The Best Foods to Help You Sleep (and Others to Avoid)

Ever wonder why some nights you can’t make it 10 minutes into your latest Netflix obsession without falling asleep, while other nights, you fall down a rabbit hole of cute puppy pictures at 2 a.m? (We’ve all been there.) Sure, there are a number of psychological conditions associated with sleep disruption, but it could also be linked to what you eat. Before we dive into the unsettling truth on how your diet impacts your sleep, let’s tackle some of the most common assumptions about sleepy-time food.

1. Do I need to eat Thanksgiving-level amounts of turkey to get better rest?
It’s reasonable to assume that passing out after your favorite large meal is linked to the generous portion of overcooked meat you just inhaled, but research suggests this might not be the case. We’ve all heard about tryptophan—the magical amino acid found in abundance in so-called sleep-aids like turkey. Tryptophan is known to increase the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin, which in turn is converted into sleepy-time hormone melatonin.

A variety of studies have found that tryptophan supplementation may help improve sleep at doses as low as 1 gram, while 2.5 grams may help improve obstructive sleep apnea. So turkey dinner = naptime, yes? Well, not so fast.

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A typical 3-ounce serving of turkey only contains 250-310 milligrams of the stuff, which is a far cry from the 1-gram standard to show a significant effect. It also appears that when tryptophan is present with other competing amino acids in protein-rich foods (yes, like turkey), it tends to get overridden, and very little of it actually gets to the brain. The bigger coma culprit? That carb-laden marshmallow topped casserole, mashed potatoes, rolls, and pie—all of which elicit an insulin response that helps our friend tryptophan do its job. Sorry, turkey, you’re no longer the star of our Thanksgiving slumber dreams.

2. Does a nightly tea ritual help induce a deep slumber?
There’s something inherently calming about sipping on a warm cup of tea in bed, but research is inconclusive about its clinical effects. While one small study found chamomile tea helped women improve their sleep quality, another found no difference between drinkers and non-drinkers. Similarly, Valerian root tea has been used as a natural insomnia remedy for centuries, but a review of the literature suggests the research has been riddled with inconsistency, inconclusiveness, and poor methodology.

What about the lavender your grandmother swore by? Again, the research is spotty at best. While two studies found the herbs to provide modest improvements in nervousness and relaxation, after four weeks it seems they had little impact. We say grab a cup for the soothing, cozy factor and douse your pillow in a lavender spray if that seems to help you, but don’t bank on that every night to knock you out.

3. Should I take a cue from a newborn and sip warm milk before bed?
While a glass of warm milk may be emotionally comforting, like the turkey situation, it’s physiological role in sleep is likely just not strong enough to make an impact. Milk has even less of that sleep-inducing tryptophan than turkey, just about 100 mg per cup. It’s also rich in protein which may, again, decrease the amino acid’s effectiveness at inducing sleep. Still, people have been downing (and swearing by) the dairy drink for years, so do what works for you.

4. Should I forgo the chocolate and cheese after dinner to avoid disruptive dreams?
Research has found that when asked, people cited dairy products and chocolate as the most common causes of vivid, bizarre, and disturbing dreams, but these findings were based on perceptions, not actual causation. Sure, if you find that certain foods disrupt your slumber, maybe indulge a little earlier in the day, but there’s little evidence to suggest they actually have an effect. Chocolate does contain small amounts of caffeine but not likely enough to keep you tossing and turning.

Best Foods for Sleep
OK, so if turkey and milk aren’t surefire solutions, what the heck can you eat to lull yourself into a sweet slumber? Here’s what you need to know about the best foods for sleep.

Tart Cherries
Strange as it sounds, drink some tart cherry juice before bed. Tart cherries contain significant amounts of anti-inflammatory substances and melatonin. One pilot study found that drinking tart cherry juice may improve the sleep in insomniacs, while another study found that they could even benefit already good sleepers (you lucky dogs, you). If you’re looking to indulge, opt for a juice without any added sugar like the options from R.W. Knudsen, Stoneridge Orchards, or Eden Organic.

Jasmine Rice
While most nutrition recommendations urge you to cut back on the high-glycemic index (GI) carbs, restless nights may warrant a legit exception. White rice, like jasmine, is higher on the GI scale, triggering a release of insulin which drives the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan into the brain. One study found that consuming jasmine rice within four hours of bedtime helped significantly improve sleep quality for participants. Make sure you’re enjoying your rice with a source of protein and without too much soy sauce or other sodium-laden condiments to prevent you from chugging down water before bed and getting up to pee all night long. Sushi date, anyone?

Kiwi
Packed with vitamins C, E, folate, and the happy-happy brain chemical, serotonin, kiwis are a surprisingly powerful bedtime fruit. One study found that four weeks of eating kiwi two times per day improved the sleep onset, duration, and efficiency of adults with sleep disturbances. If you’re more a fan of sweet than sour, try switching the classic greens with the Sungold variety, which have a flavor somewhere between a mango and strawberry.

PistachiosKnown as the nut with the most melatonin for sleepers struggling with an anxious mind, a modest ounce of pistachios also contains about 10 percent of your daily magnesium needs to help ease any physical tension too. One study found that supplementing with the natural muscle relaxant, magnesium, improved the sleep time, efficiency, and levels of melatonin in elderly participants. We love the No Salt Wonderful Pistachios flavor for a low-sodium mindful bedtime snack.

Salmon
It wouldn’t be a nutrition article if we weren’t singing the praises of omega-3s somewhere. As if you need another reason to up your fish game, research suggests it may help your bedtime routine too. One study found that taking an omega-3 supplement helped children get an extra hour of sleep each night. Not sure where to start? We love all of these seven simple salmon recipes you can’t screw up.
Tofu
Vegans know how to get a good night’s sleep. As the richest source of the plant-derived compounds isoflavones, tofu makes for some serious bedtime eats. One cross-sectional Japanese study found that people with higher intakes of isoflavones tended to report longer and better sleep. For an easier-to-digest vegan meal, opt for a sprouted tofu product like the one from Sol Cuisine or Trader Joe’s.

Worst Foods for Sleep
While you would likely need to eat a fair bit of the aforementioned foods to see a marked improvement in your sleep, the opposite might be true for these sleep inhibitors. In fact, depending on your sensitivity to certain foods, it’s not uncommon for even small amounts consumed too close to bedtime can throw a wrench into your nighttime routine. Consume these with some caution.

Coffee
OK, so this is a bit of an obvious one, but it still likely warrants a reminder. A standard cup of coffee contains about 100 milligrams of the stimulant caffeine, which research suggests has a dose-dependent impact on sleep. Think you’re in the clear with post-dinner decaf or tea? Maybe not (?!). Depending on your tolerance levels and how much you drink, a cup of decaf can pack around 15 milligrams of caffeine, and a black tea has about 50 milligrams per cup. While everyone’s experience is different, try limiting your cup of joe to before noon and to keep your intake to no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine each day.

Porterhouse Steak
TBH, there are a lot of sleep roadblocks going on here. One is the portion size. We all know that lying down after wolfing down a big meal never feels great, as our digestive tract struggles with the load. Two, we’ve got a heck of a lot of fat to deal with in a steakhouse meal. Fat is tough on our digestive system and stimulates heartburn-inducing acid to help break things down. There’s also research linking saturated fat, the type found in well-marbled beef, with lower-quality sleep. Yikes. And three, talk about a massive dose of protein. Our bodies are really only able to utilize about 30-40 grams of protein per meal so there’s no need to eat a 16-ounce piece of meat with more than 100 grams in one sitting. Research suggests that a protein-heavy meal can actually reduce the availability of tryptophan in the brain for conversion into the relaxing hormone serotonin. We suggest sticking to modest 3-4 oz servings of meat and choosing leaner cuts like tenderloin and sirloin whenever possible.

Candy Crush
We know straight-up sugar isn’t great for us in general, but more and more research suggests that it can also impact our sleep. Early research has found that consuming super high-sugar, low-fiber foods (like candy) shortly before bed may be associated with lighter, less-restorative sleep with more evening arousals (and no, not the sexy ones). And this really isn’t surprising. Sugar spikes our blood sugar, giving us a massive jolt of energy while sending us crashing down shortly later and desperate for a snack mid-sleep. If you need your bedtime candy fix, we love innovative gummies Smart Sweets, which rock an impressive 24 grams of fiber and only 2 grams of sugar per bag (no artificial sweeteners either). Side note, you should also stop playing Candy Crush before bed too.

Chili Peppers
Go ahead and spice things up in the bedroom but keep the heat out of your food. Early research has found that spicy foods consumed with dinner markedly increased participants’ total wake time and the time it took to fall asleep. Spicy foods like chili peppers contain the heat-inducing compound capsaicin, which can irritate your digestive tract and promote acid reflux and sleep-impairing indigestion. It’s also speculated that chili peppers may slightly increase body temperature, which may also play a role in poor shut-eye.

Pepperoni Pizza
You might want to re-think your 3 a.m. post-bar snack if you’re hoping to sleep off those drinks. Like the steak, downing a greasy pizza often means a heavy dose of saturated fat, which takes its toll on your digestive system while you sleep. Not to mention, a lot of pizza toppings like olives, cheese, and pepperoni are loaded with salt, increasing your thirst and, in turn, you need to get up to pee. We say skip the nightly takeout and make these healthier pizzas instead.

Salt and Vinegar Chips
Alas, another bedtime triple threat. Loads of salt cause the regular bedtime bathroom visits, while the heavy dose of fat can cause indigestion and heartburn. Finally, acidic foods like vinegar can aggravate acid reflux, keeping you uncomfortable all night long. Need your chip fix? We love the low-salt Food Should Taste Good sweet potato tortilla chips.

 

An Unexpectedly Awesome Side Effect of Not Drinking

Last week, a professional chef invited me to his house for dinner—a six-course meal that included homemade pork sausages, beef meatballs, lamb, spinach risotto, ravioli, a cheese board, and a three-tiered coconut cake. The chef marveled at how much food I could put away. “How can you eat this much and stay so svelte?” he inquired, as I served myself a third lamb chop. The answer came as soon as he asked me if I’d care for a glass of wine. “No, thank you,” I said. “I don’t drink.”

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The Life-Changing Surprises That Come From Not Drinking for a Year
When I cut alcohol out of my diet last year, I never expected my weight loss to be this drastic. I imagined that I might shed a pound or two, but as I usually only drank once a week, I figured that the impact those Friday night sessions had on my waistline must be fairly limited. However, six months have gone by, and I’m 10 pounds lighter and down a dress size.

Friends constantly ask for my “secret,” my diet, the name of my Spin instructor. When I tell them I simply gave up gin and tonics, they look at me askance. Look, I tried dieting, I trained as a circus aerialist, and I did a 90-day yoga challenge, but nothing has been as impactful as simply not drinking alcohol.

I knew my relationship with alcohol had become a problem last summer. I never drank every day or even every other day—it wasn’t the frequency of my drinking that worried me, it was my reaction to it. When I took that first sip of my long-awaited Friday night gin and tonic, I felt this huge surge of relief, like the long exhale you make as you sink into the sofa after a long day. The muscles in my face relaxed, a smile broke out on my face, and I could let go of all of my problems for as long as my drinking session lasted.

Drinking lowers your inhibitions and allows you to make all the bad choices you want. “I was drunk!” you joke the next day when you wake up in a full face of makeup, holding a honey mustard-smeared chicken tender.

Like many other millennials, I deal with a lot of career frustration and stress. I send job applications out into the world every week and only occasionally hear anything back. It’s like shouting into the Grand Canyon: Is anybody out there… there… there? When a reply does ping into my inbox, I open the email warily, waiting for the point in the message that explains there’s no money attached to the project, but it will be “great exposure.” Of course, not only does exposure not pay the rent, you can die from exposure. But drinking allowed me an off-switch from thinking about my career—it was an easy (albeit unhealthy) fix.

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What Dating a Sober Guy Taught Me About Myself
I’ve also found that my head is constantly planted in the future—I have a hard time living in the present. But when you go to the bar or dive into that post-booze delivery pizza, I guarantee you, you are present. You aren’t thinking about the past (and all your mistakes), and you’re not thinking about the future (if you were, you might consider the pain of the impending hangover). No, you are only focused on the moment at hand.

When I realized that I was living in the present when I drank, I started to explore how I could use the idea of being present to actually aid my sobriety. If I could stay in the moment day-to-day—instead of storing up all of my problems and then releasing them in a drinking binge (and maybe subsequent eating binge)—I could work through them as they arose, chipping away at my issues piece by piece, rather than letting things get out of control until it all felt unmanageable.

Presence of mind was the key, as it turned out. I learned how to take a breath and consider what I was about to do. It sounds so simple, but if you just take a moment to think about whether or not you need to drink or eat a huge slice of pie right now, your choices may change. Sobriety clears your mind and allows you to react more calmly, with compassion for yourself and others. Curious to try it out for yourself? Here’s what to do—and expect.

1. Tell your friends (or they might think you’re avoiding them, not booze).
Drinking is woven into almost every social activity. When I made the decision to embrace sobriety, I ended up turning down a lot of events that I knew were going to be big boozefests—I missed my friend’s band performing and skipped Friday night cocktails. Soon, I began to feel lonely. I hated missing out. Plus, I was keeping a secret from my friends.

So tell the people you’re close to. You don’t have to say you’re doing this forever, and you don’t have to admit to being a raging alcoholic, but let them know that you’re taking some time off from drinking. Start with baby steps, because small steps are easy for everyone to accept. If you and your friends think this no-alcohol rule is only a short-term thing, it will be easier for everyone to get on board.

If you decide to continue with your sobriety, you can do it incrementally, maybe another week, maybe a month… and soon you’ll just be the friend who doesn’t drink. No big deal.

2. The sugar cravings will surprise you.
I’ve never had a sweet tooth—cheese has always been my food vice of choice—but when I stopped drinking, I suddenly experienced severe sugar cravings. Alcohol contains plenty of sugar, but more than that, drink mixers are often off-the-charts sweet.

Bearing in mind that your recommended daily sugar intake is about 50 grams max, learning that a single vodka-and-cranberry juice can contain 30 grams of sugar is a little devastating… and let’s face it, who is just drinking one of these on a night out? I thought I didn’t have a sweet tooth, but in reality, I had a big one—it was just being satisfied by gin and tonics, not cupcakes.

Sugar affects the brain by raising dopamine levels, the same chemical that is released when we drink alcohol. Dopamine is often referred to as the “reward chemical” because it creates feelings of well-being, so when you stop drinking, your brain is suddenly depleted of this feeling and seeks it elsewhere.

Personally, I don’t think you should worry too much about this sudden desire for sugar—in my experience, indulging a little bit can be good for you. Be gentle with yourself and eat the occasional cookie, if it helps you. I eat a reasonably healthy diet, and my sugar imbalance sorted itself out in about a week, although this could take longer depending on how much you drank and your fondness for the sweet stuff.

3. Don’t be shocked if you feel some pushback.
When I told one of my friends that I wasn’t drinking via a text message, I didn’t hear back from her for over a week. When she did reappear, she explained she found this news hard to digest as it made her question her own choices with regards to drinking. This is not uncommon. Whenever you make a lifestyle choice for your benefit, it can hold up a mirror to other people’s choices.

I remember when a friend told me she was becoming a vegan, my initial reaction was to mock her and roll my eyes… but then I considered why I reacted that way. Why should I care what she chooses to put in her body? It dawned on me that her choice to avoid meat and dairy was shining a light on the foods I chose to consume. I had responded poorly to her choice because I felt it reflected badly on me.

So I encourage you to allow people time to deal with their own feelings about drinking. Any bad response you receive has less to do with you than what’s going on with them.

4. Don’t expect immediate results, but do expect results.
After about two months of not drinking, I had maybe shifted a pound or two. Not exactly startling progress, but after six months, 10 pounds had come off, and I had no idea how this had happened. I had changed nothing about my diet—I ate what I wanted, when I wanted, and exercised solely by walking to the subway. To put it bluntly, I didn’t do s**t for this weight loss. Well, except that I’d stopped drinking.

5. The phrase “drunk food” will no longer be in your vocabulary.
I said that I hadn’t changed my diet, and I hadn’t—not in a conscious way, at any rate. But by not drinking, I had removed a part of my diet that I shamefully call my “drunk food.” I’m referring, of course, to that delicious burrito you eat on your way home from the bar (the 1,000-calorie one) and the hungover breakfast you make for yourself the next day.

Then there’s the Sunday brunch that lasts hours, packed with Bloody Marys, French toast, eggs Benedict, etc. Without a hangover to constantly mop up, your diet just naturally improves. Yes, fried foods can still be a fun indulgence, but they don’t become a medical necessity to get you through a Sunday.

6. You’ll sleep like a baby.
We know that a glass of wine can help you drift off, but drinking often leads to poorer-quality sleep. When you stop drinking, your sleep drastically improves. For one thing, you’re more likely to get into a regular sleep schedule. In my drinking days, I would be in bed by 10 p.m. on weeknights, but when I went out drinking, bedtime could become 1 a.m… 2 a.m… 3 a.m… It disrupted my cycle for the entire weekend and left my Monday mornings feeling like a real slog. Without this disruption, I wake up feeling refreshed and I can tell you I haven’t once woken up and thought, Gee, I wish I’d had some drinks last night.

7. Stop meeting at the bar and go for coffee.
A simple concept in theory, unbelievably hard in practice. I knew that if I joined my friends at a bar, I would end up drinking. It really is no fun being the only sober friend sipping a seltzer while your friends pound tequila shots. I had to remove myself from those situations, but I didn’t want to become a Miss Havisham-style recluse.

My answer to this was to move my socializing to the daytime. When anyone suggested that we grab a drink, I countered with, “I can’t make it Friday night, but how about coffee on a Saturday?” You will need to rearrange your life somewhat, but what you lose in drunken karaoke, you make up for with sober, genuine conversation.

8. If you love food, this is the diet for you.
I’ve never been a dieter. I simply love to eat and I couldn’t imagine not enjoying a well-balanced diet. A typical day’s meals for me are scrambled eggs with plenty of cheese and toast for breakfast, a turkey and avocado sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner. Maybe a slice of pie works its way in there somewhere. I eat what I feel like eating, and still the weight comes off. It’s a dream!

9. Meditation can help.
With so much uncertainty in our lives, it’s only natural to worry about the future—and feeling unsure about the future can lead to carelessness in the present. Though times may seem tough, if you stay present in the moment, you can realize that the future is not all laid out in front of you like some inevitable path, but in fact, is yours to create. By changing your thinking about the future, you take back control. So start right now.

Whenever you make a lifestyle choice for your benefit, it can hold up a mirror to other people’s choices.

Meditation is something that can help with this. By taking time to sit with your thoughts for five minutes, you’re giving yourself room to consider what it is you are about to do. If I feel that “f*ck-it” mindset approaching and wonder Why not just go out and get drunk, it’s all a mess anyway? I take a moment to sit with it. By the time the meditation app rings its little chime, the impulse has passed, and a better decision has presented itself.

10. Don’t take it all too seriously.
Someone said to me recently that if I had combined my not drinking with a diet and exercise makeover, my body would be bangin’ right now. My answer was “Not drinking is hard enough.” While diet and exercise are clearly important when it comes to keeping your weight in check—and being healthy—I find it’s just too much pressure all at once. If I stopped drinking, went vegan, and started boxercise at the same time, I guarantee you that within a week, I would have freaked out, felt overwhelmed, and fallen into bed with a box of mozzarella sticks.

Be kind to yourself. If you want to see gradual weight loss that feels easy, consider cutting alcohol out of your diet. When you feel on an even keel with this change, maybe then consider adding other lifestyle choices into your regimen. If you fall off the wagon and drink a glass of wine, don’t beat yourself up. You do not need to be perfect—all you need is to be willing.

8 Foods That Are Proven to Naturally Whiten Your Teeth

We all know the common (delicious) culprits that stain our pearly whites. Coffee, tea, red wine: We see you. But are there any foods or drinks that can actually do the opposite?

Believe it or not, the answer is yes. Not only can the right foods and drinks help scrub away stains and make your teeth look brighter, but some can also actually strengthen your chompers from the inside—and make them whiter on the outside.

So if you’re curious about how to whiten teeth naturally, here are eight dentist-approved picks to add to your menu.

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Plain Yogurt
It’s a double-whammy, dental-wise. Yogurt is rich in calcium, which is essential for keeping your teeth looking healthy and bright. “Calcium-rich foods help strengthen the enamel, the outer layer of teeth that give them their whiteness,” says Timothy Chase, DMD, a cosmetic dentist at SmilesNY in Manhattan.

It’s also a good source of phosphorus, a mineral that works like a wingman to make calcium’s effects more potent. “While phosphorus doesn’t have a specific whitening effect, it does help maintain the enamel that gives teeth their outer beauty,” Chase says. Just steer clear of the flavored stuff. Over time, those added sugars can break down tooth enamel, dulling your smile.

Cheese
Like yogurt, it’s rich in the enamel strengtheners calcium and phosphorus. You’ll get the biggest bang for your buck from hard cheeses like cheddar, Gruyere, and Parmesan. Of course, you might not notice as much whitening action if you wash down your cheese plate with a glass of red wine.

Apples
Think of them as nature’s best designer toothbrush. The crunchy texture of apples acts as a gentle abrasive to scrub away the plaque that can leave your teeth looking dull. “The chewing that’s required also promotes the production of saliva, which helps keep plaque from developing. And stains attach to plaque like Velcro,” says periodontist and nutrition expert Sandra Moldovan, MS, DDS CNS.

Carrots
Just like apples, carrots’ hard, crunchy texture can actually help scrub your teeth clean, say Muldovan and Freeman. You’ll want to stick with raw ones, though. Cooked carrots are too soft to deliver much scrubbing action.

Milk
Drink up for stronger bones—and whiter teeth. Milk is another top source of both calcium and phosphorus. Keep in mind that the mineral content goes up as the fat content goes down, so you’ll get the most of both nutrients from skim milk. (A cup of skim milk has 316 mg of calcium and 255 mg of phosphorus, while a cup of whole milk has 276 mg of calcium and 205 mg of phosphorus.)

Celery
Breaking down the crisp, fibrous stalks with your chompers helps scrape away stain-causing plaque and boosts the production of saliva. Crunch away, people. And maybe dip into a little peanut butter while you’re at it.

Strawberries
Not only will they not stain your teeth red, but strawberries may also help make your teeth appear brighter and whiter. “They contain an enzyme called malic acid that works as a natural astringent to remove surface discoloration,” says Steven Freeman, DDS, owner of Elite Smiles in St. Augustine, Florida.

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For even more whitening action, try applying mashed strawberries to your teeth like a paste for five minutes then rinsing and brushing as normal, he suggests. One study found that this method can help remove plaque to give it a whiter appearance without actually bleaching the teeth.

Xylitol-Sweetened Gum
OK, so it’s not technically a food. But chewing gum helps your mouth produce more saliva. Why pick one sweetened with xylitol? It’ll help you avoid plaque-promoting added sugars, to start. But even more important, the sugar alcohol has been shown to reduce the formation of plaque, which makes it harder for stains to stick to your teeth. Try cinnamon or spearmint flavors—findings suggest they enhance saliva production more than fruity flavors.