07.05.134:00 PM ET

Healthy Alternatives for Late-Night Snacking—and Tricks to Use Food to Get Back to Sleep

So you can’t sleep and you want a snack. Since it’s all bad for you, why not just splurge and eat that carton of ice cream? Because you can eat something healthy that will help you get to sleep, says dietician Allison Stowell. She gives recommendations on replacing that late-night pizza with something you can be proud of the next day.

The sheep are counted, tomorrow's checklist is made, work is done, pillow flipped to the cold side—but sleep won't come rolling in like a fog of dreams and subconscious beauty. You've tried putting one leg out—no luck. But what about if I lay on my side? My back? My face? Also no luck. You think, "I know what would cure my insomnia ... that leftover cake in the fridge from Nancy's birthday party!" Booya!

But one dietician, Allison Stowell, who works with Guiding Stars nutrition advisers, said Mr. Cake may not leave you feeling great and other, healthier snack alternatives are available for those midnight urges.

She's heard it all. From "I'm up all night" to "I just can't get to sleep," people manage to use insomnia as a scapegoat time and time again for overindulging at late-night hours, she said in a recent report.

"The most popular is that people are just up later than they should, and I think the longer day and the longer that you're off you just develop hunger," she said in an interview with The Daily Beast. "If you're up late at night, it's possibly because of stress or because you want to go to sleep and you can't—or you're very tired and you're just watching TV and not going to bed."

But don’t despair—there are some options to eating at night. While it doesn't take an expert to know we tend to eat just out of boredom—and well, because we all know ice cream is delicious. If you must eat at night—if you’re a night-shift worker or have a newborn at home or even if you have insomnia—Stowell suggested having a late-night meal packed with complex carbohydrates and protein such as low-fat cream cheese and Triscuit crackers or Guiding Stars' own peanut butter dip. The snacks provide energy—crucial for our nighttime nurses or, ahem, wonderful journalists who bring the news 24/7.

We all know about the dangers of tryptophan as often experienced in a post-Thanksgiving coma but Stowell encouraged using tryptophan to its advantage to aid in sleep by eating turkey, pumpkin seeds, or peanuts. Potassium and magnesium—found in bananas, baked potatoes, or almonds—also aid in sleep, along with melatonin found in tomatoes, cherries, grapes, or walnuts.

"Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant,” Stowell said. “So that's just going to help kind of loosen and relax your muscles for bed. And the tryptophan is actually going to break down metabolically in your body into serotonin and melatonin, which we know aids in sleep.”

What if all you want is to just watch some late-night crap TV with a snack at hand? Stowell warned that this is a case of not necessarily needing to eat, but definitely craving a little something. Rather than eating something caloric it's better to munch on a snack that won't have you groaning in diet despair the next morning. She suggests Guiding Stars' popcorn, kale chips, carrot chips.

And if sweets are your reason for living—Stowell recommended you stick to a snack that "satisfies the sweet without too much decadence.”

Snacks like Edy's sugar-free French vanilla ice cream, Skinny Cow's chocolate truffle ice cream bar, or Guiding Stars' recipe for chocolate-chip cookies will satisfy the craving for something a bit more naughty, she said.

In our pill-popping culture, it's easy to simply load up on the NyQuil or Ambien and call it a night. But that might not be the best move for your body, she said.

"As a food person, I stay away from the supplements industry as much as I can,” Stowell said. “It's an unregulated industry right now in our country, and so I like to be more careful about that. I think if someone's going to try a non-food way of helping them go to bed, a non-food or just something medicinal, they will have to consult with their physicians before that.”

Other physical or mental remedies may be better for your body in sleep. One of Stowell’s favorite tricks, which even works on her kids, is to tighten and relax every muscle in the body—starting from the toes and working up. Rarely, she said, does she hear of people getting past their calves. Another trick is to move as far away from the kitchen as possible—it's less tempting that way. But she warns people who live in small apartments or studio-style homes may have a bit more trouble.

Keep trying something new, too—like those teas that you get as gifts but never take the time to drink. "I'm a big believer in also herbal teas because they really soothe, and if you can, drink fluids before you go to bed,” Stowell recommends. “It can help for two reasons. One is that it can help when someone thinks they're hungry but they're really just wanting something and they really just need something kind of to soothe them, and two, there's something to be said when we do get a hunger cue we're actually thirsty and taking in the tea instead of food will help with that—certainly from the caloric perspective."

But food—or even sleeping pills—can't change everything. Sadly, she said people have to look at what is going on in their lives if sleeping problems are becoming repetitive.

"Any time I'm talking to someone about food or any kind of life change or thing that they're going through, I always like to look at trends and not just a snapshot moment,” Stowell says. “If you're finding that over a long period time you're repetitively having trouble going to sleep and you're becoming reliant on things, it may be time to look at a deeper understanding of why that's happening to you. I think that we all go to sleep one or two nights where we have trouble sleeping, but if it's a chronic issue, then that's something that definitely warrants exploring."