Everything You Know about Food and Sleep is Wrong

Author: | Posted in Sleep Better 6 Comments

Does Turkey really make you sleepy?

…an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato…

As a species, we love food. But we also love to ascribe a lot of amazing effects to the food we eat. Can bananas make you grow muscle faster? Can mashed potatoes help with your memory? Does this new berry from Guatemala make you lose weight?

There are more than a few theories about foods that affect sleep, but how true are they really?

Turkey Makes You Sleepy

False.

This one is a classic. After polishing off a metric ton of turkey, stuffing, and other Thanksgiving fare, it’s tradition to slip quietly into a food coma. Turkey must make you tired, right?

There’s even scientific evidence used to back it up: Turkey contains tryptophan. And this is true. But before we dig any deeper, we need to find out – just what is tryptophan?

Tryptophan is an amino acid which occurs naturally in most meats we eat. In the body, once combined with carbohydrates, the tryptophan is metabolized into two more chemicals: serotonin and melatonin. If these sound familiar, it’s because they are the body’s natural sleep and relaxation chemicals. As a one-two punch, they are guaranteed to put out your lights.

And tryptophan does work. A study of chronic insomniacs found that those that were served foods with high levels of tryptophan slept better after a three week term.

So how can I say that Turkey doesn’t make you tired? You’ve already read the answer:

1. “Tryptophan is an amino acid which occurs naturally in most meats we eat.”

Turkey has tryptophan, but so does most every other meat. In fact, it has less than many other meats and non-meats.

2. “In the body, once combined with carbohydrates, the tryptophan is metabolized into two more chemicals: serotonin and melatonin”

Carbohydrates are key to the sleepytime effects of tryptophan. Without them, it cannot be used to create serotonin and melatonin that make us tired.

And this leads us to the real reason we get tired after turkey dinners:

Huge portions with lots of carbs.

By giving your body plenty of carbs, you also give it plenty of fodder to metabolize the various chemicals in the food you eat – including tryptophan. The more carbs you eat, the more tryptophan can be metabolized (whether it be from turkey, fish, pork, or eggs), and the more tired you feel.

In fact, to prove once and for all that turkey itself doesn’t make you sleepy, the crew at Mythbusters tested the claim. Various meals were made and eaten, distinguished by turkey or no-turkey, and by the size of the meals. Participants then took part in a reaction-time test after each meal. Those that had eaten turkey were not drowsier than those that skipped Turkey. Instead, the deciding factor was the size of the meal. Busted.

So don’t just blame turkey for sleeping through the afternoon. Blame the whole plate.

Booze

Ah, the night cap – a shot of something potent to send you off to dreamland. But does alcohol really make you sleep better?

Sort of. When it comes to sleep, alcohol is a double-edged sword.

Alcohol affects your body not just in the first hour after you drink it, but after that as well. As it works its way through your system, it can have a stimulatory affect too. So while it may calm you when you fall asleep, it may wake you up a little bit later, or keep you from achieving deep sleep. By missing out on deep REM sleep, you may get your full eight hours, but they won’t be as effective.

Even if you do manage to get to a deep sleep, alcohol can still affect your dreams, leading to nightmares and the lack of restfulness that those bring.

In the short term, alcoholic drinks will help put you to sleep. But they won’t keep you there.

Chocolate

Some claim that chocolate is a wonder food to help you get to sleep. Chocolate does indeed contain serotonin, the natural relaxant we mentioned earlier.

But there’s a lot more in chocolate to think about.

  • Most commercially produced chocolate contains a great deal of added sugar. Eating pure energy right before bed is not going to help you sleep. [Correction: sugar does not contribute to wakefulness. Check out our article on sleep and sugar for more details.]
  • Chocolate can also contain amounts of caffeine, or chemicals in the same family, which will work to keep you up at night.
  • Finally, chocolate, specifically milk chocolate, contains tyrosine. This chemical is transformed into dopamine and that acts as a stimulant.

With a cornucopia of chemicals, some stimulants, one sedative, chocolate is not a reliable snack to get you to sleep.

Warm Milk

There’s a conspiracy among mothers to foist warm milk on sleepless children. Mine always did, and I still have warm milk at night. But there’s no real reason for it to work.

Some have pointed out that milk contains amounts of tryptophan. But this is the turkey issue all over again. Milk contains only small amounts of tryptophan and so do many other foods. There are no unique properties of milk that induce sleep.

Plus, if you have chocolate milk, then this could have added caffeine.

Then why do we think milk makes us sleepy? A recent article in the NYTimes theorized that perhaps it’s mostly a psychological effect.

Since we had warm milk as children, given to us by our doting mothers, it’s associated with the love and care we got along with it. When we drink warm milk now, the sensation may take us back to the relaxation and calmness of that time.

I Can’t Sleep, What Should I Eat?

Now that we’ve learned what won’t work, it would be cruel to send you off without some tips on what does.

As mentioned in our turkey section, tryptophan is present in many meats, and is activated by carbohydrates. So a meal rich in carbs with a bit of protein will help send the tryptophan straight to your brain and your head to your pillow.

Some ideas:

  • Cheese and crackers
  • Toast and peanut butter (my favorite)
  • Cereal and milk
  • Rice pudding and nuts
  • A pasta dinner
  • Bagel and cream cheese
  • Rice crackers and salmon
  • Hummus and pita
  • A glass of milk and a muffin


Image credit: Thanksgiving Turkey by tuchodi, on Flickr

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