With the start of another school year around the corner, there’s no better time to look at ways to optimize your child’s sleep. Sleep is essential to good health, and a lack of sleep can result in problematic behaviors, an inability to concentrate, fatigue, and poor academic performance.
Sleep issues in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are common and affect between 40 percent and 80 percent. In many cases, problems with the sleep hormone melatonin may play a role. Lifestyle factors, such as medication use, stress, and a poor bedtime routine, may also be contributors.
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Another potential cause of sleep difficulty is your child’s diet. Certain foods will increase the time it takes to fall asleep, and some may even wake your child up at night. Here are some foods you should watch out for:
Gluten, casein, and other reactive foods
Gluten is found in barley, wheat, and rye; casein is found in milk and some dairy products. If gluten and/or casein causes your child to experience a reaction, such as a change in behavior or digestive upset, there may be a chance that these foods are impacting your child’s sleep.
A study published in BioMed Research International found that the immune systems of a subgroup of children with ASD are triggered by gluten and casein. An immune reaction will trigger the release of chemicals that both promote inflammation and disrupt sleep. This situation is not limited to just gluten and casein. Any food can trigger the immune system; however, the more common culprits include soy, corn, and egg.
Many young people rely on high-caffeine drinks to get through their day. Unfortunately, these drinks can wreak havoc on sleep. Adolescents get most of their caffeine from energy drinks, soft drinks, and, to a slightly lesser extent, coffee. Drinking black and green teas are also becoming more common in this age group.
The caffeine in these drinks works by blocking the sleep-promoting effect of the brain chemical adenosine. Sensitivity to caffeine varies, however many young people can feel the effects for up to 12 hours. Coffee and tea also contain small amounts of the alertness-promoting chemicals theophylline and theobromine.
Soft drinks and energy drinks are very high in sugar. In addition, many energy drinks contain other potential energy-boosters like taurine, B-vitamins, ginseng, and guarana. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, at least one-third of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 regularly drink energy drinks.
Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is rich in caffeine, theophylline, and theobromine. It also contains phenethylamine, which is a chemical that stimulates the release of the stress hormone norepinephrine and the brain chemical dopamine, which promotes reward-seeking behavior.
Fatty foods take a while to digest and eating them late in the evening can lead to bedtime discomfort and sleep loss. What makes fries stand out is that when kids eat them, they rarely eat a small helping. A large serving of fries contains a lot of salt. Research has shown that high salt intake can cause difficulty in staying asleep. Also, some fries contain a preservative called tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) which may promote hyperactivity and poor sleep.
These processed meats contain chemicals that can make a good night’s sleep very hard to come by. They are high in salt and histamine, which wakes us up. They are also rich in tyramine which promotes the release of alertness-promoting epinephrine and norepinephrine. Cold cuts also contain nitrites which may disrupt sleep in susceptible people.
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Sweets and other sugary treats
Eating foods high in sugar will increase your child’s energy level for a short time. Then, their blood sugar will drop, and they will feel sleepy. This seems like a sure-fire way to get your child to sleep, right? Well, not exactly. Once your child’s blood sugar drops, their body releases the sugar-elevating hormones cortisol and epinephrine in an attempt to return the level to normal.
Unfortunately, these hormones can keep your child wide awake. Sugary foods also disrupt the release of melatonin. Artificial sweeteners, which are sometimes used instead of sugar, are no better. They have been linked to hyperactivity, irritability, and sleep loss.
Getting your child to sleep
Encouraging your child to eat foods that are rich in sleep-friendly nutrients is a great way to enhance their slumber. Pumpkin seeds are an excellent choice as they are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid used by the body to make melatonin. They are also high in magnesium, a calming nutrient with low levels being linked to anxiety and poor sleep.
Kiwi, which is very high in sleep-enhancing vitamin C, is rich in serotonin which the body converts to melatonin. Tart cherry juice is another excellent choice for promoting sleep. It actually contains melatonin and also blocks an enzyme that breaks down tryptophan.
Avoiding chemical food additives is another way to help your child sleep. Flavor enhancers that are derived from glutamate, the most popular being monosodium glutamate (MSG), are found in many processed foods and can negatively affect your child’s behavior and cause restlessness. Artificial colors, found in many drinks, candy, and snack foods, can lead to hyperactivity, inattention, and poor sleep.
Having your child drink a calming herbal tea can help them relax at bedtime. Some good ones to try are chamomile, oat straw, and lemon balm. Kids can be quite sensitive to herbs and respond quickly, so it’s best to start with a small amount. Kids three to seven years of age can drink half a cup before bed. Older kids can drink a full cup. Remember to check with your child’s doctor before giving him/her any new herbs. If your child has a reaction to the tea, discontinue it immediately and avoid chamomile if your child is allergic to ragweed.
Taking melatonin supplements is another way to help children get the slumber they need. In fact, there is evidence suggesting that many people with ASD benefit from using melatonin. If you give your child melatonin, make sure you stick to the doctor’s dosage recommendations.
Also, it’s important to note that melatonin works a bit differently than other sleep medicines. In our bodies’, melatonin levels begin to rise when it gets dark in the evening. Therefore, if it seems like the melatonin supplements are not working, try giving them to your child earlier in the evening rather than at bedtime.
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You can also help your child implement sleep-promoting behaviors and routines, such as:
- Waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends
- Being active during the day
- Avoiding screen time at least two hours before bed
- Doing relaxing activities before bed such as taking a bath, reading a story, or listening to calming music
- Eating a small, healthy snack before bed
When it comes to helping your child get to sleep, simple changes can go a long way. If you find that your child’s sleep is not improving or if they have other sleep issues, like snoring, they should be assessed by a sleep specialist.
Cortesi, Flavia et al. Sleep in Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Sleep Medicine.
Volume 11, Issue 7, August 2010, Pages 659-664
Magistris, L.D et al. Antibodies against Food Antigens in Patients with Autistic Spectrum Disorders BioMed Research International. Volume 2013, Article ID 729349. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/729349
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Energy Drinks. July 26, 2018. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/energy-drinks
Grandner, Michael A. et al. Sleep Symptoms Associated with Intake of Specific Dietary Nutrients. Journal of Sleep Research. Volume 23, Issue 1, pages 22-34. February 2014
Howatson, G. et al. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. European Journal of Nutrition. 2012 Dec;51(8):909-16. doi: 10.1007/s00394-011-0263-7. Epub 2011 Oct 30.
This article was featured in Issue 91 – Great Back-to-School Strategies