Food for Thought Friday: Sleep, Insomnia, and Food

My husband is the consummate internet sleuth. Lately, he’s been reading far and wide about some of our different food fascinations. This week’s interesting topic has been insomnia, sleep, and foods. This is particularly interesting to me because I’m in a season of not sleeping very well at night. I know that I’m not alone in this, so I wanted to share some of Dave’s findings with you all.

Dave writes:

Recently I’ve been having trouble sleeping well.  Again.

I go to bed exhausted and wake up the same with some variation on a story involving insomnia: Boy goes to sleep and lies awake for hours before his mind gives up and joins his body in sleep…or… boy sleeps soundly for 3 or 4 hours and then is wide-eyed and wide awake from 2 AM until he finally just gets up… at 4 AM, 5 AM, 6 AM. Sad, sad Story.

I have always needed what I considered a lot of sleep. However, according to the research I’ve been doing, I’m in the norm in needing 7 or 8 hours sleep to function well. I can make do with less but after a few days, it catches up with me and I become less productive and less fun to be around.

You may be wondering, what this has to do with anyone’s kitchen. Good question. I’m finding that a lot of factors influence sleep and that some of those factors are food-related.  There are other things, stress, being overweight, snoring, and apnea, that can seriously affect your rest, but for now, let’s focus in on food…

Overeating, simply eating too much, can keep you from sleeping well, but there are also many specific foods that can keep you from sleeping.  Some of these contain an amino acid called Tyramine that causes the release of norepinephrine. Here are some foods to avoid if sleep is a problem for you:

  1. Alcohol – Yes, a glass of wine or a night-cap can help you relax that you can accompany with a great cheese you may received as a gift from a site like Alcohol can, however, dehydrate you and, interestingly, make you have to go to the bathroom more often. Some people find themselves restless and sleepless in the middle of the night after a drink or two.
  2. Spicy and acidic food – A number of foods can cause heartburn or acid reflux in some people. Some of these can be peppers, spicy foods, tomato sauce, chili, and pizza. I like spicy food. (I like Pizza. *sigh*)
  3. Energy drinks – well duh!
  4. Chocolate (bummer, eh?) – Actually, anything with caffeine will be a problem. I didn’t really have a problem with caffeine keeping me awake until I was in my 30’s. It certainly does now.
  5. Preserved or smoked meats – These can leave you wired because they contain Tyramine (mentioned above).

It turns out that some foods help you sleep too. I found this welcome news for a weary soul. Some of these foods help with the sleep equation because they contain tryptophan, which gets converted to 5-HTP in the brain. The 5-HTP in turn is converted to serotonin (a relaxing neurotransmitter) and melatonin, a chemical that helps your body regulate sleep. Melatonin and serotonin help us both relax and get to sleep.

Here are some of the helpful foods:

  1. Fresh and dried Cherries – Cherries are a natural source of melatonin.
  2. Bananas – Bananas are a good source of potassium and magnesium which are natural muscle relaxants. They also contain tryptophan.
  3. Toast and Oatmeal – Food heavy in carbohydrates trigger insulin production, which helps induce sleep. Oats also have plenty of melatonin.
  4. Warm milk – Milk also contains tryptophan. It’s also high in calcium, which promotes sleep. And, hey, it’s comforting.
  5. Thanksgiving turkey dinner! (I couldn’t leave that off the list. Most of us have felt the strong pull of a long nap after a big Thanksgiving dinner!)

(sources:,, )

I’m just discovering the tip of the iceberg right now. I know there’s a lot more out there. It’s not easy to separate out the folk wisdom from the snake oil sales pitches from the actual science. I’ll leave the quackery alone every time, but I’m actually interested in some of the folk wisdom floating around out there. People have been tossing and turning in pursuit of a good night’s sleep for…well…milennia!  It’s worth the time it takes to research this though. I’d rather have a bowl of oatmeal than take a sleeping pill!


10 thoughts on “Food for Thought Friday: Sleep, Insomnia, and Food

  1. Pingback: Childhood Grilled Cheese And Tomato Soup Grows Up | All Things Cheese

  2. I like anything that promotes better sleep. I have terrible insomnia too, likely due to whacky hormones. Some of those food items might be helpful to try out. Thanks for posting this!

  3. I recently discovered that I have hyperthyroidism, which is causing my insomnia and other weird symptoms. I recommend going to your doc and getting her/him to get your blood tested.
    Also, a common myth holds that turkey is especially high in tryptophan, resulting in sleepiness after it is consumed. However, the tryptophan content of turkey is comparable to chicken, beef, and other meats and does not result in higher blood tryptophan levels than other common foods. Certain foods, such as soybeans, sesame and sunflower seeds, and certain cheeses, are high in tryptophan. Although it is possible these may induce sleepiness if consumed in sufficient quantities, this is not well studied.
    The sleepiness ocurring after consuming Thanksgiving dinner is called post-prandial somnolence, which has two components – a general state of low energy related to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system in response to nutrients in the gastrointestinal tract, and a specific state of sleepiness caused by hormonal and neurochemical changes related to the rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream and its downstream effects on amino acid transport in the central nervous system.
    I haven’t heard about cherries, so I’m going to try them as a bedtime snack soon. Yum! 🙂

  4. Make sure you’re practicing good sleep hygiene, too! Remember caffeine stays in your system for about 6 hours, so no late afternoon coffee. Turn off the TV and computers and other glowing things an hour before you want to go to sleep, try reading instead, under a soothing light. Like you said, alcohol though relaxing can wake you in the middle of the night. Have a bedtime routine that relaxes you and subconsciously cues that it is time for sleep (e.g. a cup of hot decaf tea, wash your face and brush your teeth). Don’t take work into the bedroom.
    Some people do better avoiding aerobic exercise in the evening as well, so try to get your exercise in the a.m. And DO exercise, it helps. “They” also say you should keep a regular schedule, going to sleep and getting up at the same times every day because your body really does have a rhythm. Avoid the snooze button (I’m terrible at this now). Getting some sunlight in the morning will help wake you up – indoor lighting is not strong enough to send the signal to your brain that it is daytime.
    If you have good sleep habits and are still not sleeping well, you could have a sleep disorder (such as sleep apnea) and it is worth seeing your doctor to discuss getting a sleep study done.

    Good luck! Sleep is such a crucial thing, effecting our mood, memory and productivity. It is worth making the effort to get those 8 hours so you can function at your best the rest of the day!

  5. This isn’t about insomnia, although I have suffered from insomnia for many years, but a question about apples. Do you ladies know of any homecanned apple chutney recipes or something nice that I can do with preserving apples?

  6. Thanks for your research, Dave. I like the oatmeal suggestion. I do suggest that people start with a sleep test to make certain that the morning tiredness, or restless, disrupted sleep isn’t caused by apnea. Apnea interrupts or disturbs deep REM sleep and you will awaken as tired as you were at night. Snoring is a subject of many jokes, but when the cause is apnea, it can be fatal. My husband would stop breathing for up to two minutes and awaken flailing because he was desperate for oxygen.

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