Foods that can help with insomnia

Q. Do you have any recommendations for what to eat to help falling and staying asleep? I read the following:

“Try eating a kiwi. High levels of antioxidants and serotonin in the fruit may regulate slumber. Or, try a spoon of almond butter. One tablespoon offers up a healthy dose of magnesium. Deficiencies of that mineral have been linked to muscle cramps and insomnia.”

A. Believe it or not, both of these recommendations are supported by actual published research. A small study of 24 people experiencing sleep disturbances found that eating 2 kiwi fruit 1 hour before bedtime every night for 4 weeks led to significant improvements in their sleep quality. Unfortunately, there was no control group, so it’s hard to say how much of this effect was due to placebo effect.

Seeing as anxiety about not sleeping often makes insomnia worse, it’s easy to imagine that the hope/belief that something you are eating will make you fall asleep could make things a lot better.

Another (better designed) study found that taking 500 mg of magnesium at bedtime helped older people fall asleep sooner and sleep better through the night. However, you’d have to eat not one but 11 tablespoons of almond butter to get that much magnesium. A supplement would probably be more practical (and less caloric!).

Turkey and other foods high in the amino acid tryptophan are often touted as foods-to-make-you-sleepy.  But tryptophan only makes you drowsy if consumed in large amounts on an empty stomach, without any other amino acids present. (Like most protein foods, turkey contains lots of different amino acids.)

But if you’re plagued to sleepless nights, I think it makes sense to match the cure to the cause. Frequently, there are non-nutritional factors at work, in which case nutritional solutions probably aren’t going to be very effective.

  • If stress or worry is keeping you awake, learning relaxation techniques or listening to a guided meditation might be far more effective than any food or supplement. This is one of my favorite guided meditations for inducing sleep.
  • Sleeping in a room that is very dark, quiet, and somewhat cool can also help a lot. I always travel with a sleep mask to block out light. (I like the kind that doesn’t touch your eyelids.) I find earplugs uncomfortable so I use a free smart phone app called Signal Generator to generate sound-absorbing pink noise that blocks out random sounds that would otherwise wake me up.
  • Blue light from your computer, tablet or phone can powerfully suppress the normal evening release of melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep. If you frequently use these devices before bed, cutting down on evening screen time or buying blue-light blocking glasses may make a world of difference.  See also: Can melatonin help you sleep?
  • If heartburn from acid reflux is waking you up in the middle of the night, putting your bed on blocks could be part of the solution. (And a bedtime snack might make things worse.) See also: How to Avoid Reflux.
  • Of course, you’d want to avoid foods or substances that have a stimulating effect before bedtime.

Finally, as someone who occasionally suffers from restless nights, I have taken comfort from recent reports that the 8-hour sleep shift that we all aspire to is a relatively recent invention.  A short night’s sleep coupled with a nap later in the day may work just as well as 8 hours of uninterrupted nighttime slumber.

Is fruit more nutritious when it’s ripe?

Evie asks: “Is fruit more nutritious when ripe than unripe? For example, would a green banana have less potassium than a yellow one?”

The nutritional content of fruits (including those fruits we think of as vegetables) absolutely changes as the fruit ripens. Whether you would consider it more or less nutritious might depend on your definition, though! Continue reading “Is fruit more nutritious when it’s ripe?” >

Can an anti-inflammatory diet ease aches and pains?

Q. “My physical therapist suggested I go on an anti-inflammatory diet to help with joint pain. From what I can find on the Internet, this is a diet that limits saturated fat and simple carbohydrates (white flour, sugars) and concentrates on fruits, veggies, fish, olive oil and whole grains. Is there evidence that an anti-inflammatory diet can help with pain?” Continue reading “Can an anti-inflammatory diet ease aches and pains?” >

What to look for when choosing an infant formula

What to look for when choosing a baby formula

Kelly writes:

“I recently gave birth and despite my best efforts, breastfeeding did not work out for us. Can you provide some kind of framework to make a good choice of formula? I’m sad I can’t give my son breastmilk and I want to give him the next best thing. Are there certain ingredients to look for or to avoid ? Is organic worth it? 

Although breast-feeding is considered to be ideal, there are many for whom this is not possible.  (As a side note, my sympathy goes out to those who are made to feel guilty or inferior for feeding their infants formula. Promoting the benefits of breast-feeding is one thing; demonizing or criticizing women who cannot or do not breast-feed is another.)

I also sympathize with parents faced with the daunting prospect of choosing the “right” formula from an overwhelming array of options.  Let me start by ratcheting down the angst: Babies are remarkably resilient. Like larger humans, they have the ability to thrive even when they do not always have perfect diets. That said, of course we want to do the best we can for them.

Although this should not take the place of the advice of your pediatrician, here are a few thoughts on what to look for and/or avoid in a baby formula. Continue reading “What to look for when choosing an infant formula” >

Are there nutritional benefits to dehydrating fruits and veggies?

“I read that dehydrators are the in thing this year. Clearly dried fruits are going to contain more sugars per handful than the original fruit but might there be nutritional benefits from drying foods?”

Food dehydrators can be a great way to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables and to create portable, nutritious snacks. Although dried fruits are ever-popular, you can also dry vegetables and herbs.

So, when fresh garden tomatoes are overflowing your counter-tops in September, you can load them into your dehydrator and dry them to use through the winter. Green beans or kale leaves can be lightly salted and turned into addictive crunchy snacks. With a little extra prep, you can make your own homemade fruit leathers, crackers, and jerky! More ideas here. Continue reading “Are there nutritional benefits to dehydrating fruits and veggies?” >

Should I stop being vegetarian to reduce my risk of diabetes?


Q. I am a healthy, normal weight woman in my early 20s. I am also a vegetarian. Because there is a strong family history of type 2 diabetes (both parents and all four grandparents), my doctor suggested I adopt a relatively low-carb diet to reduce the risk of getting the disease myself.  But does going low-carb require me to give up my vegetarian lifestyle? Can a plant-based diet also reduce my risk, even if it’s high in complex carbs like whole grains and beans?

A.The good news is that being a vegetarian does substantially reduce the risk of getting Type 2 diabetes, despite the fact that vegetarians diets tend to be higher in carbohydrates than omnivorous diets.  Much of this risk reduction has to do with the fact that vegetarians are less likely to be overweight.

However, does this still hold true when diabetes runs in the family? Keep in mind that genes aren’t the only things that are passed down from generation to generation.  We also tend to inherit lifestyle habits and eating patterns. Continue reading “Should I stop being vegetarian to reduce my risk of diabetes?” >