What to eat and what to avoid for better sleep

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published March 13, 2020

Key Takeaways

Bedtime snacks may be a good thing, according to a study published in Nutrients, but navigating which ones will actually help—or hinder—your sleep is a trickier path than it may first appear to be. Whether it’s due to their high caffeine content or difficulties with digestion, some foods will not only interfere with your ability to drift off, but may even disrupt your sleep throughout the night.

Most people know that eating a big steak dinner, fried foods, or hot and spicy menu options too close to bedtime will interfere with their sleep. But here are five other foods that may also, surprisingly, cut into your beauty rest.

Foods to avoid before bed

Chocolate. Unfortunately, as delicious as chocolate is, it contains caffeine, which causes increased arousal and works to decrease your ability to fall into and sustain deeper sleep stages. In addition, chocolate—especially dark chocolate—also contains small amounts of theobromine, a bitter alkaloid found in the cacao plant. Theobromine can increase heart rate and cause sleeplessness.

White chocolate, however, contains little, if any, caffeine, and no theobromine, and may be a better choice before bedtime.

Dried fruit. The high-fiber, low-water content of dried fruit can cause digestive issues, including gas and cramping during the night. The culprit is sorbitol, a sweetener found in dried fruits, including raisins and prunes, which can cause stomach bloating and flatulence, especially when eaten in larger quantities. Steer clear!

Matcha or green teas. Unfortunately, green tea contains not only caffeine, but theobromine and theophylline, both of which can increase heart rate, cause feelings of nervousness, and increase overall anxiety. Believe it or not, matcha—a type of green tea—contains caffeine but causes less of the jitters than green tea. Because the health benefits of green tea are numerous, however, drink it with abandon during the day, but stop at around 3 or 4 p.m.

Chips. The sheer fat content of any chip should be a clear sign that you should stay away, especially before bedtime. A single serving (about 18 chips) of Lays Potato Chips, for example, contains 2 grams of fat. Because it takes so much work for your body to digest fats, eating chips before bed will almost guarantee that the next few hours will have you tossing and turning. As if that weren’t enough, researchers also found that eating greasy junk foods—like chips—can cause nightmares.

Oranges. Because of their high acid content, oranges can cause or exacerbate heartburn, especially if they are eaten on an empty stomach. Not only that, but the scent of oranges is energizing, and may keep you alert instead of relaxing you. Finally, citrus is a natural diuretic, and may cause you a few unwelcomed, sleep-interrupting trips to the bathroom during the night.

Foods that help you catch some zzz’s

On the flip side, certain foods and beverages can actually help you sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. They include the following:

Nuts. For a quick, pre-bedtime snack, nuts are a good option because they contain melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep. Not only are they heart-healthy, but sleep-healthy as well.

Cottage cheese. Because it’s high in lean protein, cottage cheese contains tryptophan, an amino acid known to increase serotonin levels. And, it’s even better if you plop some raspberries on top, because they’re rich in melatonin.

Fruits. In addition to raspberries, many fruits also contain melatonin, including tart cherries, bananas, pineapples, and oranges. The antioxidants in fruits such as berries, prunes, raisins, and plums may also energize you after a sleepless night. They can be helpful in counteracting the oxidative stress caused by some sleep disorders.

Whole grains. Surprisingly, popcorn, oatmeal, or whole-wheat crackers with some sort of nut butter are much better choices before bed than complex carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, or sugary, baked items, that only act to reduce your serotonin levels.

Warm milk and herbal teas. Of course, the soothing properties of warm beverages drank before bedtime should be mentioned as well. The traditional standard of warm milk still holds up today. Some researchers have shown an association between milk’s tryptophan and melatonin content and better sleep, but the psychological aspects of drinking warm milk at bedtime as a child shouldn’t be underestimated. In addition, caffeine-free herbal teas like chamomile, valerian, or passionflower can be just plain relaxing, especially if they are included in your nightly bedtime ritual.

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