Aspen Times Weekly: The Awakening |

Aspen Times Weekly: The Awakening

by Amanda Rae
Young man is sitting in bed and eating chicken
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

“Insomniacs report an inability to fall asleep or to remain asleep,” says Dr. Alice Kaniff of Aspen Dental Sleep Medicine. “These persons may feel that their sleep is short and inadequate, light and easily disrupted, or non-restorative.”

So when does midnight snacking help — and when does it hurt?

“There seems to be some evidence that tart cherry juice can help with sleep, though I have not tried this,” says Aspen-based nutritionist Dawn Shepard, who admits to struggling with sleep but says cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves changing negative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, has helped. “Healthy, unprocessed foods — but not too much — are best. Keep it low in fat and animal proteins because they are hard to digest.”

The worst snacks, she says, are processed and high in sugar, like cookies, or high in fat and animal protein, like ice cream. Not surprisingly, alcohol is an adversary. “Even though it makes you sleepy when you drink it, it messes with your sleep cycle — a real culprit in waking you up after being asleep for a few hours,” Shepard says. Ditto for caffeine — chocolate included.

“There is no magic bullet for insomnia, from a food standpoint,” Shepard says. “Insomnia really boils down to anxiety about sleep. The more often you can’t sleep, the more you tell yourself you can’t sleep, and then you’re in a horrible pattern and it’s very difficult to break. You have to create a great deal of structure around your sleep, and change the self-talk and beliefs you have about sleep. This is challenging, but possible.”

In other words, tell yourself you’re very sleepy. And step away from the kitchen.

THE CLOCK ticks past 3 a.m., and I lay in bed, my mind a fast-spinning carousel of inane thoughts. It’s been hours since dinner, the wine has worn off long ago, and I realize that the post-meal espresso was a poor choice before an evening spent at home. Despite a cup of chamomile tea and what seems like endless puffs of “heavy indica” (which I’m convinced must have been mislabeled), I can’t fall asleep. My stomach rumbles and my racing mind turns to the kitchen, where it scans the contents of the fridge. Before I seek alternate methods to a self-imposed knockout, I slip out of bed to investigate. I can’t help myself. I know from experience: A snack might do the trick.

As expected, the fridge interior is a sorry sight: Some fresh basil, two packages of string cheese, aloe juice, broccoli, half a red onion, and a Mason jar with the crusty dregs of chile sambal made months ago. Condiments are crammed into the door like a Chinese jigsaw: white miso, soy sauce, maple syrup, mustard, anchovy paste. I spy a long-neglected jar of peanut butter. Next to it: A jar of pepperoncini. Hmm.

Standing here in the fluorescent glow, my insomnia-addled brain wonders how the two taste together. Pickles and peanut butter are a favorite among pregnant ladies, right? I’ve never been knocked up — uh, knock on wood — but the combination is intriguing in its weirdness.

Might the interplay of briny, slightly spicy peppers dosed on Yellow No. 5 with salty, extra crunchy peanut butter be too much of a good thing? Partly because I don’t want to brush my teeth again and partly because I remember adding julienned pepperoncini to soba noodles with peanut sauce that one time in an experimental mania, I decide to forgo a taste test until morning. That is, if I ever get to sleep.

I’m not alone. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 30 to 35 percent of Americans have brief symptoms of insomnia; 15 to 20 percent have a short-term insomnia disorder, which lasts three months or fewer; and 10 percent have a chronic insomnia disorder, which occurs at least three times per week for at least three months. Many turn to late-night snacks in an attempt to coax the body back to sleep. But is eating the answer? Not always.

“Snacking can have a negative effect on sleep,” says Dawn Shepard, an Aspen-based nutritionist who admits to struggling with sleep issues but hesitates to call herself an insomniac because, “part of overcoming insomnia is to stop telling yourself you are one.” The goal, she says, is to approach bedtime restfully; a body digesting food is not in a restful state.

However, going to bed not adequately sated can be a trigger in itself. “If you eat something before bed, it should be just enough to curb hunger but not so much you feel full,” Shepard says. Her go-to snack: a slice of whole-grain toast with a smear of nut butter—just enough to take the edge off without taxing the body.

“Snacking can increase the body’s ‘engine,’ which is the very last thing you want,” Shepard explains. “It makes much more sense and is healthier to stop eating around 7 p.m. or so and then eat again at 6 or 7 a.m. The exception would be a very light snack.”

Shift that timing forward a few hours, and I’m still way off track. But I’m not a freak: Turns out there’s a term associated with sleepless folks who feel the urge to raid the fridge in the middle of the night.

“Nocturnal eating (drinking) syndrome is exemplified by repetitive awakenings with re-establishment of sleep only after eating or drinking,” explains Dr. Alice Kaniff of Aspen Dental Sleep Medicine. “In most cases this is a learned behavior, not real hunger. This pattern of behavior will lead to weight gain and obesity.”

I saw that one coming. What I didn’t see is that while insomnia is associated with a cornucopia of environmental factors such as excessive noise, noxious odors, bright lights, extreme temperatures, and a snoring bed partner, food could also be to blame. Aside from the obvious — foods containing caffeine or stomach irritants — food allergens can disturb sleep.

“Food-allergy insomnia occurs more frequently in children (infancy to 4 years of age), but is also a problem for some adults,” Kaniff says. “The removal of the food or drink allergens that cause the insomnia normalizes sleep.”

The good news for those of us who will only fall back asleep after a junk-food sesh? “Retraining behaviors will eliminate the midnight cookie binge habit,” says Kaniff, who sits on the American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine and was formerly recruited to aid stressed-out fighter pilots at the United States Air Force Academy Dental Clinic. She suggests sticking to basics: a balanced diet, exercise, and, if symptoms worsen, a visit to a sleep doctor to rule out any serious issues.

Adds Shepard, “To sleep better, you must have to create a great deal of structure around your daily routine, especially the hours before bedtime.”

Forty-five minutes later, I’m wide-awake, still. Screw it, I think. My routine was shot long ago. The caffeine is wearing off, finally, but I can’t stop thinking about peanut butter and pepperoncini. Crunchy peanuts … spicy peppers. Sea salt on sodium. I slip out of bed again and shuffle back to the kitchen. For now, I can’t fight it. I’m a night owl. And I’ll take a strange-but-tasty food experiment over sleeping anytime.

This column is sponsored by insomnia.