Everyone knows caffeine during the day can affect your sleep. But you may not know that there are caffeine-free foods that may have caffeine-like effects on the brain. These foods can even be toxic to your brain. But once you know what to look for, you can avoid them and protect your health.

These foods are sometimes referred to as excitotoxins because they cause over-stimulation, which can lead to nerve cell damage in the brain. And anything that causes increased brain cell activity could counteract your attempts at rest and relaxation. Be aware that excitotoxins come in all shapes and sizes. But here are three common sources:

1. Aspartame. This is the phylalanine-based artificial sweetener often used in soft drinks, diet gelatins, and sugar-free gums and mints.

2. Monosodium glutamate, also known as MSG. MSG is a sodium salt of glutamic acid. It’s found in more than 6,000 processed and preserved foods, often listed on the label as an ingredient that’s “partially processed” or “partially hydrogenated.”

3. Natural glutamates. Natural glutamates are found in abundance in both plant and animal protein – and if you’re allergic to any of those foods, they can also act as excitotoxins. Any time your body has an immune response to a particular food, one of the side effects is increased stress hormone production and increased inflammation. And chronically increased stress hormones can affect your sleep.

So if you have trouble sleeping from time to time, the problem could be related to your diet. Keep a food diary to see if you can pinpoint the culprit(s).

[Ed. Note: James B. LaValle, RPh, N.D, C.C.N., is founder of the LaValle Metabolic Institute, a nationally recognized expert on natural therapies, and the author of 13 books on healthy lifestyles and integrative care, including Cracking the Metabolic Code.

By modifying your diet, medications, lifestyle, and exercise habits, and with nutritional supplementation, your health is largely within your control. Dr. LaValle’s approach to health has worked for thousands of patients, and it can help you, too. Learn the details here.]