Best and Worst Foods for Sleep

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What to eat before bed

Nothing is more annoying than not being able to fall asleep at night. Unfortunately, that's a problem that plenty of people — particularly seniors — are all too familiar with. According to the National Institute on Aging, insomnia is the most common sleep problem in adults aged 60 and up. And not getting enough sleep can cause memory problems, mood troubles, and an increased risk for accidents or falls.

Although the research is a bit spotty when it comes to which foods help or harm sleep, anecdotal evidence does suggest that certain items consumed right before bedtime are more likely to be "sleep promoters" while others may be "sleep stealers," says Russell Rosenberg, PhD, the chairman on the board of directors at the National Sleep Foundation. Here's a list of potential good guys and bad guys when it comes to getting some shut-eye.

Cherries

Best: Cherries are one of the few natural foods to contain melatonin, the chemical that helps control our body's internal clock, says Keri Gans, a registered dietician in New York City and author of The Small Change Diet. Researchers are still investigating whether melatonin is effective for insomnia, but according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, studies suggest that it's helpful in reducing the time it takes to fall asleep. So why not have a few cherries, tart or otherwise, to promote sleep?

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Bacon cheeseburger

Worst: The stratospheric fat content of this particular fast food is guaranteed to be a sleep killer. Fat stimulates the production of acid in the stomach, which can spill up into your esophagus, causing heartburn. Fatty foods can also loosen the lower esophageal sphincter, the barrier between the stomach and the esophagus, making it even easier for acid to get in all the wrong places. In fact, there's almost nothing to recommend this kind of high-fat, salt-laden indulgence if you want to preserve your health, including the quality of your sleep.

Milk

Best: You may have fond memories of your mother or grandmother making you a glass of warm milk to help you fall asleep. This may not be just an old wives' tale. Milk contains the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the brain chemical serotonin.

Although the topic is a controversial one, some people believe that tryptophan and serotonin might make it easier to sleep. Or maybe a simple glass of milk brings back soothing childhood memories, which help you drift off.

Wine

Worst: Alcohol of any kind is "terrible" for sleep, says Rosenberg. Why? It metabolizes quickly in your system and causes you to wake up multiple times during the night. If you don't refrain from alcohol for your own benefit, do it for your mate. "Alcohol makes snoring worse, so it will impact you and your potential bed partner," said Rosenberg.

Jasmine rice

Best: Jasmine rice ranks high on the glycemic index, meaning the body digests it slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the bloodstream.

Coffee

Worst: Coffee contains caffeine, which is a central nervous stimulant. Translation: Drinking java too close to bedtime will keep you up at night. Of course, people differ in their sensitivity to caffeine and that's usually based on how much caffeine you're accustomed to consuming, says Timothy Roehrs, PhD, the director of research at the Sleep Disorders and Research Center of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. If you don't know your tolerance, skip the java, especially late in the day.

Fortified cereal

Best: Carbs in general are good for sleep but it's not a great idea to binge on a box of cookies before bedtime (or anytime). Instead, try a bowl of shredded wheat, which contains "good" or complex carbs. Even better, cereal goes well with milk which has its own sleep-promoting qualities. "That's two for the price of one," Rosenberg says. Other complex carbs are quinoa, barley, and buckwheat.

Chocolate

Worst: Chocolate contains not only calories, but caffeine, too. A 1.6-ounce Hershey's milk chocolate bar, for instance, contains about 9 milligrams. Chocolate also contains theobromine, another stimulant that can increase heart rate and sleeplessness.

Bananas

Best: Bananas help promote sleep because they contain the natural muscle-relaxants magnesium and potassium, says Gans. They're also carbs which will help make you sleepy as well. In fact, bananas are a win-win situation in general. "They're overall health promoters," says Rosenberg. "We need potassium for cardiovascular health and cognitive functioning."

Energy drinks

Worst: Yup, the culprit here again is caffeine, and it's present in spades. An 8-ounce Red Bull energy drink contains about 80 milligrams of caffeine or equivalent to a one-ounce Starbucks espresso. Five-Hour Energy has about 200 milligrams of caffeine into just two ounces, which means you might as well be imbibing 16 ounces of regular coffee. With this much caffeine, you might do well to avoid energy drinks even earlier in the day. "In some people caffeine can take up to eight hours to wear off," says Gans.

Turkey

Best: Like milk, turkey contains tryptophan, a chemical that can make people doze off in front of the TV after Thanksgiving dinner. But if you're a die-hard insomniac, a meal's worth of turkey (or a glass of milk) isn't likely to help you. "You'd have to drink a lot of milk or turkey to have a major effect," says Rosenberg. "[But] if you need a little bit of a push in the right direction [it might help]."

Soda

Worst: A 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew contains 91 milligrams of caffeine — and other sodas aren't much better. Also, typical soda drinks like Pepsi and Coke contain citrus as well as sodium benzoate and other chemicals which can aggravate the gastrointestinal tract and promote acid reflux—not a recipe for a good night's sleep.

Sweet potato

Best: Sweet potatoes are a sleeper's dream. Not only do they provide sleep-promoting complex carbohydrates, they also contain that muscle-relaxant potassium. Other good sources of potassium include regular potatoes (baked and keep the skin on), lima beans, and papaya.

Indian curry

Worst: It's not Indian food per se, but rather, the heavy spices, which can keep you awake at night and cause heartburn. So definitely don't do spicy and high-fat in the same late-day meal. It's a potential sleep-wrecking recipe.

Valerian tea

Best: The root of the valerian plant has been shown in some studies to speed the onset of sleep and improve sleep quality. Some people hold that valerian tea along with motherwort, chamomile, and catnip brews, none of which contain caffeine, will help make you drowsy. It may not be any property of the actual tea however, but the power of the relaxing ritual as you get ready for bed, says Roehrs.

Chicken

Worst: Chicken or too much of any type of protein is going to be counterproductive if consumed at night. "Digestion is supposed to slow by about 50% while you're sleeping but if you eat a lot of protein, you digest [even] more slowly," explains Rosenberg. Instead of focusing on sleeping, your body is focusing on digesting. Adding a carbohydrate to the protein can tip the balance back towards sleep.

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