1. The tryptophan in the holiday turkey makes you sleepy.
Fiction. There is as much if not more tryptophan in other foods such as dairy products, fish, chicken, and egg whites. It is the associated carbohydrates, alcohol, and large size of the meal that causes sleepiness.
2. Eating cured meats such as bacon and ham and aged cheeses such as parmesan, Romano, and Asiago can keep you awake at night.
Fact. These foods all contain high amounts of the amino acid tyramine. Tyramine promotes the release of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in the brain. Norepinephrine is very much involved in increasing alertness–something we do not want to experience when we are trying to fall asleep.
3. Chocolate close to bedtime is a bad idea.
Fact. Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains caffeine. Caffeine is a definite no-no before bedtime.
4. Alcohol helps your sleep.
Fiction. Although alcohol will make you groggy and may help you to fall asleep, it does so at a cost. As it is metabolized, it will raise body temperature and cause multiple arousals from sleep. It also can suppress deeper stages of sleep, leaving you tired and fatigued the next day.
5. After a large meal we get sleepy because all of the blood flow that is directed to our intestinal tract and away from our brains.
Fiction. Actually, the human brain has an amazing ability to auto regulate its own blood flow under such circumstances. It is the turning on of the parasympathetic nervous system which is required for digestion, and the turning off of the sympathetic (fight or flight) portion of the autonomic nervous system that contributes to sleepiness.
6. Eating spicy foods close to bedtime is a bad idea.
Fact. Spicy foods increase core body temperature and can promote acid reflux. Both of these reactions are counterproductive when it comes to sleep.
7. People snore louder when they drink alcohol.
Fact. Alcohol causes weakness of the muscles of the upper airway. This weakness can result in loud snoring and can cause sleep apnea in heavy drinkers.
8. A balanced light snack of protein and complex carbohydrates can help you fall asleep. Examples are cheese and crackers or almond butter on whole wheat bread.
Fact. The tryptophan in dairy products and foods such as beans and nuts, when combined with complex carbohydrates, can promote sleep. The steady and moderate release of insulin associated with complex carbs as opposed to the surge associated with refined carbs such as flour and white rice will increase the transport of tryptophan into the brain. The tryptophan is then converted to serotonin and melatonin. The latter being a major sleep-promoting hormone.
9. If you suffer from nighttime heartburn, avoid fried and fatty foods.
Fact. Fried and fatty foods cause the muscle that keeps food from coming back up from the stomach to the esophagus to dilate. This muscle is called the lower esophageal sphincter. This results in acid reflux and can cause problems with staying asleep and damage to the esophagus.
10. That evening mocha latte has nothing to do with my inability to fall asleep.
Fiction. Caffeine may take anywhere from four to ten hours to be metabolized, depending on the individual. If you are having trouble falling or staying asleep, avoid all caffeine after noon.
The take home message is that we need to be aware of the fact that what we eat affects our sleep. Over the years, I have seen countless patients whose sleep and overall health improved dramatically when they understood the relationship of diet and sleep.