Got Insomnia? Drink This, Not That

By Jen Karetnick

After a long day working, taking care of dependents, doing household chores, shopping for groceries and other necessities, working out, and running errands – sometimes, it seems, all at once – you’re tired enough to fall asleep immediately after dinner. So why are you still awake hours after you should have succumbed to a blissful night’s ?

It could have to do with what you’ve had to drink with or after dinner. What you think is soothing, good for the digestion, and sleep-inducing may actually be stimulating your senses or putting the wrong hormones into play. Here are some dos and don’ts to help you figure out if your after-dinner beverage is helping or hurting you on your path to sweet dreams.


. Many people believe a nice cup of hot cocoa is just the thing to send you off to la-la land. Little do they know that the activating chemical in chocolate— called theobromine— is a stimulant. Drinking hot chocolate before bed can interfere with how the brain receives a sleep-inducing hormone—adenosine, a molecule that triggers non-REM sleep. When you eat or drink chocolate before bedtime, nerve receptors in the brain receive a hit of stimulation, disrupting the neurotransmitters that are trying to signal that it’s time to sleep, and beginning a domino effect: neurons wake up and begin firing, a process that in turn fools the pituitary gland into releasing adrenaline. And voila! .

. Like chocolate, black or green tea camellia sinensis leaf contains contains stimulants. Tea also contains caffeine, which may surprise those who favor the beverage, although an average cuppa contains about only 40 milligrams and is mitigated by an amino acid called L-theanine, which relieves mental irritation.

Yerba Mate or Mate. A traditional South American drink that has become popular in restaurants and in other parts of the world, yerba mate is an infusion that is, like tea and , believed to be an antioxidant. That’s all well and good as long as you don’t drink it before bedtime. The crushed, dried, and steeped yerba mate leaves, which come from the Ilex paraguariensis tree (a type of holly), carry caffeine. In fact, a cup of the liquid has about 80 milligrams of caffeine; the same size cup of coffee will only have 20 milligrams more! Some studies have also reported that yerba mate also contains both theobromine and theophylin in addition to caffeine. If this is indeed the case, then yerba mate has three xanthines, which is a real kick in the pants, and not a knock down into the pillow.

Coffee. Nearly everyone knows that coffee contains a kick-starting amount of caffeine, perhaps the best-recognized xanthine in the category. But what many people don’t realize is that even so-called decaffeinated coffee contains caffeine – an average of 10 milligrams per eight-ounce cup – enough that it could block the binding of adenosine to nerve receptors and prevent deep sleep.

. Alcohol dehydrates you, and you might wake up in the middle of the night because you’re thirsty. Too much can give you a headache or make you nauseated. But it’s not enough to drink a glass or two of water and take some aspirin before hitting the sack. A little-known fact about alcohol is that it reduces the amount of REM sleep and prevents slow-wave sleep, which is considered the most restorative. So even the most innocuous of nightcaps can have the opposite effect of what its name implies. As for like Irish coffees, well, they’re double whammies.


Hot white chocolate. White chocolate contains no stimulants because it only simulates the taste of chocolate and contains no cacao. And milk contains tryptophan, an amino acid that helps the brain produce serotonin and melatonin, neurotransmitters that are necessary for sleep. In addition, calcium helps the metabolism and decreases the levels of the hormone parathyroid, the overproduction of which can lead to insomnia (and other symptoms). Unless you’re lactose intolerant, a mug of hot white chocolate – or even just a warm glass of milk, like Mom used to insist upon – truly should have calming consequences.

Herbal teas. Herbal or rooibos concoctions, which contain no green or black tea leaves, are naturally free of caffeine, theophylin, and other xanthines. Any tisane, in fact, comprising plant material (dried herbs, flowers, and/or spices) steeped in boiling water, such as lemon balm, lavender, hibiscus, chamomile, or peppermint leaf, can be enjoyed before bedtime for its benefits with no downsides. While they may not actively bring on sleep, tisanes that include these herbs also help with mental and physical conditions such as anxiety, high blood pressure and indigestion, and can keep you resting soundly when a thought or a pain might otherwise jar you awake. If you want to sweeten your tisane, consider adding blackstrap molasses, which contains magnesium and aids in muscle relaxation, or maple syrup, which adds glucose to your body but won’t spike your blood sugar and then cause it to crash.

Cherry juice. Cherries contain melatonin, which help induce sleep. Although too much juice can also increase blood sugar, an eight-ounce glass taken an hour before bedtime can be helpful, especially if you remember to hit the loo before lights out.

Coconut water. If stress is what’s keeping you awake, go with your gut. Researchers have found that bacteria there influences brain chemistry, inducing anxiety and depression, which are often related to sleep disorders. If this is the case for you, try sipping some coconut water throughout the evening. Ingesting the amounts of potassium, magnesium and B vitamins contained within the coconut water will reduce anxiety naturally. Plus, the natural electrolytes it contains will prevent your hormones from taking a nighttime rollercoaster ride. This can be an important point if you’re aging, fighting disease or battling menopause.
Non-alcoholic beer. Because hops. Really. The hop plant is a sedative and has long been known as a treatment for sleep problems. It increases the neurotransmitter γ-aminobutyric (GABA), and studies have suggested that drinking a non-alcoholic beer would be an effective sleep aid for what scientists call “nocturnal sleep.” In other words, having one with lunch probably isn’t a good idea.

Tags:  Alcohol Coffee Drinks Hot chocolate Insomnia Sleep Tea

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