A good night’s sleep is essential for maintaining short- and long-term health. If you’re like most caregivers, worry and stress often keep you up at night. You’ve probably searched high and low for information on techniques to help you cope with the anxiety of managing a loved one’s care, but exercise, mindfulness, supplements and counting sheep aren’t the only options for helping you fall and stay asleep. What you eat and drink in the hours before bed can also play a significant role in improving or undermining your sleep quality. Knowing what, when, and how much to eat and drink can increase your chances for a sound snooze.

Keep these six things in mind when having snacks, meals or drinks in the late afternoon and evening hours:

  1. Keep your beverages virgin and decaf. If you want some quality rest, stay away from alcohol and caffeine in the hours leading up to 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 spent in the REM (rapid-eye movement) stage, and then by causing wakefulness after the alcohol has been metabolized.
    On the opposite end of the spectrum is caffeine, America’s favorite pick-me-up. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, it can take anywhere from eight to 14 hours for the effects of caffeine to fully wear off, depending on one’s level of tolerance. That’s why it’s a good idea to lay off common sources of caffeine, including coffee, tea and chocolate, at least a few hours before you want to go to bed. Everyone’s sensitivity and intake are different but setting a caffeine cut-off time in the afternoons can help you avoid being wired all night.
  2. Use your diet to master melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain that plays a big role in regulating sleep cycles. Changes in exposure to light mediate melatonin production. For example, when daylight fades, your body begins to churn out more of this sleep-inducing chemical. Melatonin is also available in supplement form and is a popular alternative to prescription sleep aids. Unfortunately for caregivers, melatonin production usually decreases with age.
    Cherries are one of the few natural food sources of this hormone, and studies conducted by scientists at the University of Rochester and the University of Pennsylvania indicate that consuming tart cherry juice can facilitate sleep in some people. But chugging cherry juice isn’t the only way to naturally boost your melatonin production. Certain snacks, including bananas, some fish (salmon, tuna and cod), pistachios, peanut butter, chickpeas and fortified cereals contain significant amounts of vitamin B6, which is a key component in melatonin production.
  3. Don’t overindulge. The Mayo Clinic advises hungry insomniacs to keep dinners reasonably sized and midnight snacks small and low in fat. A big meal can make you feel bloated and may cause painful heartburn. A small bowl of cereal with milk, or a piece of toast with peanut butter and slices of banana will generally be enough to fight off hunger pangs so you can get some shut-eye.
  4. Nutritional deficiencies may lead to a sleep deficit. A rumbling tummy and certain vitamin deficiencies can contribute to insomnia. Research has shown that maintaining a healthy level of vitamin D is essential for sound slumber. Less time spent outside means that many people are deficient in this vitamin, which is produced when one’s skin is exposed to sunlight. To boost your vitamin D levels, aim for a nighttime snack that includes fortified cereals, dairy products, orange juice or eggs.
  5. Don’t shy away from carbohydrates. Bread lovers rejoice! Carbs are a key component of sleep-inducing snacks. Consuming carbohydrates makes it easier for tryptophan (an essential amino acid found in a variety of foods like eggs, cheese, oatmeal, potatoes, bananas and poultry) to enter the brain. Once in the brain, tryptophan is converted into serotonin and melatonin, two hormones that promote relaxation and drowsiness. When crafting a bedtime snack, it’s best to stick with complex carbs, such as fruit, oats, whole grain cereals and breads, and veggies to help tryptophan work its magic.
  6. Minimize fluid intake. Unwanted trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night can seriously fragment sleep. To minimize this occurrence, known as nocturia, the Mayo Clinic recommends limiting your fluid intake in the hours before you hit the hay. If you’re trying to drink a certain amount of water daily to stay hydrated, be sure to space out your servings instead of trying to play catchup at night. Lastly, yet another reason for restricting caffeine later in the day is that it can irritate the bladder and act as a mild diuretic, contributing to increased urination.

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