Foods That Keep You Awake

10/26/2012 05:07 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2015

By Corrie Pikul

You know not to drink coffee after 4 p.m., but what about these other surprising stimulants?

  • Sports-Bar Food
    Research shows that high-fat indulgences such as french fries, potato chips and mozzarella sticks can not only throw off the scale, but they can also disrupt sleep cycles.

    A better sleep snack: Edamame (boiled soybeans in the pod, served sprinkled with salt) is high in magnesium, which has been shown in some studies to improve the quality of sleep of insomnia patients.
  • Crudité
    Raw broccoli, cauliflower and carrots will make you feel full quickly... but will still be moving uncomfortably through your digestive system long after you pull up the covers.

    A better sleep snack: Bananas contain sleep-inducing tryptophan and magnesium as well as (bonus!) potassium, which can prevent a middle-of-the-night charley horse.
  • Cured Meats
    Bacon, pepperoni and sausage contain high levels of tyrosine, an amino acid that boosts the secretion of the brain stimulant norepinephrine. They can also cause sleep-disrupting indigestion.

    A better sleep snack: Don't fall for the ol' turkey sandwich myth: "There is simply no scientifically acceptable evidence that turkey protein has any particular effect on the brain or your behavior," says Richard Wurtman, MD, a professor of neuropharmacology at M.I.T. Turkey does contain tryptophan, but the protein's other amino acids prevent tryptophan from getting into the brain -- therefore, no serotonin production after eating turkey, or tofu, or tuna. Forget the turkey, but not the bread: If you eat a light carbohydrate snack by itself, it boosts the production of serotonin, says Judith Wurtman, PhD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet (and, coincidentally, Richard Wurtman's wife). "The result: calmness, a tranquil mind -- and sleep."
  • Heart-Healthy Chocolate
    You know chocolate has caffeine, but you may be surprised to hear that some of the darker bars can have as much as 80 milligrams -- the amount in a can of Red Bull. As a general rule, the darker the chocolate, the stronger the stimulant.

    A better sleep snack: Save the chocolate for breakfast (really! Research shows it can help you maintain a healthy weight), and at night, snack on trail mix with walnuts, almonds and dried tart cherries. All three are edible sources of melatonin, a hormone that promotes a more restful sleep.
  • Slumber-Party Snacks
    Some studies have suggested that gorging on ice cream and candy bars a half-hour before bed can cause nightmares.

    A better sleep snack: Nonfat popcorn will take the edge off your hunger but won't make you feel stuffed... or scared.
  • A Decaf Latte
    A 2007 Consumer Reports study found that the amount of caffeine in "decaf" drinks sold at coffee shops varied from less than 5 milligrams to levels high enough to interfere with sleep. While a generic 8-ounce cup of decaf has 3 to 12 milligrams, a decaf from Dunkin' Donuts had 32 milligrams -- as much as a 12-ounce bottle of Coke.

    A better sleep snack: There's no conclusive proof that chamomile tea will put you to sleep, but it's been used for thousands of years as a natural calming remedy.

As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story claimed that a turkey sandwich will make you sleepy (yes! We fell for it, too). A neuropharmacologist and a serotonin researcher helped us bust this persistent myth.