If you find yourself frequently tossing and turning instead of sleeping soundly through the night, consider this a (pardon my diction) wake-up call to make your beverage habits work for and not against you. We tapped Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RD, a dietitian based in Brooklyn, for expert-approved insights on drinking habits for better sleep. Caffeine fiends, nightcap aficionados, and those who take a few too many trips to the bathroom before sunrise: You’ll definitely want to keep reading.
- Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN, Brooklyn–based registered dietitian
4 RD-approved drinking habits for better sleep
1. Time your caffeine intake wisely
If you’re anything like me, the promise of coffee may be a driving force to help you crawl out of bed each morning… but on the flip side, it can also hinder your ability to hit the hay later at night. “It's important to understand how caffeine acts on a neurological level,” Pasquariello begins. “Neurons release adenosine during the day to control sleep, arousal, circulation, and more. When adenosine is released, it ‘pressures’ the body to rest; during the day, adenosine levels build up until the pressure is simply too high and it's time for bed.” However, she says that caffeine acts as an antagonist, competing with adenosine to bind to neuroreceptors. When caffeine overpowers adenosine for this space, the latter can’t do its job, thus heightening wakefulness and hindering natural, healthy sleep cycles.
“Caffeine has a fairly long half-life,” Pasquariello adds, “so it will stay in the body for five to 10 hours after you drink it. And the more caffeine you consume later in the day, the more jittery or wired you may feel when it's time to sleep.” For these reasons, she advises that we stop consuming caffeine relatively early in order to minimize the chances of it disrupting your ability to sleep. “I recommend trying to keep the last cup of caffeine to before noon,” she says. While that might be easier said than done (just me?), she suggests a few other energy-boosting pick-me-ups—such as getting fresh air, taking a brisk walk, or opting for a high-protein snack—to help you beat the afternoon slump.
Coffee aside, try to avoid consuming other sources of caffeine later in the day. “Decaf coffee, green and black tea, drinks containing guarana and yerba mate, and even some chewing gums also contain caffeine,” Pasquariello shares, as does one classic pre-bedtime treat: hot chocolate. “That said, the average amount of caffeine present in hot chocolate won't affect your sleep nearly as much as coffee will,” she says. “You'd need to consume about 50 grams of pure cocoa (over a half a cup) to consume roughly equivalent to the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee.” In other words, hot cocoa can be fair game as a warming nighttime beverage—but you may want to cut back if you’re sensitive to caffeine and/or your sleep quality isn’t as stellar as you’d like it to be.
2. Skip the nightcaps
While you may find that an alcoholic drink or two may help you fall asleep pretty quickly, the truth is that they'll end up hurting your overall sleep quality. On this point, Pasquariello says that imbibing can disrupt both your rapid eye movement (REM) and slow wave sleep (SWS) cycles. “When you have a few drinks, the amount of REM sleep you get decreases, and REM onset (i.e., when you experience your first REM cycle in the night) is delayed,” she explains. REM sleep is essential for memory formation and dreaming, and disruptions to it—via alcohol and other factors—can negatively affect your shuteye, cognition, mental health, and more. Plus, alcohol intake is known to make us wake up throughout the night. “This is not ideal, since the more we're waking up, the harder it is to get the REM cycles we need,” Pasquariello adds.
Moreover, Pasquariello says that alcohol is thought to disrupt the normal properties of SWS (the deepest stage of non-REM sleep), interfering with how refreshed we feel upon waking. Among other things, she continues, SWS is also “vital for regulating metabolism and assisting in growth and development.” However, she notes that alcohol intake may prompt us to get more SWS than we need—which may sound innocuous, but in reality may inhibit us from getting enough of other stages of sleep necessary to feel and function our best. “Sleep stage timing is a delicate balance,” she cautions.
All of this is to say that if you rely on alcohol to catch your ZZZ’s, you’ll be better off adopting healthier drinking habits that actually promote higher quality rest.
3. Aim to consume less liquids as the night winds down
If you wake up in the twilight hours all too often to relieve your bladder, you already know how disruptive it can be to your sleep quality and next-day energy levels. “Nighttime trips to the bathroom (aka nocturia) can have a variety of causes, such as drinking excess fluids right before bed, and drinking caffeine or alcohol,” Pasquariello shares. Certain medications, blood sugar fluctuations, and digestive issues are additional contributing factors, she notes.
To limit your late night (or early morning) trips to the bathroom, Pasquariello says a few minor lifestyle tweaks can come to the rescue. “It can be helpful to limit caffeine and alcohol—especially later in the day—and limit fluids in general for a couple of hours before bedtime,” she shares. Of course, feel free to sip (rather than chug) on H2O or another non-stimulating beverage as desired as you inch your way closer to bedtime. Just don’t forget to stay on top of your hydration game earlier in the day, and be sure to make one final trip to the bathroom before you cozy up under the covers.
4. Sip your way to better sleep
Now that we know that caffeine and alcohol are off the table even before the sun sets, you may want to delight your palate with tasty beverages that aren’t plain water. And yes, I know that we just said that it may be best to limit your fluid intake closer to bedtime—but you can test the (ahem) waters to find out what works best for you. In fact, some drinks actually have the potential to improve sleep.
While Pasquariello says that peer-reviewed research is limited when it comes to herbs as natural remedies for sleep, anecdotally, she shares that “chamomile, spearmint, lemongrass, and lavender can all help encourage a restful state.” In tea form, these calming—and oftentimes aromatherapeutic—herbs can promote relaxation and ease, and thus better rest. She also notes that tart cherry juice can increase natural levels of melatonin (aka the sleep hormone), and drinks with magnesium “may help regulate the neurological conditions that induce sleep.”
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