Best and worst foods for sleep

What you snack on before bedtime matters.
Health.com // Health.com

From early birds to night owls, we all can agree that when we finally lay our heads on the pillow we'd like to actually go to sleep, thank you.

Nothing is more annoying than insomnia, and the evidence is piling up that sleep is essential for good health. Although the research is a bit spotty when it comes to which foods help or harm sleep, anecdotal evidence does suggest that certain items consumed right before bedtime are more likely to be "sleep promoters," while others may be "sleep stealers," says Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D., CEO of the National Sleep Foundation.

Here's a list of potential good guys and bad guys when it comes to getting some shut-eye.

--By Amanda Gardner, Health.com

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Cherries

Best

Cherries are one of the few natural foods to contain melatonin, the chemical that helps control our body's internal clock, says Keri Gans, a registered dietician in New York City and author of The Small Change Diet.

One study -- albeit a small one -- found that drinking tart cherry juice resulted in small improvements in sleep duration and quality in adults who suffered from chronic insomnia. (And travelers often take melatonin capsules to combat jet lag).

Why not a few cherries, tart or otherwise, to promote sleep?

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Bacon cheeseburger

Worst

The stratospheric fat content of this particular fast food is guaranteed to be a sleep killer.

Fat stimulates the production of acid in the stomach, which can spill up into your esophagus, causing heartburn. Fatty foods can also loosen the lower esophageal sphincter, the barrier between the stomach and the esophagus, making it even easier for acid to get in all the wrong places.

In fact, there's almost nothing to recommend this kind of high-fat, salt-laden indulgence if you want to preserve your health, including the quality of your sleep.

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Milk

Best

You may have fond memories of your mother or grandmother making you a glass of warm milk to help you fall asleep.

This may not be just an old wives' tale. Milk contains the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the brain chemical serotonin.

Although the topic is a controversial one, some people believe that tryptophan and serotonin might make it easier to sleep. Or maybe a simple glass of milk brings back soothing childhood memories, which help you drift off.

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Wine

Worst

Alcohol of any kind is "terrible" for sleep, says Rosenberg. Why? It metabolizes quickly in your system and causes you to wake up multiple times during the night.

One study found that a glass of bourbon or vodka mixed with caffeine-free soda at bedtime increased the amount of time women spent awake during the night by 15 minutes. It also reduced nightly sleep time by 19 minutes and diminished quality of sleep.

If you don't refrain from alcohol for our own benefit, do it for your mate. "Alcohol makes snoring worse, so it will impact you and your potential bed partner," said Rosenberg.

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Rice

Best

Jasmine rice ranks high on the glycemic index, meaning the body digests it slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the bloodstream.

A 2007 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming jasmine rice four hours before bedtime cut the amount of time it took to fall asleep in half when compared with eating a high-glycemic-index meal at the same time interval.

The authors speculate that high-glycemic-index meals may up the production of tryptophan.

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Coffee

Worst

Coffee contains caffeine, which is a central nervous stimulant. Translation: Drinking Java too close to bedtime will keep you up at night.

Of course, people differ in their sensitivity to caffeine and that's usually based on how much caffeine you're accustomed to consuming, says Timothy Roehrs, Ph.D., a senior scientist with Henry Ford Sleep Disorder and Research Center in Detroit.

If you don't know your tolerance, skip the java, especially late in the day.

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Fortified cereal

Best

Carbs in general are good for sleep, but it's not a great idea to binge on a box of cookies before bedtime (or anytime).

Instead, try a bowl of Kashi or shredded wheat, which contain "good" or complex carbs. Even better, cereal goes well with milk which has its own sleep-promoting qualities. "That's two for the price of one," Rosenberg says.

Other complex carbs are quinoa, barley, and buckwheat.

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Chocolate

Worst

Chocolate contains not only calories, but caffeine, especially dark chocolate.

A 1.55-ounce Hershey's milk chocolate bar, for instance, contains about 12 milligrams of caffeine, or the same amount as three cups of decaffeinated coffee.

A Hershey's special-dark bar has 20 milligrams of caffeine, about the same as half an ounce of espresso. Chocolate also contains theobromine, another stimulant that can increase heart rate and sleeplessness.

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Bananas

Best

Bananas help promote sleep because they contain the natural muscle-relaxants magnesium and potassium, says Gans. They're also carbs, which will help make you sleepy as well.

In fact, bananas are a win-win situation in general. "They're overall health promoters," says Rosenberg. "We need potassium for cardiovascular health and cognitive functioning."

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