Food Smarts for the Sleepless

Sip warm milk. Eat turkey. Drink chamomile tea. There’s no shortage of dietary wisdom when it comes to insomnia.

In reality, most foods and drinks have little to do with sleep, says Mark Mahowald, MD, a professor of neurology and director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Hennepin County Medical Center, in Minneapolis. The key is in knowing which foods make a difference. Here we’ll separate myth from fact.

What You May Think: Steer clear of caffeine if you have insomnia.
What the Facts Are:
If you’re like most people, the first thing you want when you wake up tired is a cup of coffee. In fact, a poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 60 percent of all people are likely to consume caffeine when they’re sleepy.

And it’s no wonder we want that java jolt. In the body, caffeine acts like a central nervous stimulant, whose effects kick in as quickly as 15 minutes after it’s consumed. The stimulating effects can last for hours — it can take as much as six hours for half the caffeine to wear off. And remember: you can also find caffeine in tea, soda, energy drinks, chocolate and certain medications.

Try This

Drink a cup of lavender tea tonight. Lavender is an herb that promotes calmness and tranquillity. Two ounces of loose lavender leaves is the equivalent of a tea bag, so steep in some hot water and sleep peacefully tonight.

It isn’t necessary to avoid caffeine completely if you have insomnia. “Caffeine is a very individual thing,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a register dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. “Some people can tolerate large quantities with no consequences, while others can tolerate small amounts, and others can tolerate none.” Knowing your own limitations is the key.

QUIZ: Are You Getting a Good Night’s Sleep?

What You May Think: Drink wine for better sleep.
What the Facts Are:
Alcohol has a sedating effect, so you’ll nod off more quickly. That’s because alcohol enhances the effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical messenger in the brain that signals you to relax and makes you drowsy. When the effects are enhanced, the brain cells that secrete GABA stop making so much of it, resulting in a deficiency a few hours later when the booze wear off. The result? Poor sleep in the latter half of the night.

What You May Think: A turkey sandwich will make you sleepy.
What the Facts Are:
It’s true that turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that’s been associated with making you sleepy. In the brain, tryptophan converts into serotonin, the brain chemical behind your sleepiness. But the celebrated bird also harbors at least half a dozen other amino acids, all vying to enter the brain at the same time, says Richard Wurtman, MD, the Cecil H. Green distinguished professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has done extensive research on tryptophan. 

“Since turkey — and in fact all proteins — contains much more of these other amino acids than it does tryptophan, it produces bigger increases in blood levels of the other amino acids and doesn’t raise brain tryptophan levels,” Wurtman says. ”So it doesn’t increase serotonin production or make you sleepy.”

Ironically, what does make you sleepy are carbohydrates, which don’t contain any tryptophan. Carbs trigger the release of insulin, which lowers blood levels of other amino acids, but not tryptophan. As a result, Wurtman says, “more tryptophan gets into the brain, more serotonin is made, and you get sleepy.”

What You May Think: Eat carbs for a better night’s sleep.
What The Facts Are:
Carbohydrates make you sleepy by clearing the way for tryptophan to get into the brain and turn into serotonin. But if you have insomnia — especially the kind that causes you to wake up hungry in the middle of the night — you might want to eat complex carbs with some protein, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. ”Complex carbs are always the way to go, and if you combine them with protein, which is metabolized more slowly, you’ll stay full longer,” she says. “The combination is especially effective if you have nocturnal hypoglycemia (low nighttime blood glucose levels) because they keep blood sugars stable. ” A good choice, she says, is almond butter on whole-grain crackers.

MORE: Eating Tips for Better Sleep

What You May Think: Drinking warm milk or chamomile tea will lull you to sleep.
What The Facts Are:
According to Lona Sandon, MEd, a registered dietitian and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, there is little known about the effects of warm milk or chamomile tea on insomnia. What might be making you sleepy is the warm, soothing quality of the drink. “Nothing special has been found in milk to induce sleep, and there’s little known about chamomile’s effect on sleep in the literature,” Sandon says. “But if it helps you to calm down and release your worries from the day, then go for it. Just be sure to watch the amount you drink, or you may find yourself up in the night for a trip to the bathroom.”

People who have ragweed allergies or are taking blood-thinning medications however, should avoid chamomile, she says.

— by Winnie Yu

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