Best: Cereal and Milk
Your go-to breakfast staple can also moonlight as the perfect pre-bedtime snack. Eating a combination of carbohydrates and protein enables our bodies to produce the "happy hormone" serotonin, which in turn produces melatonin, a neurotransmitter that has a calming effect, explains Danielle Omar, a DC-based registered dietitian. Just stay away from sugary cereals to avoid getting a sugar high right before bed. Other safe nighttime snack bets include cheese and crackers, cottage cheese and fruit, or oatmeal with milk for a similar soothing effect.
While protein is a vital part of our daily diets, too much of it means less sleep at the end of the day. "High-protein diets have a tendency to give you more energy and not calm you down," says Dr. Michael J. Breus, author of The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan. Instead, remember to munch on a high-carb, low-protein snack that's no more than 200 calories before bed.
Though not always available in the nearest supermarket, it's worth finding if you're in need of some serious shuteye. Passionfruit contains somniferum, which has sleep-inducing properties. Omar recommends eating the fruit as is, or try it as a juice or tea.
Sure, your eyelids may start drooping after that second glass of wine, but chances are you'll have a restless night of sleep once you turn in. "After drinking alcohol, usually you get drowsy and fall asleep," says Omar. "But you don't get into the REM stage of sleep." When that happens, you're kept from achieving a deep, uninterrupted sleep — as the bags under your eyes will tell you the next day.
Often called "a pill in a peel" by experts, bananas contain high levels of magnesium, a mineral that acts as a muscle relaxant, which can help us start snoozing faster. Also extremely helpful is the whopping 422 milligrams of potassium one banana contains, since studies have shown potassium can help regulate sleep patterns and nerves.
Worst: Fatty Foods
The fattier your dinner is, the less sleep you'll get, warns Dr. Breus. Eating foods high in fat (especially ones that are greasy or fried) will likely cause uncomfortable heartburn or stomach issues when you lie down. Stick to low-fat snacks and make sure to eat at least two hours before hitting the hay.
Best: Cherry Juice
A 2011 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that tart cherry juice is a great sleep aid. Adults who drank two glasses of cherry juice daily slept an average of 39 minutes longer than usual. Turns out cherries boast some of the highest levels of melatonin among natural foods, explains Dr. Breus. Try a small nighttime smoothie to start dreaming with 1 cup concentrated tart cherry juice, half a banana, 1/2 cup soymilk, and 5 crushed ice cubes.
Worst: Spicy Food
Not only will that Thai takeout leave your mouth on fire, it may cause nightmares, says Dr. Breus. "I've had patients who've said when they eat a spicy meal it affects their dreams at night." Backing up these claims is a study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, which found that subjects who ingested Tabasco sauce and mustard with their dinner had elevated body temperatures during their first sleep cycle, causing sleep disruption and more awake time at night.
Best: Warm Milk
Most of us were fed warm milk as babies and toddlers to help us fall asleep, but the science behind why the drink makes us sleepy is lacking, says Dr. Breus. "There's not enough tryptophan in a glass of warm milk — you'd have to drink a gallon and a half of it to feel any effect." It's likely that warm milk works as a placebo for inducing sleep because it's comforting. Hey, whatever works, right?
The effects of caffeine may be obvious, but what's not so obvious is that the stimulant stays active in our bodies for eight to ten hours. "The effects vary from person to person, but by the afternoon you should cut off the caffeine," says Omar. And that doesn't just mean that third cup of coffee after lunch. "That means chocolate too!" she says.
Melissa Romero is a Washingtonian magazine staff writer and editor of the blog Well + Being.
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, October 2012.
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The 10 Best and Worst Foods to Eat for Sleep
Ah, sleep. It's something we relentlessly crave, but we never seem to get enough of it. Aside from the daily stressors in life, there's one big thing that can keep you from snoozing — your diet. Here, the best and worst foods to eat for sleep.