Sleep is an essential part of life. Just 24 hours without sleep will lead to a lack of good judgment, impaired decision making and a decrease in eye-hand coordination.

Sleep is an essential part of life. Just 24 hours without sleep will lead to a lack of good judgment, impaired decision making and a decrease in eye-hand coordination. After only three or four nights without sleep, you might start to hallucinate. While actually dying from lack of sleep is rare, prolonged sleep deprivation can lead to cognitive impairment, irritability, delusions, paranoia and psychosis.

Sleep is when the body repairs itself. Cellular damage is done to our bodies daily, and toxins build up that can become harmful. Sleep allows the body to repair cell damage and remove these toxins. When we sleep, our organs function at a slower rate, allowing them a chance to rest.

The National Sleep Foundation estimates that nearly half of all people 65 or older have sleep difficulties, and 45 percent of people of all ages report that poor sleep has interrupted their daily actions at least once during the previous week. Poor or inadequate sleep has been associated with a higher risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and depression.

You can take steps to improve your sleep habits. With enough sleep each night, you may find that you are happier and more productive each day and have fewer health problems in the long run. Taking a look at your diet is an important first step in getting better sleep. These are some tips to try:

Avoid heavy meals at night. Lots of food forces your body to work overtime to get it digested — not what you want for good rest. If at all possible, don’t eat anything 30 to 60 minutes before bed.

Be careful of foods that can cause acid reflux, like spicy or greasy foods. Lying down can make indigestion and heartburn worse.

Steer clear of caffeine before bedtime. Caffeine can linger in your system for eight hours or even longer, so it may be best to make a rule of no caffeine after noon. Be aware that sources of caffeine include coffee, teas, soda and even chocolate. Especially avoid foods that have both caffeine and sugar.

Although many people use alcohol as a self-medicating sedative, alcohol actually promotes a more restless sleep.

Too much sugar can trigger more frequent wakeups due to the energy dips and swings that sugar can cause.

Avoid vigorous exercise at least 30 minutes before bedtime.

Consider cutting off fluids a couple of hours before bedtime if you frequently have to get up to use the bathroom.

A well-rounded diet with necessary vitamins and minerals will help with sleep. Low iron levels can cause restless legs. A diet low in folic acid can contribute to insomnia. Vitamin B6 helps us produce the calming hormone, serotonin. Calcium and zinc are natural relaxers.

Losing weight can help with sleep by decreasing breathing difficulties (including sleep apnea), aches, pains and overall restlessness.

Nicotine is a stimulant, so avoid cigarettes and other sources a few hours before bedtime.

A light snack at least 30 minutes before bed might make you sleep more soundly. Include foods that contain tryptophan (such as eggs, nuts, milk, cheese and bananas), which produces serotonin and induces drowsiness. Combing a food rich in tryptophan with a complex carbohydrate (like whole grains) produces even more serotonin. Examples might be a small bowl of whole grain cereal and milk or a slice of whole grain toast with peanut butter.

Tart cherries are one of the only natural food sources of melatonin, the chemical that controls the body’s internal sleep clock. A small glass of tart cherry juice before bed just might help you sleep a little better.

Besides diet changes, set a bedtime routine that includes going to bed and getting up at about the same time every day, even weekends. Make your bedroom promotes sleep by keeping it dark, cool and quiet. Turn off any bright, artificial light source, such as from a TV or phone screen. And if you don’t sleep well, avoid naps.

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.