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What You Eat Can Sabotage Your Sleep

Experts tell why your daytime activities may be causing insomnia at night.
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Midnight Marauders continued...

The National Sleep Foundation reports the effects of caffeine can cause problems falling asleep as much as 10-12 hours later in some people.

Nicotine often falls below the radar screen when it comes to sleep interruption, but it, like caffeine, is actually a stimulant. Research shows that nicotine is linked to problems with insomnia. Hunt says smoking within a few hours of bedtime should be avoided; better yet, don't smoke at all.

Spicy and acidic foods can also kill sleep efforts because they cause heartburn. Heartburn is especially problematic for people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also known as acid reflux. Why is eating these foods close to bedtime such a concern? Lying down makes heartburn worse, and the discomfort from heartburn hinders sleep.

But what about the old standbys -- such as drinking warm milk or having a nightcap -- to lull us to sleep? Do they truly work?

Milk contains a substance called tryptophan. The body uses this substance to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Serotonin helps control sleep patterns, appetite, pain, and other functions but unfortunately doesn't contain enough tryptophan to change our sleep patterns. However, Hunt says some people say it works and doesn't knock trying it.

Alcohol is a tricky substance: It's an undercover sleep marauder. It's also the most common self-medicated sedative, Hunt tells WebMD. Contrary to popular belief, that seemingly harmless nightcap before bed may be relaxing at first but has a rebound effect and can cause you to wake up in the wee hours of the night. So if you want some quality shut-eye, it's best to just say no.

If worse comes to worst, a sleeping pill could help. Sleeping pills are safe and effective in moderation. But doctors caution they are not a long-term solution for insomnia but merely a Band-Aid for the symptoms. A doctor may prescribe sleeping pills on a short-term basis for patients who are having a stressful period in their life, such as coping with the death of a loved one. Hunt also says natural remedies such as melatonin or valerian (sold in health-food stores) may provide some relief. But check with your doctor first -- some supplements can interfere with your regular prescription medication.

Don't Forget Exercise -- in the Daytime

While exercising close to bedtime can undermine your best efforts to sleep, doctors say regular exercise during the day can do wonders. Exercise can keep weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol in check, staving off other health conditions that can hinder sleep. It also boosts energy levels during the day and can help give you more restful sleep. Exercise can also relieve stress, another major cause of insomnia.

Hunt says you shouldn't exercise less than three hours before bedtime because exercise has an alerting effect. It also raises your body temperature. This rise leads to a drop in temperature five to six hours later, which makes it easier to sleep at that time. This may be why exercising in the late afternoon may be ideal -- and evening not.

This is more reason to go out and make the most of your day so a good night's sleep will be more than just a dream.

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