’s completely normal too. I’d encourage you to sign up for a nutrition consultation (in-person or via phone or Skype) with me or any of my nutritionist or dietitian colleagues for a personalized approach to your health goals, and better sleep of course.