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Some spicy foods are reported to cause irritation in the upper digestive tract, but others such as nutmeg, turmeric and garlic may promote sleep. (iStockphoto)
Some spicy foods are reported to cause irritation in the upper digestive tract, but others such as nutmeg, turmeric and garlic may promote sleep. (iStockphoto)

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Does eating spicy foods affect your sleep? Add to ...

Question

Can spicy foods affect sleep?

Answer

For centuries, the virtues of spices have been known across cultures. Spices including turmeric and cinnamon are used all over the world for their health benefits, including aiding digestion, lowering blood sugar and inflammation and helping with weight reduction. Many spices are now studied scientifically to better understand such health benefits.

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In addition to their strong flavour, dried spices contain some of the highest levels of antioxidants in food, adding to their powerful nutritional punch. It appears that spices can affect sleep in direct and indirect ways, and eating certain spice-containing foods can have some negative effects on sleep patterns.

Heavily spiced foods may be high in protein or fat, both of which require more time for digestion, especially when eaten in large portions. Going to bed following a large helping of spicy lamb stew may be a recipe for sleeplessness. Our bodies require two and a half to four hours to completely digest most meals. If you retire to sleep too early, your body spends energy digesting food rather than allowing your brain to enter vital sleep cycles.

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Another indirect factor may be that some spices have been known to worsen symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), otherwise known as heartburn. While spices do not cause GERD, some people feel the effects of consuming spicy foods can be irritating to their upper digestive tract. This can cause pain and reflux, which can disrupt the sleeping process.

Though medication is often used to help control heartburn, many people still complain of the effects of spices and spicy foods on their sleep.

Studies on spices such as nutmeg, turmeric and garlic show they may promote sleep.

Anecdotally, herbs such as peppermint, parsley, dill, sage and basil are thought to promote sleep and reduce insomnia. Many of these spices are being studied in countries such as India to determine how much and in what form these natural compounds should be used to maximize benefits.

The easiest and safest way to enjoy these possible "sleep-aid" benefits is to flavour your favourite dishes with a variety of spices.

For a sleep-inducing meal and an antioxidant-boost, add spices in fresh and dried forms to whole foods such as bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, turkey, fish, low-fat milk and yogurt. Enjoy three to four hours before bed and get ready to take a trip to dreamland.

Nishta Saxena is a clinical dietician at University Health Network in Toronto.

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