Drinking coconut milkYou wouldn’t think dietary choices would differentiate people who have trouble falling asleep from people who have trouble staying asleep. But apparently they do.

This is the conclusion of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who looked at data collected from over 4,500 participants in a national health survey. The diet of people with sleep-onset insomnia is different from the diet of people with sleep-maintenance insomnia, and both groups make different dietary choices than people who sleep well. It’s possible that making changes to your diet will improve your sleep.

A Common Finding

Both types of insomnia sufferers have diets low in dodecanoic acid. This saturated fatty acid (a.k.a. lauric acid) is abundant in coconuts and coconut oil. Added to the diet, lauric acid increases high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) without affecting levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Not only is cooking with coconut oil a wise choice when it comes to protecting your heart; it may also improve your sleep. Palm kernel oil (not regular palm oil) is also high in lauric acid.

If You Have Trouble Falling Asleep

Insomnia at the beginning of the night is associated with eating fewer foods containing alpha carotene, selenium, and calcium. The U-Penn study doesn’t show that eating more of these nutrients will necessarily improve your sleep—but neither does it rule out the possibility. So if you’re prone to tossing and turning when you go to bed, try eating more of these foods:

  • Carrots, pumpkin, and squash. These orange vegetables contain lots of alpha carotene.
  • Fish and seafood, meat, Brazil nuts, and sunflower seeds. These foods are high in selenium, which enhances immune function, lowers the risk of chronic inflammation, and is likely beneficial to sleep.
  • Dairy products, dark leafy greens, and calcium-fortified cereals and beverages. These foods contain lots of calcium, which tends to lower blood pressure and may also improve sleep.

If You Have Trouble Staying Asleep

On average, according to this study, the diet of people who experience middle-of-the night awakenings is high in salt. If you’re aiming for fewer wake-ups, try cutting down on salt. A low sodium diet also helps prevent high blood pressure.

Middle-of-the-night awakenings are also associated with diets low in butyric acid, vitamin D, and lycopene, nutrients you can obtain by eating these foods:

  • Whole fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Eating these foods leads to increased production of butyric acid in the gut and guards against inflammation of the digestive tract and cancer.
  • Fish and vitamin D-fortified cereals and soy products. Your body also produces vitamin D when you’re exposed to sunlight.
  • Tomatoes, guava, watermelon, papaya, and grapefruit. These foods are high in lycopene. Low levels of lycopene are also associated with very short sleep (less than 5 hours a night).

These foods are nutritious and healthful for many reasons. Will eating more of them improve your sleep? You’ll never know unless you try them out.

(Part I of this two-part series was published on May 5.)

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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