Everyone knows that drinking coffee after a certain hour can keep you up past bedtime, but the connection between what we ingest and how we sleep goes a lot deeper than an after-dinner cup of joe; various excesses and deficiencies in the diet can have a surprising effect on sleep quality. If you struggle with insomnia, striving for the right balance of these foods, drinks, and specific nutrients may help you get a good night’s rest. Here’s a look at some of the top dietary sleep disruptors.
1. Too Much Sugar: Did your parents ever tell you that if you ate sweets to close to bedtime you’d never get to sleep? They may have been on to something. Though sugar won’t make you hyper as people often claim, it can interfere with your rest. Frequent consumption of energy drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages has been associated with poor sleep quality. Research reveals that a diet generally high in carbohydrates — especially simple sugars — often results in increased nighttime wakefulness. To boost your chances of waking up refreshed, moderate your sugar intake throughout the day, opting instead for a balance of complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats.
2. Too Much Alcohol: Beer, wine, and cocktails can make us feel so relaxed and sleepy. Aren’t they a friend to our nighttime rest? Not necessarily. Too much alcohol can actually keep us awake. Consumption of three or more alcoholic drinks before bed promotes sleep disturbance within just three days. Experts recommend people with trouble sleeping exercise caution when it comes to the amount of alcohol they imbibe, especially in the evening.
3. Too Little Vitamin D: Did you know the “sunshine vitamin” you soak up during the day can also help you at night? Authors of a new study in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience set out to test the theory that robust levels of vitamin D could improve sleep quality — and their research proved them right. When study subjects with sleep disorders took high-dose supplements of the vitamin, they fell asleep faster, slept longer, and had improved sleep quality overall. Many Americans are chronically deficient in vitamin D, and the only way to know for sure if your levels are low is to get a blood test. If one reveals you need more, foods rich in vitamin D like milk, cheese, egg yolks, and fatty fish can help — or talk to your doctor about incorporating supplements.
4. Too Much Caffeine: True, coffee can keep you wired and jittery at bedtime, but it’s not so much the coffee itself as the caffeine it contains. Hard evidence backs up this common knowledge: A 2017 systematic review confirmed a host of caffeine’s ill effects on sleep, from reduced slow-wave sleep, to difficulty falling asleep, to decreased total sleep time. Cutting out coffee and espresso drinks close to bedtime is an obvious solution, but you may also want to take a closer look at your diet to uncover unexpected sources of caffeine. Soda, chocolate, and even chocolate-flavored foods like ice creams and cereals could contain enough to keep you up at night.
5. Too Much Water — or Too Little: While drinking too much coffee before bed can keep you up at night, so can drinking too much water. (Haven’t we all experienced the sleep-disrupting effects of a full bladder?) But too little hydration may also have a negative effect on your rest. While some research indicates that mild dehydration shouldn’t pose a threat to sleep quality, the National Sleep Foundation states that even a moderate lack of fluids can cause problems. Parched airways make you more likely to snore, and dehydration-induced leg cramps are a painful cause of nighttime waking. To find the right hydration balance, try to drink non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic beverages throughout the day, but don’t overdo water intake in the hours leading up to bedtime.
6. Too Little Magnesium: Of all the nutrients we keep track of in our foods, magnesium doesn’t generally rank very high… but perhaps it should. Among its many functions in the body, this dietary mineral promotes healthy digestion, helps maintain blood sugar levels, and can improve the body’s performance on various measures of insomnia. Foods like legumes, spinach and other leafy greens, and salmon are just a few options to boost your magnesium levels and promote better sleep.
7. Too Much Spicy Food: Notice a recurring trend of poor sleep after Taco Tuesday? Spicy foods are notorious for causing sleep troubles. In some people, this may be because these foods promote indigestion or aggravate acid reflux. But even if tummy troubles aren’t your issue, spicy foods could pose another hindrance to rest. In an effort to explore the connection between spicy food and sleep disruption, researchers in one study had subjects eat Tabasco sauce and mustard with their evening meal, then monitored their nighttime sleep. Not surprisingly, it took subjects longer than usual to fall to sleep, and they experienced increased total wake time. The study authors concluded that this was because capsaicin — a chemical compound in many spicy foods — raised body temperature in the first stage of sleep.
If you’re struggling to get a good night’s rest, try keeping a food and drink journal to identify recurring patterns. You may find your diet has more to do with your sleep than you ever dreamed.