Thursday, October 9, 2014

Foods that Induce Insomnia

Photo by Mike Sheard.
Because I've been having a little trouble with insomnia, I am writing one post a month on the topic.

By reading about and then writing about insomnia, I hope to gain better control over my sleep habits.

Lately I have been paying closer attention to foods and beverages that contribute to insomnia.

Also, I've noted that insomnia is at times a matter of quantity and timing of "neutral" (neither soporific nor stimulating) foods and drinks,

However, there are certainly some items that have inherent quality of alertness.

Foods / Drinks to Avoid

Caffeine.  The biggest insomnia culprit is probably caffeine. It's the most obvious to people as well.  Nevertheless, people can mismanage their caffeine intake.  The time necessary for caffeine to leave your system varies. Estimates range from 4 to 6 hours on one end of the spectrum and up to 14 hours on the other end.

How caffeine affects you will depend on the quantity of caffeine you ingest, the degree to which you are acclimated to caffeine and the rate of your metabolism.  People who consume a lot of caffeine might fall asleep, but still fail to achieve deep, REM stage sleep.

Be aware of the many places where caffeine may be present: coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, desserts and even some medications.  Read all labels for everything you eat and drink. Be informed.

Additionally, caffeine works as a diuretic, meaning that it pushes water out of the body. Consuming caffeine results in more trips to the bathroom.

Chocolate.  Yes, this contains caffeine but also other stimulants such as theobromine and almost always paired with sugar, another stimulant.  Chocolate is also on the list of foods that can cause irregular heartbeats.  Like caffeine, people might vary on how long it takes to get the stimulants in chocolate out of their system.  I can't eat chocolate later than about 4 pm; otherwise, I have trouble sleeping.

Photo by Bobolaan.
Hard-to-Digest Foods.  Spicy? Gassy? Fatty? or Fiber rich? Water rich? Full of Protein? Each of these foods are hard to digest and can lead to indigestion or fitful sleep.

For example, garlic is spicy, cabbage is gassy, French fries are fatty, beans are fiber rich, melon is water rich, and a 12 oz steak is packed with hard-to-digest protein.

Sleep inducing--these foods are not.

Roller-Coaster Sugar Levels.  Because I am hypoglycemic, I am particularly sensitive to how blood sugar levels can affect my sleep. To a certain extent, this is true for all people.  Eating  foods high in sugar right before bed can cause blood sugar to soar and then crash.  Eating a light dinner or no dinner can cause the body to become too agitated to sleep or to sleep soundly.

I have to eat a balanced bedtime snack (with good ratios of carbs-protein-fat). If I don't, I wake up after about three hours because my blood sugar drops, which leads to an agitated state.

Here is an explanation provided by a naturopathic doctor:
"In my clinical experience I have found nocturnal hypoglycemia (low nighttime blood sugar level) is an important cause of sleep-maintenance insomnia. When there is a drop in the blood glucose level, it causes the release of hormones that regulate glucose levels, such as adrenaline, glucagon, cortisol and growth hormone. These compounds stimulate the brain. They are a natural signal that it is time to eat."  
(Add to my hypoglycemia the effect of stress-related hormones such as cortisol that consume blood sugar, it can be hard for me to balance blood sugar levels. See the post on emotional causes for insomnia.)

Heavy meals.  Even very well-balanced, healthy meals can lead to insomnia if they are large and eaten too close to bedtime.

Too much liquid before bed. While it's important to be well hydrated, drinking too many liquids before bedtime can result in frequent trips to the bathroom during the night.

Photo by Cat.
Nicotine and Alcohol.  These substances can cause insomnia.  I see them as more connected to the topic of medications and insomnia.

The lines are blurry since caffeine frequently is tied with nicotine and alcohol as chemical substances that inhibit sleep.  I'm ambivalent on how to classify caffeine, so I included it here with insomnia-inducing foods. I blame coffee-flavored desserts for seeing caffeine as food related.

Other. While poking around looking for information on this topic, I read about other insomnia-inducing culprits listed--such as MSG, aspartame, food additives, artificial coloring, and cheese. But the research for these isn't as solid.

Photo by Smallest Forest.
Keep a Food/Sleep Journal

If you are having trouble sleeping, I recommend keeping a food-and-sleep journal for a couple of weeks.

People vary on how they digest and metabolize various foods, so what is true for me may not be true for you.  By observing your eating and sleeping habits, you might see patterns emerge.

I find that monitoring the effect of my diet on my sleep results in fewer gross errors these days.

For example, I am a small (111 pounds) hypoglycemic, morning person who is highly sensitive to caffeine. The worse thing I can do is eat a light dinner at 5 pm and then a huge, dark chocolate bar at bedtime, which is 9 pm for me.  I did that. Once.  I didn't fall asleep until 4 am. 

Now that I'm not making rookie mistakes like that, I'm just fine tuning what I eat in the evenings.

Next month I will write about foods that help induce sleep.  It's a happy coincidence that I'll write this in November, the month where people most often use the word "tryptophan." Gobble, gobble.

Question for readers: What foods / beverages sabotage your ability to sleep?  



  1. Excellent idea to keep a food journal for many reasons. But, give up chocolate and coffee? Maybe I can try and reduce the amount I consume!

    1. Midlife has convinced me to be moderate (about some things). Being moderate about chocolate is easier said than done, however!

  2. Such a great idea! And always good to know. However, I can drink 4 cups of coffee, 3 cokes, and still sleep like a baby!

    1. Wow. My husband can consume more caffeine than I also. You two must have super powers.

  3. I have FINALLY realized I can't drink coffee after 7:00. I don't sleep well, but it will be tough to give up my caffeine. However, the snorer next to me...(I kid)

    1. I asked on FB about the "cut off" time for caffeine drinkers, and my FB friends reported times from 2 pm to 8 pm to "I can consume caffeine right before bed." It's so interesting to me to see such a range of reactions. Glad you found your "line" so that you can avoid insomnia.

  4. Caffeine never used to bother me at any time of the day. And then I turned 50 and for years had trouble sleeping. I'm only now getting back to real sleep and, honestly, there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason. Hormones?

    1. I do think hormones are at play. I'm going to write about that as part of this series, but it's complex, so I'm putting that one off for a bit.

  5. Sleep was never my friend, even as a child I never required the usual 8 prescribed. As i aged I found it was even worse. Like you I started looking at it more, but not as extensively. I have found that eliminating caffeine after 11AM and turning down my beloved glass of wine, usually help. Thanks all of the great information.

    1. Some people have unique sleep habits--5 hours only or split-shift sleeping, etc. Kudos to people who can make things work in their own way. I'm glad to see you found your line limit. 11 am. That's early, but if that works, go for it. (I don't drink caffeinated beverages; I have an anxiety disorder, and caffeine makes that worse.) Thanks for reading / commenting.

  6. Great that you are recording what triggers it for you. I have never had this problem myself though. Good luck.