(NEXSTAR) – If you struggle to slip easily into a restful night’s sleep you may want to reevaluate what you do before bedtime – including what you eat, experts say.
Cleveland Clinic sleep specialist Dr. Michelle Drerup told Nexstar that about 30% of American adults report symptoms of insomnia.
You may have even developed sleeping troubles in the past few years – an international study performed across 14 countries from May to July 2020 found a link between the COVID-19 pandemic and nightmares. The researchers determined that nightmares increased by 50% in people who caught the virus in the early months of the pandemic.
“Most people, if they don’t have any sleep difficulties, probably fall asleep within 10 to 20 minutes,” Drerup said. “It varies as well. If it takes someone 45 minutes to fall asleep and that’s normal for them and they allow enough time, it’s not necessarily a problem.”
A 2023 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that over 90% of Americans with very good overall sleep health say the have no significant depressive symptoms.
For millions of Americans, however, this desperately needed REM cycle can feel elusive. While the root issue may vary from person to person, avoiding these five types of food before bedtime can help, Drerup says:
- Alcohol: All “liquid bread” jokes aside, booze is admittedly not food but still makes the list, Drerup says, because it is “the absolute worst” for sleep. “We think of it as something that relaxes us, but it actually disrupts the way we go into different stages of sleep through the night and causes more un-restorative sleep,” she added. “People may wake up after a few hours and have difficulty falling back asleep.”
- Dark chocolate: Due to its caffeine content, dark chocolate can disrupt deep sleep. “The half-life of caffeine is about five to seven hours,” Drerup said. “So if their typical bedtime is around 10 o’clock, we usually say, you know, by noon, one o’clock, that’s an ideal time to cut it out.”
- Heavy, fatty foods: That double bacon cheeseburger may not be worth the pleasure if your body ends up struggling to digest it as you sleep, causing you to wake up.
- Spicy foods: Replacing those late-night ghost pepper chips with something lower on the Scoville scale is another way of easing digestion and staying asleep.
- Acidic Foods: Passing on highly acidic foods, such as tomato-based dishes, can improve sleep by minimizing causes of acid reflux, that heartburn feeling that especially tortures people when they are lying down.
While a large meal right before bedtime — especially one involving the foods listed above — is not the best formula for peaceful sleep, it doesn’t mean that you have to fast after a certain hour in the evening. Drerup encourages people to be thoughtful about what they might eat, and a snack like a few carrots, a piece of turkey or a small handful of pretzels could stave off hunger that might otherwise wake you in the middle of the night.
What if I wake up in the middle of the night?
If something you consumed or a jarring nightmare has you wide awake at 3 a.m., it can feel more difficult to go back to sleep than it was to fall asleep in the first place.
“When you’re wide awake, the worst thing to do is lay in bed and try to sleep, so we recommend getting out of bed, doing something to kind of relax, distract,” Drerup said, “For some people, it’s turning on the TV and watching some dumb sitcom to kind of take their mind off things. So give yourself a little bit of time to distance yourself from the content and the emotional response that you had with that nightmare.”
Once you start to feel drowsy again, you can get back in bed.
How to improve my sleep?
Along with diet and other lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise, there are other methods of improving sleep.
Another technique is to stick to a consistent, repeatable wind-down schedule, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Your bedroom should be quiet, cool and dark.
If noise is an issue, you can try white noise to block out background sounds such as a partner snoring, cars passing or a barking dog. Drerup says some people prefer the lower pitch of pink noise, which is essentially white noise with the bass turned up.
Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to increase the quality of one’s sleep, Drerup says.
When it comes to sleep aids, they can be effective for short-term use if taken as prescribed or directed, but Drerup warns that they may come with side effects or cause a dependency.
“Really no sleep aid is the magic bullet and there’s not one best sleep aid for everyone,” Drerup told the Health Essentials podcast.
The National Sleep Foundation encourages anyone unable to improve their sleeping habits with the recommended steps to seek professional help from a clinician.