(This article originally appeared in a Sleep Better Now magazine by Centennial Publishing. Read the full PDF here.)
The poor sleep leading to a poor diet cycle is tough to avoid. When last night’s sleep was terrible, you’re probably reaching for sugary, carb-heavy foods and chugging caffeinated beverages all day long for energy. Then, you find yourself in bed at night exhausted and unable to settle down for sleep.
When you’re sleep-deprived and tired all the time, chance are, your diet isn’t as healthy as it could be. “That lack of sleep could also make you crave unhealthy foods because you could be looking for a hug on your plate,” says a Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It—Taking You from Label to Table. It’s not just a matter of being tired and apathetic, she says. There really are changes that could be taking place within your body—including out-of-whack hunger hormones—that you don’t realize are making it harder for you to crave healthy foods, and even know how to stop when you’re full.
“It’s important to remember, when you don’t sleep very much you’re up longer, you’re up more hours to eat more food,” says Taub-Dix. “A lot of people confuse fatigue with hunger or they think that if they eat, it’ll help them stay awake longer, what really what they need is a nap.”
“Avoid eating foods that are often difficult to digest,” says Torey Jones Armul, M.S., R.D.N., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Discover the eating habits that hurt sleep.
Curb the caffeine.
You’ve heard this before but it’s important to know your own body when it comes to drinking caffeine. While some of my friends can drink regular coffee after dinner and fall asleep without issues; I’ve found that any caffeine after 2 p.m. for me leaves me tossing and turning for hours—even when I’m tired. “Caffeine is a stimulus so be mindful of any kind of beverages with caffeine—which includes teas, coffee, energy drinks,” says Jones Armul. Cut back on these drinks a few hours before bed. Most sleep experts recommend stopping the caffeine around 3 p.m.
Shrink dinner portions.
If you’re eating a large meal too close to bedtime that can lead to indigestion says Jones Armul. “It can also lead to acid reflux when you go to lie down, that increased stomach acid can start to re-enter the esophagus and cause pain,” she says. Not the ideal way you’d want to feel as you’re trying to relax. Have a smaller dinner when you plan to go to sleep within a few hours and you should be able to fall asleep faster.
Beware heavy, greasy, fatty foods.
Sure, that greasy burger or meat-laden pizza might make you feel a bit sleepy after you ate it, that’s because your body is working hard to break those foods down.
“Something that may cause GI upset is rich or very fatty food. Some of those can be a little bit harder to digest for your system and that may interfere with sleep,” says Jones Armul. Have a dinner that’s packed with vegetables and lighter on the heavy sauces and grease. You’ll have an easier time falling asleep that night.
Opt for less heat.
Spicy foods can irritate some people’s digestive tracts and cause indigestion or discomfort as they’re trying to fall asleep. If you’re experiencing indigestion after you’re in bed, you could elevate your body or bed a little bit, or, try to sleep a little more upright, suggests Jones Armul. If you’re still struggling to comfortably fall asleep, she suggests you do something else for 30 minutes to or lie in bed and read a book sitting up. “You’re giving yourself time to let the stomach empty. Also, some water can help just kind of wash that acid back down and then consider taking an antacid, as they can be very helpful,” Jones Armul says. What to do all day long for better sleep.
Plan for an evening snack.
“I recommend you define or pick out your snack much earlier in the evening,” says Taub-Dix. Remember, this snack will be very safe, and ‘snack’ ends in a ‘K’, not an
‘S’ so that this way you have something planned for the evening, she suggests. You might not even need it if your dinner was satisfying.
Ditch the low-carb diet.
One study found that very low carb diets were linked to less time spent in REM sleep—the stage where you’re dreaming.
Ask yourself if you’re physically or emotionally hungry.
“We often misinterpret tiredness for hunger,” says Jones Armul. So when you think you want to eat at night, it may just be that you’re tired and ready to go to bed. “We often make the mistake of thinking that our body needs more fuel, when it really just needs to go to sleep and rest. I think you need to be listening to your body rather than looking at the clock to tell you when to eat.” Her trick for determining whether you’re really hungry? Ask yourself if an apple or baby carrots sounds good. If you’re truly hungry, you’ll want to eat them. If you just want to eat out of habit or are tired, you’ll be more likely to want ice cream or a fun snack. “It’s one way to look at whether it’s more of an emotional hunger at the end of a long day or actual, physical hunger,” she says.
Sip herbal tea.
If you find yourself wandering into your kitchen and want something before bed, you might find yourself satisfied with a warm mug of herbal tea or decaf tea, suggests Taub-Dix. “I love a cup of tea at night. That kind of drink can just kind of rock you to sleep.”
They’re one of the few food sources of melatonin, which can help improve sleep quality.
Turkey (and poultry, eggs and spinach) contain tryptophan, an amino acid which can increase your body’s production of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter, and help you feel sleepy.
>Cereal with milk.
Foods that contain calcium may help you to sleep better, says Taub-Dix. Pair it with carbs, like whole-grain cereal, to help you fall asleep faster. Will drinking warm milk help you fall asleep?
>Wheat bread with peanut butter
Carbohydrates help boost tryptophan and serotonin, the brain chemicals that help you fall asleep. Pair a whole grain—like bread or crackers or a rice cake—with protein like a nut butter. If you’re hungry, having a snack with protein that is kind of slowly digesting at least an hour before bed may help with sleep, says Jones Armul.
A healthy snack before bed should have some carbs and protein and be easy to digest, says Jones Armul. A small smoothie with fruit, milk, and yogurt could provide that balance.
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