Prairie Fare: Try These Tips to Improve Your Sleep

By Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist
NDSU Extension

“I couldn’t sleep well last night, and I’m a bear,” my husband cautioned as we were getting ready for work.

I understood that he was not going to be a teddy bear. I took a detour on our home to avoid interaction.

Actually, he wasn’t a grumpy grizzly bear. I get cranky, too, especially when I am not well rested.

I think his sleep issue was related to caffeine. He had about 20 ounces of caffeinated pop while we were shopping the previous afternoon.

“Perfect sleep” is a rarity in our society. Most of us have times when rest does not come easily.

Raise your hand if you sleep soundly every night. That means seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep for adults. Youth need more sleep. You can put your hand down if it is up.

An estimated one out of three people experience sleep issues on an ongoing basis according to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Now raise your hand if your sleep pattern has stayed the same or worsened during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, our collective insomnia has gotten worse.

The American Psychological Association has noted that disordered sleeping affected two out of three of us during the past couple of years of the pandemic. Many people were housebound and stressed by issues beyond our control.

Sleep is vital to mental and physical health. Too little sleep may increase our risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Regardless of our age, we may not perform as well at school and work and other activities in our daily lives.

Too little sleep is linked with an increased risk of chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease.

Have you ever mistaken tiredness for hunger? Two hormones naturally found in our bodies (leptin and ghrelin) act to help regulate our hunger and satiety in a complex chain of chemical events.

Leptin acts as a natural appetite-regulating hormone. The level of leptin decreases with too little sleep. Leptin acts in conjunction with another hormone, ghrelin, which increases feelings of hunger.

Therefore, researchers have pointed out that too little sleep can promote weight gain and potentially, obesity.

What can you do to promote better sleep? The CDC recommends maintaining good “sleep hygiene.” This has nothing to do with a bath or shower before bed. Sleep hygiene means that you maintain a consistent sleep schedule on weekdays and weekends.

Maintain your bedroom at a comfortable temperature, and be sure it is quiet and dark. Keep electronic devices such a TV, computers and phones out of the bedroom.

Aim to get some exercise during the day. With regular physical activity, you may find that your sleep improves.

Avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol before bedtime. Although an alcohol-containing “night cap” may sound enticing, it may disrupt your sleep. You may want to stop your caffeine intake by mid-afternoon or earlier. A research study showed that having caffeine six hours before bedtime can affect sleep.

Avoid heavy meals before attempting sleep. Consuming an evening meal containing higher fiber and protein with less saturated fat can improve sleep results.

Try foods containing the amino acid tryptophan, which is a protein building block found in turkey, milk and many other foods. It helps your body produce a sleep-related hormone, melatonin, which aids in falling asleep. Don’t eat a Thanksgiving dinner, though. Having a little milk before bed may actually help you fall asleep. By the way, if you like hot cocoa, be aware that chocolate contains caffeine.

Be sure to enjoy foods and beverages rich in B vitamins. If your diet lacks B vitamins, your body may not produce melatonin as efficiently. Foods rich in B vitamins include fortified grain foods and milk. How about a bowl of fortified cereal and milk as a bedtime snack?

Consult a healthcare professional before adding sleep-promoting dietary supplements to your routine. Some supplements interact with prescription drugs. Some supplements have little to no research to back up the claims.

If you have ongoing sleep issues, let your healthcare provider know. See https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/index.html for more tips.

Here’s a warm milk-based dessert or bedtime snack perfect for a cold winter night. This comfort food is courtesy of Purdue Extension.

Rice Pudding

1 cup low-fat or fat-free milk

1 cup water

1 cup rice, uncooked

2 large eggs

1 cup evaporated fat-free milk (divided)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/4 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

In a saucepan, heat milk and water. Add rice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, and stir every 10 minutes. Cook uncovered until rice is tender, about 30 minutes. In a large bowl, mix eggs, 3/4 cup evaporated milk, vanilla and sugar. Set aside. Add remaining 1/4 cup of evaporated milk to rice mixture. Spoon 1 cup of rice mixture into egg mixture and stir. Pour egg-rice mixture into remaining rice. Heat pudding until it boils, stirring continuously. Remove from heat and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Makes eight servings. Each serving has 155 calories, 1 gram (g) of fat, 6.5 g of protein, 29 g of carbohydrate, 0 g of fiber and 68 milligrams of sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson)