Harvard Health Letter

Improve sleep by eating right

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Why caffeine, spicy foods, and alcohol make poor bedfellows.

When it comes to your ability to get a good night's sleep, your diet may play a role. Go to bed hungry, and you'll likely have trouble falling asleep. Eat a large meal, and afterward you may feel like dozing off. "There's proof that stomach distention makes you sleepy after a meal, although it's a mild effect and it's not influenced by particular foods," says sleep expert Dr. Lawrence Epstein, an instructor at Harvard Medical School.

Many foods can either interrupt your sleep or keep you from falling asleep. Spicy foods and some medications may cause heartburn, and they may stimulate chronic heartburn known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Foods with lactose may cause abdominal cramping, bloating, and diarrhea in people who are lactose intolerant. That means they don't have enough of the intestinal enzyme lactase to break down lactose, the main sugar in milk. Food, drinks, and medicines containing caffeine make it hard to fall asleep and cause sleep to be fragmented. And alcohol has a big impact on sleep. "It can make you fall asleep quicker, but as it wears off, it causes a lot of awakening and results in fewer restful stages of sleep, so you end up less refreshed. And if you do it long enough, it can cause permanent problems falling asleep," says Dr. Epstein.

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