15 Foods That Keep You Awake

foods and insomnia

Is a good night’s sleep a distant dream? Is it hard to wind down at night so you can get some shut-eye? Or maybe you can get to sleep, but restlessness makes it hard to stay asleep?  If you can relate with any of these symptoms, then you are not alone.  Nearly 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from some sort of sleep disorder, with 10 to 30-percent of these individuals suffering from some form of insomnia.

Insomnia can have many different causes such as allergies, gastrointestinal disorders like acid reflux, or breathing issues like asthma or sleep apnea, among other causes. Besides such medical causes, anxiety and depression, or generalized stress can also keep you up at night.  If none of these reasons fit your case, then your sleep issue may be a result of something you are eating or drinking. Read below for the 15 most common culprits that are keeping you up at night.

1. Coffee and tea


These hot beverages can create a warm and cozy start or finish to the day. However, this same coziness can also create energy in the body that makes it hard to sleep. These beverages often contain caffeine that can stimulate energy by blocking the production of sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain. The average 8-ounce cup of caffeinated coffee contains 95 milligrams of caffeine, while the same amount of brewed black or green tea contains about 25 milligrams of caffeine. To put that in perspective, 8 ounces of the average energy drink contains between 27 and 164 milligrams of caffeine.

If you can’t seem to do without your coffee or tea fix, try to drink it earlier in the day, and stick to decaf beverages in the evening. This is because it takes the body up to six hours to eliminate half of your body’s stores of caffeine.  Also, try to limit caffeine to no more than 400 milligrams a day. If you find you are extra sensitive to caffeine, it may be safer to consume no more than 1 or 2 cups of caffeinated beverages, and only in the morning.

2. Whole grains

whole grains and sleep

Grains like brown rice, oats, barley, or rye can boost your energy reserves by providing slow, steady energy release.  The bran and fiber found in grains makes this possible. The bran is the outer layer of the grain that contains rich amounts of fiber that slow the breakdown of starch into glucose, so you can enjoy a longer stream of energy and feel fuller longer after eating.

In addition, grains contain a slew of vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins and iron, which can indirectly give you more energy. B vitamins don’t actually give you energy as much as they help convert energy from the food you eat to energy your body can use.  With iron, it is not going to be the next energy drink component, but it can help reduce fatigue, especially if you are anemic, or iron-deficient.

A 2012 study on the effects of iron supplementation on women with low ferritin and hemoglobin levels. Study results show that 12 weeks of 80 milligrams iron supplementation daily helped reduce fatigue scores by about 48-percent, compared to about 29-percent in the placebo group. When iron stores are low, then your body has a hard time delivering oxygenated blood from the heart to the body’s tissues. In turn, your oxygen-depleted body will feel fatigued. Foods highest in iron are iron-fortified breakfast cereals, like those high in whole grains.   If yo u want to rest soundly, then keep consumption of these grains to no less than several hours before bedtime.

3. Aged cheeses

cheese and difficulty sleeping

Aged cheeses like Swiss, cheddar, and parmesan are not the best choices for a bedtime snack. This is because these types of cheeses are high in the amino acid tyramine.  This amino acid assists in the prolonging of the actions of adrenergic transmitters that act to release adrenaline and norepinephrine into the body.   You may have heard adrenaline before in reference to an “adrenaline rush” that you might feel when you are really excited, stressed, or scared. Tyramine increases heart rate, which could make it hard to wind down before bedtime.

Tyramine isn’t the only reason that cheese could keep you up at night though.  Cheese is also high in fat, which if eaten before bed could cause indigestion.  Therefore, it is recommended to consume no less than 2 to 3 hours before bedtime, especially in those prone to acid reflux.

4. Avocado and other healthy fats

avocado before bed

Foods rich in healthy fats are great for keeping your mind sharp, but this is not a good thing when all you want to do is sleep. Healthy fats like avocado, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish like salmon, trout, and sardines contain B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants, which all work to improve brain power.

A 2017 study of patients with the mental health disorder schizophrenia found that low levels of omega-3 fatty acids were associated with cognitive impairment and poor social functioning. And since these foods contain fat, it may also cause digestion issues too soon before bedtime. Therefore, keep these beneficial foods for meal time earlier in the day.

5. Water

water before bedtime

You may be trying to fit in your eight cups or more of water into each day, but perhaps the work day is so busy that you end up drinking most of your water at night. Ambitious, but not such a good idea. This is because drinking water too soon before bedtime can cause an urge to urinate, which can make it hard to stay asleep. This is especially true for those more prone to having an urge to urinate at night such as pregnant women and those with diabetes.

Although water helps with digestion, temperature regulation, and transporting nutrients, it is just not a good bedtime ritual.  Try to get your glass of water in at least two hours before bedtime, unless you want to take a stroll to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

6. Fatty foods

fatty foods and sleep difficulty

Ice cream and other fatty foods like bacon, fried foods, and creamy soups and sauces, like cheese are not good choices for quelling nighttime hunger pangs. This is because these types of foods are not only high in fat, but they are especially heavy food choices.  Eating too close to bedtime does not give the body the time to properly digest such foods, so it can end up causing heartburn or indigestion.

Also, ice cream also packs a sugar punch that can keep you up. The added sugar in ice cream, even if you eat it several hours before bedtime, may still cause restless sleep in the middle of the night. Therefore, it might be a good idea to keep your sweets for the daytime hours.

7. Pasta

pasta and insomnia

High carbohydrate foods like pasta, bread, and rice can also be heavy on the stomach. These types of foods can make your stomach feel very full and bloated, which can put pressure on your digestive tract and make resting difficult.  Also, the simple carbohydrate content of refined white rice, bread, and pasta can break down into glucose molecules that keep you active for several hours after consumption. Processed versions of such foods may also contain added sugar or fat that can add to this heaviness and wreak further havoc.  Therefore, keep such carbohydrate-rich foods for earlier in the day and keep meals lighter in the evening so you can enjoy a good night’s sleep.

8. Spicy foods

spicy foods sleeplessness

Foods made with peppers and hot sauce may taste great and spice up your meal time. However, these tumultuous food toppings can cause heartburn that can make resting impossible. Spices with nightshade vegetable ingredients like chilies, bell peppers, paprika, red pepper flakes, and cayenne can overstimulate the nervous system in some individuals. This can cause anxiety in some people, which can make it hard to rest your head. Not to mention that spicy foods can increase risk of heartburn, which can cause pain and discomfort that can make falling and staying asleep difficult.

9. Alcohol

alcohol and waking up at night

Alcohol may seem like a sleep solution since it is technically a depressant substance, right? The calming effects of alcohol may last for a bit, but once digested, this effect quickly subsides. And if you consume too much alcohol, and not enough water, dehydration and headaches will take over and make bedtime restless and miserable. In addition, alcohol intake before bed can cause nightmares, so sweet dreams are not going to happen.10.

Research shows that alcohol delays REM sleep, or rapid eye movement, especially in the first half of sleep.  REM is a deep sleep that aids in memory and mood, so without it you may be at increased risk for cognitive issues.

10. Beef

red meat and insomnia

Animal proteins like steak and burgers are a common dinner entrée. However, when eating such protein, you should make sure you have a few hours before bedtime, so your food can digest properly. This is because protein is digested slowly compared to other foods, especially tougher meats like beef. This does not mean that protein in general is off limits before bed though since research shows that the tryptophan in most animal proteins, even milk, is converted in the brain to serotonin and then melatonin, which induces sleep.

11. Sugary foods

eating sweets before bedtime

High-sugar foods like candy, cake, cookies may taste great, but have several components that may make it hard to wind down before bed time.  Not only do these sweet treats contain high amounts of sugar, but they also are likely high in total refined carbohydrates. This feeds the brain and keeps your mind active, which can interrupt sleep. Also, some sweets contain chocolate, which as you will read about later, contains caffeine that can keep your energy running high. 

12. High acid fruit

citrus keeps you up at night

Acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus fruits like oranges or lemons can be a refreshing and tart addition to meal time. However, several factors may make them bad near bedtime. One reason is the acidic content of such foods that can increase risk of heartburn in some people. Another reason is the vitamin C content, which research has found to reduce fatigue.

A 2012 study looked at the effect of 10 grams of vitamin C on the fatigue of office workers. Study results show that those office workers who received the vitamin C reduced fatigue two hours after treatment and throughout the day as compared to their baseline scores and compared to those who received a placebo.

13. Beans

beans contribute to sleep difficulty

Beans are a well-known high fiber food that are high in oligosaccharides, which are carbohydrates fermented in the gut when consumed.  This can lead to a production of gas that can cause bloating and discomfort in some individuals, especially those with digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The digestive issues that may be caused by beans may make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep without visiting the bathroom. You can reduce the gas caused by beans by taking an enzyme known as alphagalactosidase. If you can tolerate beans without any gas or discomfort, then don’t cut them out of your diet just yet. This is because the B vitamins in beans can boost levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, which can help you relax and may help you sleep better.

14. Raw vegetables

raw vegetables contribute to sleep difficulty

Although a healthy choice, raw vegetables may not be the best thing to eat at night. This is because the high fiber content of such foods require the body to work a little harder to digest. Although fiber itself is not technically digested, it slows down the process of digestion of the food. Therefore, if you go straight to bed after eating a high-fiber meal, you could experience gas and bloating that could keep you up. That is not to say these foods are necessarily bad for sleep though.

A 2016 study looked at the effects of fiber intake on sleep quality. The study results show that those who consumed lower fiber and higher sugar had more arousals during sleep. Therefore, eating a high fiber diet throughout the day can actually help produce less disrupted and more restorative sleep.

15. Chocolate

chocolate and sleep

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, can be a sweet finish to dinner time.  However, there are several ingredients in chocolate that may not make it the best choice for a late-night dessert. First, chocolate is a well-known source of caffeine. Dark chocolate contains more caffeine than milk chocolate due to its higher cacao content. Secondly, chocolate contains sugar. Even in small amounts, sugar can keep the brain active and make it hard to wind down to sleep. Finally, chocolate contains the compound known as theobromine. Theobromine is a compound known as a methylxanthine, which is related to caffeine and can enhance mood and concentration levels. This can be great when trying to get work done in the day but can make falling asleep an impossible task.

If any of these foods and drinks do keep you up at night, you may be tempted to take medicines to quell your headache or stomach pains. Be careful however that some medicines can contain caffeine and delay your journey to bedtime.  Some acetaminophen and aspirin in headache, fever reducers, menstrual cramping medicines, and pain relievers may contain caffeine, so be sure to read the label before taking.

So, plan your evening meal accordingly, drink plenty of water prior to bedtime, and eliminate snacking from your nighttime routine so you can grab some shuteye and enjoy a restful night of sleep.  Just remember that if you still experience insomnia issues after eliminating these foods and drinks, be sure to visit your healthcare provider for further support and treatment.

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Staci Gulbin is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, health editor, and founder of LighttrackNutrition.com. Staci Gulbin has been a registered dietitian with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2010 and has over a decade of experience in the nutrition and dietetics industry. She has graduate degrees in Biology, Human Nutrition, and Nutrition and Education from New York University, the Columbia University Institute of Human Nutrition, and Teacher’s College, Columbia University, respectively. Staci has treated thousands of patients across many wellness arenas such as weight management, fitness, long-term care, rehab, and bariatric nutrition. She has helped them prevent and manage chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and digestive conditions, among other things with practical changes in their eating habits and lifestyle.