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Eat, Drink and Be Sleepy: Diet Strategies For a Sounder Snooze

A good night's sleep is not just an extravagance—it's essential for maintaining short and long-term health.

If worry and stress are keeping you up at night, you've probably searched high and low for information on relaxation and meditation techniques to help you cope with the anxiety of caregiving.

But counting sheep isn't the only way to get yourself to sleep—what you eat right before you go to bed can also play a role. While no particular foods are known to induce sleep; knowing what, when, and how much to eat and drink can up your chances for a sound snooze.

Here are six things to keep in mind when preparing midnight munchies:

  1. Keep your pre-bedtime beverages virgin and decaf: If you want a solid stint of shut-eye, stay away from alcohol and caffeine in the hours preceding your bedtime. It's true that alcohol, which is a depressant, can help you fall asleep, but it won't help you stay that way. Multiple studies have shown that alcohol can wreak havoc on a person's sleep cycles—first by reducing the amount of time they spend in the REM (rapid-eye movement) stage, and then by causing them to awaken multiple times throughout the night. On the opposite end of the spectrum lies caffeine—the everywoman's go-to stimulant. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, it can take anywhere from 8 to 14 hours for the effects of caffeine to fully wear off, depending on how acclimated you are to it. That's why it's a good idea to lay off of common sources of caffeine, including: coffee, tea and chocolate, at least a few hours before you want to go to bed.
  2. Use your diet to master melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain that plays a big role in regulating sleep cycles. Light is the ultimate arbiter of melatonin production. When daylight fades, your body begins to churn out more of the sleep-inducing chemical. It is also available in supplement form and is a popular alternative to prescription sleep aids. As a person ages, they generally become less capable of producing melatonin. Cherries are one of the few foods that can lay claim to being a natural source of melatonin and studies done by scientists from the University of Rochester and the University of Pennsylvania have indicated that consuming tart cherry juice can facilitate sleep in certain people. But chugging cherry juice isn't the only way to naturally up your melatonin production. Certain snacks, including: bananas, some fish (salmon, tuna and cod), pistachios, peanut butter, chickpeas and fortified cereals contain significant amounts of the vitamin B6—a key component for making melatonin.
  3. Smaller is better: The Mayo Clinic advises hungry insomniacs to keep their midnight meals miniscule and low-fat. A big meal can make you feel bloated and may cause painful heartburn. A small bowl of cereal with milk, or a banana with a bit of peanut butter will generally be enough to fight off hunger pangs so you can get some shut-eye.
  4. Insufficient nutrients can equal insufficient sleep: A rumbling tummy and certain vitamin deficiencies can contribute to insomnia. Research has shown that maintaining a healthy level of vitamin D in particular is essential for sound slumber. Aim for a nighttime snack that includes: fortified cereals and dairy products, and eggs.
  5. Carbo-loading isn't just for marathoners: Bread lovers rejoice—carbs are a key component of sleep-inducing snacks. Consuming carbohydrates makes it easier for your brain to pick up and convert tryptophan (an essential amino acid found in a variety of different foods, including: eggs, cheese, oatmeal, potatoes, bananas and poultry) into serotonin and melatonin, two hormones that make you more relaxed and drowsy. When creating your bedtime snack, it's probably best to stick with complex carbs, such as: fruits, oats, whole grain cereals and breads, and veggies.
  6. Liquidate your pre-bedtime fluids: In order to prevent unwanted trips to the bathroom at one o' clock in the morning, the Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding drinking too much in the hour or so right before you go to bed.
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