All of us toss and turn through the occasional sleepless night. At any given time, though, there are those among us struggling with full-blown insomnia. Chronic difficulty in falling or staying asleep can rob you of the nightly rest you need, as well as your ability to concentrate. When you regularly miss out on sleep, don't be surprised if you experience irritability, exhaustion, and depression.

Insomnia is a message that your body sends to let you know that something is off or out of balance. Certain medications or an underlying illness may be the cause. Oftentimes, insomnia isn't caused by a medical problem; it's a condition on its own and certain situations such as chronic stress can trigger it.

It could also be just something you ate - or maybe when you ate it. Think about your eating habits. Making a few adjustments could help you to avoid dragging that drowsy feeling into another day.

What you eat matters

Sleep is a complicated process. That's why there is no big, super-special secret "sleep ingredient." Simply eating a nutritious diet will support your body in its nightly rest quest. That said, there are certain foods that make it harder to sleep, and some foods that encourage it.

Sleep stealers
Caffeine will keep your body and brain too busy to relax into slumber. Plan your coffee breaks early in the day, and watch out for covert caffeine, in pop and chocolate or chocolate-flavoured foods (ice cream, yogurt, smoothies). Warning: Even some decaffeinated coffee contain small amounts of caffeine!

Alcohol may make you feel drowsy, but it can lead to fitful, interrupted sleep. Avoid both caffeine and alcohol 4 to 6 hours before bedtime to ensure a restful slumber.

Downing too much liquid too late in the day will have you up and out of bed to visit the toilet. Big meals or super-sized snacks too close to bedtime set you up for a restless night. Especially avoid items high in protein, fat, or sugar. Spicy foods can trigger heartburn and indigestion, neither of which makes good bedfellows.

Sleep helpers
For a food to support sleep, it needs to either help you fall asleep more easily or stay asleep more soundly. Tryptophan is an amino acid that your body turns into melatonin and serotonin, two very calming compounds. Eating foods containing tryptophan - like soy and dairy products (the classic: a glass of warm milk!), seafood, poultry, many kinds of legumes, and eggs - will help you more easily slip into sleep.

Tryptophan doesn't take effect immediately - give it an hour. To stay asleep, feed your body smart food combos. Snacks or meals that combine carbohydrates, calcium, and minimal protein work well, such as:

  • whole grain bread or crackers spread with almond butter or paired with a slice of low-fat cheese
  • yogurt sprinkled with granola
  • bowl of oatmeal or cereal with low-fat milk
  • banana spread with peanut butter
  • rice cake topped with slice of tomato or lean turkey breast
  • sliced apple and low-fat cheese

When you eat matters

Jam-packed schedules and long workdays see us sitting down to later dinners or stuffing our meals in on the run. Scarf down a big meal late in the day, and you instigate a cascade of physical process that can keep the body wide awake for hours.

If you were to lie down soon after a meal in hopes of falling asleep, your body has to go against gravity to process the food you've eaten. Digestion is hard work, and it's a job best done vertically!

Should you manage to fall asleep amidst that discomfort, you're likely to be awakened by gas and heartburn. On the other hand, going to bed on an unpleasantly empty stomach may keep you awake, too.

Sleep schedule
Eat at least a few hours before you plan on bedding down. If you need a snack to soothe a rumbling tummy, opt for a light snack that follows the sleep helpers snack rules. Caffeine can kick around in your body for hours, so avoid coffee, chocolate, pop, and other perk-up treats for at least 6 hours before bedtime.

Amy Toffelmire