Restful sleep is important to every human. If you’ve ever tended to a newborn or gotten up repeatedly in the night with caregiving duties, you know what a luxury a good night’s sleep is—and how tough it can be to achieve.
Foods that promote sleep:
- Tart cherry juice
- Lima beans
Foods that disrupt sleep:
- Deli meats
- Cured cheese
It might surprise you to know that all adults over 18 need seven hours or more of solid sleep per night, including those over age 65. Although poor sleep quality is not directly life-threatening, it can impair the immune system of older adults and lead to increased illness, anxiety and depression.
And you may already be aware how interruptions to the natural sleep/wake cycle can take a toll on caregivers.
Thankfully, caregivers can make small changes to a senior’s diet that can help improve everyone’s sleep.
Choose foods that promote sleep
Increasing evidence links the typical American diet (low in fiber and high in processed foods, added sugars and red meat) to getting less sleep. But it can be difficult to break the habit of buying pre-packaged convenience foods. Instead, make small changes, and consider adding the following items to the menu the next time you’re planning meals.
Oatmeal and milk
Oats are a source of complex carbohydrates, keeping blood sugar stable and assisting with sleep. Using milk to cook the oats (or soak them overnight) adds dairy, which is rich in vitamins D, C, B6, B12, calcium and magnesium. Try our tasty slow cooker carrot cake oatmeal or banana bread overnight oats recipes for variations on traditional favorites.
Yogurt and walnuts
Greek and regular yogurt contain tryptophan, an amino acid with a reputation for making people drowsy. Your body converts tryptophan into serotonin and melatonin, two hormones that promote a long, restful sleep. Plus, when yogurt is topped with walnuts, you get the added benefit of magnesium, which has been shown to improve insomnia in the elderly.
Tart cherry juice and kiwifruit
Aside from reducing inflammation caused by gout and easing the pain and stiffness of osteoarthritis, tart cherry juice helps the body create melatonin. Choose unsweetened tart cherries, which are often sold dried, frozen or juiced. If your loved one prefers something sweeter, pick up some kiwifruit to help with better sleep.
Salmon and oysters
When selecting a protein that boosts sleep cycles, consider salmon and oysters. Not only do these foods have high concentrations of vitamin D, which leads to better sleep, they are also full of omega-3, a nutrient that regulates serotonin. These easy salmon foil packets are fast and packed with nutrition.
Potatoes and lima beans
If your loved one is resistant to trying new tastes, you might shop for potatoes and lima beans (also known as butter beans). Many older people grew up eating these foods, which produce sleep-inducing amino acids. Plus, potatoes and beans contain phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin B6 to help you stay asleep. Try Amish potatoes with lima beans for a delicious, old-fashioned dish that is high in fiber, diabetes-friendly and low in sodium.
Foods that can disrupt sleep
Even though alcohol causes some people to fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply, the effects aren’t long-lasting. Alcohol disrupts important sleep stages when it wears off, leaving users tired when they wake. It can also worsen apnea symptoms and add to sleepwalking episodes and memory problems. You might try a relaxing mug of warm water or herbal tea instead of wine, but hold off on bedtime liquids if your loved one struggles with incontinence at night.
Sorry, pizza and pasta! Tomatoes and tomato sauce contain tyramine, an amino acid which can trigger brain activity and keep you from falling asleep. Tomatoes are also highly acidic, which can exacerbate heartburn. If nighttime heartburn is an issue for your loved one, you might encourage them to sleep on their left side or try an adjustable bed.
Many people notice that as they age, they can’t eat the same foods they enjoyed when they were younger. Too often, spicy foods fall into this category, adding to insomnia and causing acid reflux, which can be particularly bad at night. If your older adult still loves spicy food, encourage them to eat it earlier in the day, avoiding it at least three hours before bedtime.
Deli meats and cured cheese
It’s easy to reach for sandwich ingredients like processed meats and hard cheeses when you need a quick meal, but these ingredients contain tyramine. Tyramine signals the brain to release norepinephrine, stimulating the “flight or fight” response that keeps the body awake.
Although chocolate contains caffeine, it’s a treat many seniors refuse to give up. Limit your loved one’s chocolate intake to lunchtime if possible. Opt for dark chocolate, which is the least processed and contains flavonoids, which act as antioxidants. You might even add some nutrition to chocolate pudding for an indulgent dessert earlier in the day.
Many factors affect sleep
Regardless of what research suggests, different foods affect individuals differently. The best general guideline is to avoid giving meals or snacks at least three hours before bedtime and to avoid caffeine. But keep in mind that factors such as illness, medications, body weight, sleep apnea and bladder issues all have an impact on the length and quality of sleep.
If insomnia is a chronic problem, you might try tracking your loved one’s food and sleep habits in a caregiving journal to identify patterns. Over time, you may recognize a correlation between certain foods or medications and episodes of sleeplessness. In any case, be kind to your loved one (and yourself) when those restless nights happen—because no one enjoys counting sheep.