What to Eat When You Can’t Sleep

Caffeine, dinner and late-night snacks all matter when you suffer from insomnia
Woman snacking on fruit at night

We live in a world of verbs. We eat and drink. We work. We play. We scroll. We run, read and riff about the latest news coming out of D.C. We love, listen and learn. Every moment of every day is about “doing.” These verbs – no matter which you engage in – form and define our lives.

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Yet, wellness expert Michael Roizen, MD, says we treat one of the most vital verbs of every 24-hour cycle – sleep – as a footnote, rather than the main text.

“Sleep has become a cultural sacrificial lamb,” Dr. Roizen says. “We’d rather work late than get enough ZZZs. We’d rather binge on Bravo. We’d rather stalk social media. Or maybe our bodies just cannot shut down, or health problems make it hard to fall or stay asleep.”

In any case, the reality is a harsh one, he says. “Our lack of sleep isn’t just a boon for the coffee shop industry. It’s slowly killing us,” Dr. Roizen says.

Why is sleep deprivation is such a big deal?

Dr. Roizen doesn’t take a lack of sleep lightly. In fact, he says people don’t put lack of sleep in the same category as cigarettes or obesity because fatigue is more of a behind-the-scenes health threat – one that has a steady, creeping effect on our bodies. But the risks associated with lack of sleep are big.

Here’s how it works: While you’re sleeping, your body and brain cycle through various stages – ranging from light sleep to deep sleep. You go through that cycle several times a night. It sure feels like nothing is going on – after all, you’re not aware of anything, except maybe that wacky dream about a tornado, a marching band and your seventh-grade math teacher. That’s maybe one of the reasons people don’t give sleep as much attention as they should: They don’t feel anything the way they “feel” exercise or a change in eating habits. So it’s easy to think that sleep is, well, just a whole lot of nothing.

But that’s not the case. When you’re closed for business, your body’s cells start their work. “Think of the inside of your body as a big factory of shift workers,” Dr. Roizen says. “Cells clock in when you shut down. All day long, your body – at work, during exercise, while you’re going about your day – has been put through a series of cellular stresses.” For example, when you use your muscles, they can experience little microscopic tears. That same kind of stress happens all over your body in all kinds of organs, tissues and systems throughout the day.

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To maintain itself and recover from these cellular insults, your body needs a repair crew. Enter your shift workers. While you’re sleeping, they’re repairing your muscles, growing and strengthening neurons in your brain, fortifying your body’s damaged cells, he explains. These cells cannot do their jobs optimally unless your body is shut down and in deep sleep.

So you can imagine what happens if you don’t give these cellular fixers enough time to work. Your body never gets fully repaired, making you weaker, more susceptible to further insults, and a lot less healthy. In practical terms, Dr. Roizen says, that means lack of sleep can contribute to immune problems, memory issues, higher stress levels and even obesity. Because your brain never fully rids of its waste products (the “poop” from your brain cells is removed at night, and is done more efficiently the longer you sleep), you can develop inflammation in your memory centers as well.

How sleep deprivation causes inflammation in your body

Yes, perhaps one of the greatest effects of lack is sleep is a high inflammatory response, which is your body’s way of fighting problems. When this response is at high levels all the time because it never shuts down, Dr. Roizen says that leads to a sort of friendly fire within the body: Your attacking immune cells begin to damage the healthy ones (and not just in your brain) putting you at an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and arthritis. (Heck, research has even shown that lack of sleep even increases hostility in relationships; the fallout can trigger higher stress, which has damaging effects on overall health).

“These bodily damages work in various ways,” Dr. Roizen says. “But if you think about your body’s function as a massive game of dominoes, you can see how it plays out. When you don’t get enough sleep, you feel fatigued. When you feel fatigued, your body wants to raise energy levels, so it reaches for the fastest solution: sugar. When you reach for sugar, you gobble up stacks of cookies. And when you do that day after day after day, you gain a lot of weight.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you say. You’ve heard it all before. Get more sleep. Sleep eight hours. Easier said than done, especially if you have a complex cocktail of problems that make is difficult to sleep (pain, hormonal issues, obesity, urge to urinate, and so many other things can disrupt sleep cycles). Like many other health issues, Dr. Roizen emphasizes that sleep is one in which you may need to consider lifestyle and medical tactics to determine what will work best for you.

But you can also use food and nutrients to ease into some possible solutions to help change your verbs from “tossing and turning” to “sweet dreaming.” (As long as that sweet dreaming doesn’t actually include sweets!)

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What to eat (and not eat)

MVPs: No magic sleep-inducing piece of fruit or secret ingredient will induce drowsiness (though, as you’ll see in the following, some are better than others). But Dr. Roizen says setting yourself up with a good last meal of the day can help prepare your body for sleep. Research shows that having meals high in fiber and low in foods with saturated fat and simple carbs (sugar) should help. So that’s why a dish like beans, grilled fish or chicken, and a large side of vegetables is the best meal choice to help your body prepare to shut down (and as we’ve learned, the earlier you eat it, the better).

One recent study in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that this kind of meal was associated with people falling asleep faster – in less than 20 minutes, in fact. When subjects consumed more saturated fats and sugar, the process took closer to 30 minutes. If you have the choice (and you do!), make your protein fish, which, when eaten regularly, has been linked to helping prevent poor sleep.

Key Players: The two nutrients most associated with better sleep are magnesium and tryptophan. You’ve heard of tryptophan; it’s all over the headlines in late November as the reason why you want to zonk out after eating a big plate of Thanksgiving turkey. Although tryptophan may not actually make you tired after a big holiday meal, the food that contain it, or magnesium, are certain good options if you’re trying to improve your sleep quality. Tryptophan is an amino acid that converts to the body clock – regulating hormone and melatonin. Foods that contain it include egg whites, soybeans, chicken and pumpkin seeds. And when you choose your vegetables for dinner, consider a leafy green like spinach that contain magnesium.

Cut From the Team: Feeling cravings at night? Don’t be tempted by a midnight snack. Research on circadian rhythm and eating cycles reveals that midnight is actually the worst time to eat – even if you think you just need a little something to make yourself more comfortable. Instead, have a fiber-rich dessert before the sun sets – for example, a big bowl of berries or a pear. The fiber will slow things down so you feel full longer – and thus less likely to crave something later at night.

The Sub Shop: Snooze Foods

This article was adapted from the best-selling book “What to Eat When” by Michael F. Roizen, MD, and Micheal Crupain, MD, MPH with Ted Spiker (©2018 National Geographic Books)

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