The 5 Worst Foods for Sleep, According to a Sleep Expert

Sugary desserts and caffeinated beverages are some of the worst foods for sleep.
Image Credit: AndreyPopov/iStock/GettyImages

Food gives you the energy you need to function. That said, you may want to avoid having certain foods at night: Caffeinated drinks and chocolate are among the worst foods for sleep, just to name a few.

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With busy lives and so many distractions, it's hard enough to get the recommended eight hours of sleep every night. But while it can be difficult to put down your favorite foods and drinks by a certain time, doing so could be the solution to your sleep problems.

If getting a good night's rest is your priority, avoid or limit the worst foods for sleep listed below— especially around bedtime.

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1. Caffeinated Drinks

It may seem like a no-brainer, but caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea and soda are some of the worst foods for sleep health. There's a reason why people often start their day with a cup of coffee: A dose of caffeine perks you up and increases your mental alertness.

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An estimated 90 percent of American adults drink caffeine-infused beverages on an almost daily basis, according to December 2018 research in Risk Management and Healthcare Policy. But unfortunately, taking in a lot of caffeine or having your caffeine too late in the day can disrupt sleep.

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What's worse: People will often use caffeine to offset the effects of sleep deprivation, creating a cycle of depending on it to stay alert during the day and then being too overstimulated to sleep at night.

"Caffeine is a melatonin suppressant, which could cancel out the benefits of adding melatonin-rich foods to your diet," says Michael J. Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist, sleep author and diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. "Drinking even one cup of coffee within a few hours of sleep is a bad idea, as caffeine has a half-life of about five hours for most people."

In other words, it takes an average of five hours for half of the caffeine you take in to be eliminated from your body, according to the US Institute of Medicine Committee on Military Nutrition Research.). This research also pointed out that it may be even longer for some people — up to 10 hours.

Though some people claim that caffeine doesn't interfere with sleep, caffeine in drinks like coffee, tea, energy drinks and soda should generally be avoided before bedtime.

2. Spicy Foods

Curry is considered one of the worst foods for sleep because of its characteristic spiciness. Eating spicy foods can cause heartburn and acid reflux, which can interfere with sleep because of the physical discomfort you feel when you lie down, according to John Hopkins Medicine.

"Researchers believe capsaicin, a compound found in spicy foods, could be one culprit behind sleep troubles," Breus says. As you wind down at night, your internal body temperature must naturally drop. "But capsaicin is thought to raise your internal body temperature, which interferes with comfortable sleep."

When it comes to sleep, the ideal temperature range in your environment is 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

3. Alcohol

It may come as a surprise that alcohol interferes with sleep because people often use it to relax and unwind sleepy. In fact, alcohol is a sedative, so it ​can​ make you sleepy.

While it's true that it can help you fall asleep, drinking alcohol before bed won't help with staying asleep or getting quality sleep. Even small amounts of alcohol can seriously disrupt your Zs, according to the National Insititute on Aging.

"Alcohol acts as a diuretic, which leads to more trips to the bathroom during the night," Breus says. "Alcohol also makes it harder for you to reach REM sleep, the important final stage of sleep that helps regulate mood and improve memory retention."

The link between alcohol use and sleep has been thoroughly researched. It impairs sleep quality and its effects carry over into the next day, resulting in hangovers and reduced activity levels, according to a May 2019 study in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

It's also associated with other sleep issues, such as nightmares, insomnia, breathing problems and sleepwalking, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

4. Chocolate

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is rich in antioxidants. It also has some caffeine, which is a stimulant that perks you up. Drinking a glass of chocolate milk or having a bowl of chocolate ice cream right before bed may be a tasty treat, but it might keep you awake past your bedtime.

There isn't as much caffeine in chocolate as there is in coffee, but it can still affect your sleep. A 1-ounce serving of dark chocolate with 70 to 85 percent cocoa has 22.7 milligrams of caffeine, according to the USDA.

This might not seem like a lot, but again, it can take between five and 10 hours for caffeine to completely clear from your bloodstream, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

5. Sugar

There are many reasons to eat less sugar — it's the arch nemesis of healthy gums, and a diet high in added sugar ups the risk for many diseases. Sleep experts also warn that sugary snacks rank high among the worst foods for sleep

"There is evidence that eating more sugar is linked to more restless, disrupted sleep," Breus says. It's true: High amounts of added sugar have been associated with poor sleep quality, according to a January 2022 study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Researchers recommend limiting calories from sugar to less than 10 percent of your total daily calories.

Getting Better Sleep

If you aren't sleeping soundly — meaning you having trouble falling or staying asleep — Dr. Breus says there are some small changes you can make:

  • Avoid caffeine six hours before bedtime
  • Create a comfortable and cool sleep environment
  • Limit screen time in the evening
  • Avoid drinking alcohol before bed
  • Stick to a sleep schedule
  • Exercise during the day

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