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Foods to Avoid Before Bed

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U.S. News & World Report

Avoid These Foods Before Bed to Rest Easier

This article is based on reporting that features expert sources including Yasi Ansari, MS, RD, CSSD; Jessica Clifford, RDN; Marie St-Onge, PhD

Sleep deprived

More than a third of adults in the U.S. aren’t getting enough sleep, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and another study on working Americans published online in the Journal of Community Health in September.

But you probably didn’t need a study to tell you that you’re sleep deprived. That research is also finding that the problem is getting worse – the effects of which have implications for everything from work performance to safety on the road. Lack of sleep can even increase risk for diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Lots of factors – from stress to whether you’re physically active – can impact sleep quality. So can what we eat. “The foods we eat can affect the quality and duration of our sleep,” says Yasi Ansari, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based in Los Angeles.

Bite of pizza slice satisfying young woman

First, watch how much and when you eat.

Before you lay your head on the pillow, it’s important to think about how much you’re eating, as well as when. Experts say it’s optimal to space several smaller meals and snacks across the day rather than getting most of your calories later in the day and having a large meal at night before bed. That kind of heavier meal can slow digestion, leaving lots of gastrointestinal work to be done while you’re trying to doze off.

“I encourage clients to be mindful when it comes to portion sizes before bed,” Ansari says. “It is difficult to sleep and stay asleep if you are feeling uncomfortably full. Consistent eating patterns are important for a good night’s rest. For example, if we’re skipping meals during the first half of the day and coming home to feast closer to bedtime, that is going to affect our sleep quality.”

With that in mind, here are some foods – and drinks – to avoid, or at least have less of before bed.

Sleep deprived

More than a third of adults in the U.S. aren’t getting enough sleep, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and another study on working Americans published online in the Journal of Community Health in September.

But you probably didn’t need a study to tell you that you’re sleep deprived. That research is also finding that the problem is getting worse – the effects of which have implications for everything from work performance to safety on the road. Lack of sleep can even increase risk for diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Lots of factors – from stress to whether you’re physically active – can impact sleep quality. So can what we eat. “The foods we eat can affect the quality and duration of our sleep,” says Yasi Ansari, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based in Los Angeles.

First, watch how much and when you eat.

Before you lay your head on the pillow, it’s important to think about how much you’re eating, as well as when. Experts say it’s optimal to space several smaller meals and snacks across the day rather than getting most of your calories later in the day and having a large meal at night before bed. That kind of heavier meal can slow digestion, leaving lots of gastrointestinal work to be done while you’re trying to doze off.

“I encourage clients to be mindful when it comes to portion sizes before bed,” Ansari says. “It is difficult to sleep and stay asleep if you are feeling uncomfortably full. Consistent eating patterns are important for a good night’s rest. For example, if we’re skipping meals during the first half of the day and coming home to feast closer to bedtime, that is going to affect our sleep quality.”

With that in mind, here are some foods – and drinks – to avoid, or at least have less of before bed.

Spicy foods – and anything else that gives you acid reflux

Spicy foods like chili may contribute to heartburn. “If someone experiences acid reflux from spicy foods and lies down right after eating spicy foods, the acids from the stomach can flow back into the esophagus more easily, causing a burning sensation in the chest, which may disturb sleep,” says Jessica Clifford, a registered dietitian nutritionist and research associate in the department of food science and human nutrition at Colorado State University.

Foods that can contribute to acid reflux include:

  • Foods that turn up the heat, like spicy red peppers and hot salsa.
  • Fatty and greasy foods – think bacon, certain cheeses and fried chicken.
  • Citrus fruits.
  • Tomatoes.

In general, it’s best not to tax your digestive tract in that way when you’re wanting to calm your body in preparation for drifting off to dreamland.

Alcohol

Forget the nightcap. Consuming alcohol may help some people drift off faster. But apart from other health considerations, it’s no sleep aid.

That’s because it can negatively affect the quality of sleep. It disturbs the most restorative stage of sleep (called REM sleep), causing a person to feel groggier and less rested in the morning, Clifford notes.

A reason for the restless nights is that alcohol increases the chemical adenosine, Ansari explains. While that helps to induce sleep initially, once the level of the chemical lessens in the body, you’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night.

Caffeine – in all its forms

Caffeine isn’t limited to just coffee. You should also watch your consumption of chocolate – and anything chocolate flavored, from pudding and ice cream to cereal (if you like a bowl before bed). Avoid especially dark chocolate. While a powerful source of antioxidants, the darker it is, the more caffeine dark chocolate has, Ansari notes. Other sources of caffeine include soda – even if it isn’t cola – matcha (derived from green tea), some pain relievers and energy drinks.

While there’s no exact cutoff time for avoiding certain foods and drinks before bed, Ansari says the general recommendations are to limit caffeine intake beginning about six to seven hours before bedtime. She notes for those who have caffeine regularly, it’s OK to experiment with having it later. Just monitor when it affects sleep and make adjustments accordingly.

Burger and fries – and other fatty foods

Foods that are high in fat, especially saturated fat, take longer to digest, and that may affect sleep for some, Clifford says.

Consuming more fat and having less fiber is associated with less deep, restorative sleep, adds Marie St-Onge, an associate professor of nutritional medicine and director of the Sleep Center of Excellence at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City, who has studied the impact of diet on sleep quality.

So eating a burger and fries at night before bed is not the best idea, Ansari says. A better alternative if you’re craving that combo, she suggests, would be to have the fries earlier in the day and choose lean cuts of meat without spicy sauces for dinner.

Sugar

Having dessert, sweetened beverages or anything else that’s infused with sugar could impact the quality of your sleep. Research led by St-Onge, published in the journal Advances in Nutrition, found sugar consumption to be associated with more arousals, or micro-awakenings, at night. While some occasional sleep disturbances over the course of the night are normal, having lots of sugar around bedtime not only may keep us up, but it can also lead to waking up more often, making for a less restful night.

More research is still needed to understand how sugar may affect sleep. How much is OK and when to have it so as not to disturb sleep is unclear, just as the effects of different foods vary by the individual. Still, experts note that it certainly couldn’t hurt to cut back on the sweet stuff, just as you would unhealthy types of fat. Like consuming less saturated fat, it may be good to limit sugar, if not for better sleep, for better overall health, St-Onge says.

Fluids in moderation

Just as you shouldn’t overeat before bed, the same applies to drinking. Of course, you shouldn’t head to bed parched with thirst, but neither do you want to down a huge glass of fluid right before you sleep.

“We know that being adequately hydrated helps you fall asleep and maintain restful sleep. However, timing is important,” Ansari says. “You don’t want to be drinking a full day’s worth of fluids right before bed as this can increase visits to the bathroom during the night. Instead, drink plenty of water, unsweetened and non-caffeinated beverages throughout the day.”

For a deep sleep, here’s what to avoid eating and drinking before bed.

  • Big meals.
  • Spicy foods – and other things that cause heartburn.
  • Alcohol.
  • Caffeine – in all its forms.
  • Burger and fries – and other fatty foods.
  • Sugar.
  • Lots of fluids.
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