If you’ve ever feel like what you have for dinner can make or break how well you sleep, you’re not imagining it. Researchers have in fact devoted a serious amount of effort to documenting this phenomenon. And, more importantly, they’ve also spent plenty of time figuring out which foods (and components of those foods) either keep you up or help you snooze. To be fair, it still isn’t an exact science: What keeps you tossing and turning might have no effect on your partner. And what lulls your roommate into a peaceful slumber might leave you staring at the ceiling, anxiously counting sheep. The one thing we know that works for pretty much everyone? Don’t try to sleep on a totally full or empty stomach. That’s a recipe for discomfort and, possibly, nightmares. However, if you’re someone who tends to have a bit of extra trouble getting enough sleep, it won’t hurt to try adding and subtracting a few of these foods from your nighttime meals. And you may just find your new favorite midnight snack. Ahead, all the foods that mess with your ZZZs, for better or worse.
FOR DINNER…SKIP: WHITE BREAD
Resist the urge to just eat a PBJ for dinner. In general, carbs are a good idea pre-sleep because they help your body use tryptophan, an amino acid that acts as a precursor to the sleep-inducing neurotransmitter serotonin. But, without an added dose of fiber (as you’d get in whole grains, fruit, and vegetables), simple carbs can keep you up because you’ll digest them quickly, making it likely that you’ll be hungry come bedtime. So, although it may make one heck of a lunchtime sandwich, as a simple carb, white bread isn’t the best choice.
TRY INSTEAD: WHOLE-WHEAT PASTA
Rather than going for simple carbs, opt for complex carbs that are higher in fiber. That’s one reason it takes your body longer to digest them. Bonus: boiling whole-wheat pasta, adding some frozen veggies and covering with sauce is about as easy as making a PBJ.
TRY INSTEAD: BROWN RICE
Brown rice is usually going to be a better bet for sleep because it has more fiber than white rice.
TRY INSTEAD: JASMINE RICE
If you really hate brown rice, you can also try jasmine rice, which research recently found may help you fall asleep more quickly.
AVOID: DEEP-FRIED FISH
While fattier foods can be more satisfying (which is important for sleep), too much fat at once can mean discomfort in the form of bloating and gas that can keep you us. Classic “fun night out” foods like fried fish are often the cause of this sleep-stealer, it turns out.
TRY INSTEAD: SALMON & TUNA
These lean fish are both high in tryptophan. They also have vitamin B6, which your body needs to make the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. It may seem boring to order the salmon salad at happy hour, but trust us, you’ll be thankful when it comes time to hit the hay.
AVOID: CHICKEN WINGS
Sorry, but wing night is not your friend. Although delicious, the fat in chicken wings makes them more difficult to digest. And they may make it even harder to fall asleep if they’re spicy (more on that later).
TRY INSTEAD: CHICKEN & TURKEY BREAST
Lean proteins (that aren’t fried) have high levels of tryptophan, the stuff that makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving, but won’t leave you feeling too bloated. Grilled chicken or turkey breast is a great option.
DINNER SIDES…AVOID: FRENCH FRIES
Although there are internet anecdotes about people eating a potato every night before bed, you’re better of with a baked variety rather than French fries. If you just can’t say no to the chicken wings, you can at least skip the fries on the side for…
TRY INSTEAD: SPINACH & KALE
A side salad is your friend, especially if you’ve got these greens as a choice. Spinach and kale are both surprisingly packed with calcium, which helps your body use tryptophan to produce sleep-inducing melatonin.
TRY INSTEAD: ASPARAGUS
Here’s another food that’s got a hearty dose of vitamins A and C. But asparagus also packs a fair amount of folate, another vitamin that your body needs for restful sleep.
Skip: Cookies, Cake – These two are the obvious choices for dessert, and we’re all for them usually. But if you’re having trouble sleeping, it might be worth scheduling them for earlier in the day (lunch dessert!) because refined sugars and simple carbs hit your system fast and hard, causing an energy buzz. For some people, that’s enough to throw off the natural bedtime relaxation process.
TRY INSTEAD: CHERRIES
If you really need something sweet before bed, try fresh cherries. They are a great evening snack because they have a fair amount of fiber and they’re one of the few foods that naturally contain melatonin.
TRY INSTEAD: APRICOTS
Not into cherries? Try apricots, which come with a relaxing combination of vitamin A, vitamin C, and fiber
TRY INSTEAD: BANANAS
They’re a natural source of two calming compounds (potassium and magnesium) plus they’ve got melatonin.
FOR BEDTIME SNACKS…
Avoid: High-Fat Cheese Okay, so you’ve had dinner, dessert, and you’re still hungry? Don’t overlook the power of the right bedtime snack. Here again, foods that are too heavy or high in fat can be counterproductive because they can cause bloating. That means cheeses that are extra high in fat, (such as blue, goat, and cheddar cheeses) are best left for lunch.
TRY INSTEAD: COTTAGE CHEESE
If you’re really craving dairy, a bowl of cottage cheese makes a great bedtime snack. It’s not as heavy, but still provides fat and protein that can end any disruptive tummy-growling.
TRY INSTEAD: HUMMUS
Not a cottage cheese fan? Hummus is another great bedtime snack surprisingly. Thanks to all those chickpeas, which are surprisingly high in tryptophan, hummus and a little whole wheat pita can put you right to bed.
TRY INSTEAD: HARD-BOILED EGGS
Many people prep these for breakfast, but they can come in handy at night, too. Eggs pack both the protein to keep you full and tryptophan to make you sleepy. The hard-boiled variety also doesn’t come with extra saturated fat that frying might add.
AVOID: POTATO CHIPS
We know that not all fats are created equal. Avoiding snack foods that are high in trans and saturated fats will help keep your serotonin levels stable at night.
For some people, even chocolate has enough caffeine to keep them awake
TRY INSTEAD: POPCORN
There’s a reason you’re always a little extra tired after movie nights — and it’s not just because the movie was super boring. The popcorn you were munching on is rich in fiber, which has been shown to encourage sleep.
Coffee This is an obvious one. But because caffeine is such a major cause of sleep troubles it is worth the reminder. Also, if you have an anxiety disorder, you may be especially susceptible to caffeine’s ability to disrupt your Zs. Try to make it a rule to not have coffee after 2 p.m.
TRY INSTEAD: HERBAL TEA
Herbal teas without caffeine, such as chamomile and peppermint, are not only fine after 2 p.m. they might be just the thing you need to relax at night.
TRY INSTEAD: MILK
It’s not just a myth, drinking milk can make you feel a bit extra drowsy because it contains tryptophan. But it doesn’t have to be warm, so feel free to chug from the jug while you stand at the fridge eating your midnight snack.
Avoid: Pepper Some herbs and spices, including black and red pepper, are known to cause alertness.
Basil Sage On the other hand, some herbs and spices are known to have a calming effect. For instance, some research suggests that both basil and sage can affect chemicals in your brain to relieve stress. That’s plenty of reason to top off your whole-wheat pasta with some pesto.
TRY INSTEAD: NUTMEG
Nutmeg is often touted as a mild sedative in alternative medicine. Research suggests it might also help ease tummy troubles.
Spicy food can definitely make you feel a little extra awake possibly because it raises your body temperature. Some people are convinced that it can make you have weird nightmares, too, but there’s no conclusive evidence to back that up.
AVOID: MEDICATIONS CONTAINING CAFFEINE
Some medications, including those for pain and migraines, contain a small dose of caffeine to boost their effects. If you can, it’s best to avoid taking these for a few hours before bed. But if you need to take them, it’s worth checking in with your doctor to see if there’s another option that doesn’t have caffeine.