Have you ever wondered why some foods make you feel sleepy while others give you a lift? Do you sometimes find yourself dozing off after a big meal or reaching for a sugary snack when you’re tired? In addition to giving us nourishment, the things we eat and drink can pick us up or slow us down. Knowing how food and beverages affect the body can help keep you alert during the day and avoid the agony of sleeplessness at night.
- Snooze Foods and Pick-Me-Ups
Certain foods contain an amino acid called tryptophan that causes sleepiness. Carbohydrates make tryptophan more available to the brain, which is why carbohydrate-heavy meals can make you drowsy. Proteins from the food we eat are the building blocks of tryptophan, which is why the best bedtime snack is one that contains both a carbohydrate and protein, such as cereal with milk, peanut butter on toast, or cheese and crackers.
- Nature’s Sleeping Pill
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that regulates sleepiness. It is made in the brain by converting tryptophan first to serotonin and then to melatonin, which is secreted at night by the pineal gland in the brain to induce and maintain sleep. Scientific evidence shows little or no benefit of melatonin in improving sleep. Still, melatonin supplements are widely used as sleep aids.
- The Post-Lunch Dip
Some people experience a temporary lull in alertness in the afternoon. This is known as the post-lunch dip. A large meal can make a person feel sleepy, especially if it’s rich in carbohydrates, but the post-lunch dip is a function of our circadian rhythms. We naturally feel tired at two different times of the day: about 2:00 AM and 2:00 PM. It is this natural dip in alertness that is primarily responsible for the post-lunch dip.
Four out of five adults in America consume at least one serving of coffee, tea, soda or other caffeinated beverage each day, according to NSF’s 2005 Sleep in America poll. Caffeine is a stimulant that works by blocking the action of hormones in the brain that makes us feel sleepy. A strong dose of caffeine can stimulate the mind for a short time, and then cause an alertness crash as the effect wears off. The best way to benefit from the stimulating effect of caffeine is to consume small amounts frequently throughout the day. Be careful not to consume caffeine too close to bedtime as its effect may persist for several hours.
- Energy Drinks: Help or Hype?
Based solely on the advertising campaigns, you would think that energy drinks have the power to turn mortal men into superheroes. In reality, most energy drinks are made with caffeine, essential amino acids, and loads of sugar. Rather than give you wings, these ingredients may increase sleepiness after an initial short-lived alerting affect. There is no magic drink on the market that will allow you to safely skimp on sleep. The only effective way to combat fatigue is to get adequate sleep on a regular basis.
- Alcohol: Sedative or Sleep Thief?
Many people use beer, wine, or other alcoholic beverages at bedtime to help them fall asleep. This is unfortunate considering that alcohol is a poor sleep aid. Alcohol may help you to relax and fall asleep in the short term, but it can disrupt sleep over the course of the night. It also keeps you from entering the deeper stages of sleep, which may cause you to wake up still feeling tired despite having spent an adequate amount of time in bed.
Reviewed by David G. Davila, MD (December 2009).