The Effects of Food and Drink

Does a glass of warm milk before bedtime really contain enough of the amino acid tryptophan to help you fall asleep? Yes.

A number of studies suggest that drinking warm milk before retiring for the night not only can shorten the amount of time it takes to fall asleep but also make the sleep more restful.

Not only the warm milk, but the act of warming the milk, of taking care of yourself, in a quiet setting also helps. It could be an "auto-suggestive technique" akin to "low-level hypnotherapy" that proves calming enough to bring on sleep.

Whatever the mechanism, for the estimated 10 to 17 percent of the adult U.S. population with insomnia, warm milk may be worth considering. Add in the millions of Americans who choose to burn the candle at both ends by averaging no more than seven hours of sleep a night when they should be getting at least eight, and you've got the majority of the population in a sleep-deprivation epidemic.

It's serious. Some $100 billion is lost yearly in productivity, sick leave, medical expenses, and property damage due to lack of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 100,000 crashes a year are caused by drivers nodding off behind the wheel. Thousands die in these accidents.

Admittedly, a glass of warm milk isn't going to solve the nation's sleep problem. But paying attention to what you consume—and when—can benefit the quality and quantity of your slumber. Here are several other food-related "sleep hygiene" steps to consider.

  • Try chamomile tea
    Chamomile is considered to have a mild sedative effect.
  • Don't have a nightcap
    Alcohol may help some people fall asleep, but it interferes with substances in the brain that allow for continuous sleep. The result is repeated waking (or partial waking) through the night, leading to fewer hours of truly deep, restful sleep. (A drink at dinner is okay, but avoid drinking between dinner and bedtime.)
  • Don't eat a large meal too close to bedtime
    Typically, it takes about four hours after eating for the stomach to empty its contents. But the acid secreted to break down those contents can last up to seven hours. That's a particular problem for those with acid reflux and the ensuing heartburn and other gastric distress it causes; such discomfort can keep people awake.

    Eating too close to bedtime could also cause spontaneous arousal, or lightening of one's sleep, for reasons that don't appear to have anything to do with reflux.
     
  • But don't go to bed too hungry, either
    Going many hours without food causes the release of a hormone called glucagon, which sends a signal to let more sugar into the bloodstream. But glucagon has side effects that are thought to be similar to those of adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone that creates a state of agitation.

    People with anxiety disorders might be especially sensitive to that effect and thus might want to be especially conscientious about not going to bed with a rumbling stomach. (Maybe that's the reason a glass of warm milk induces sleepiness in some people it staves off hunger.)
  • For restless leg syndrome, talk to your doctor about taking supplements of iron or vitamin E
    Up to five percent of the population has restless leg syndrome, which worsens when the body is inactive and thereby causes a very strong urge to move the legs and interrupt sleep. Some sufferers have an iron deficiency and see their symptoms diminish with iron supplementation. If you have these symptoms, have your doctor check your iron status.
  • Be aware of caffeine and other drug ingredients
    You already know that a cup of coffee has about 85 milligrams of caffeine—enough to interfere with a good night's sleep, since the powerful drug can exert a stimulant effect for up to seven hours. But were you aware that some over-the-counter pain medications, if taken several times a day, contribute as much caffeine as several cups of coffee?

  • A two-tablet dose of Extra Strength Excedrin, for example, contains 130 milligrams, while Anacin contains 64 milligrams. The "active ingredients" part of any over-the-counter drug label will tell you the number of milligrams of caffeine per dose.

Ingredients in cold medicines such as ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine, also act as stimulants—which is why some drugs taken to get a better night's sleep during a cold or flu contribute to sleeplessness after a few nights

Prescription drugs can take their toll on sleep, too.

If you are taking a drug on a regular basis and have difficulty sleeping, ask your physician if the drug could be at least partly responsible—and whether the dosage or the timing of the drug taking could be modified.

©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

© UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA UPMC.com