You may already know that good nutrition and sufficient sleep are both important components of overall health. However, you may not be familiar with how good sleep and a healthy diet are interconnected.
Getting enough quality sleep can help you feel better, think better, make better decisions, and accomplish daily tasks with less effort. However, when you don’t sleep well, you are more likely to take risks, make bad decisions, eat too much, and choose foods that don’t promote physical health.
Researchers are discovering that certain food choices may promote healthy sleep. Some dietary choices, on the other hand, can make it harder to get a good night’s rest. However, designing nutrition studies is challenging, and sometimes results are contradictory. So, at this point in the study of nutrition and sleep, there is still a lot we don’t know.
We break down what has been discovered so far about the relationship between what you eat and how you sleep. We discuss foods that may help you sleep or keep you up at night. We also offer strategies for improving nutrition and getting a better night’s rest.
How Does Nutrition Affect Sleep?
The foods and beverages we consume affect the function of our bodies, including our sleep behaviors. Research shows there is an association between deficiencies in essential daily vitamins and minerals and sleep problems. For example, a deficiency of vitamin B1 can cause sleep disturbances. Sleep disorders are also common in older adults with a magnesium deficiency.
Being overnourished — eating too many calories — can lead to obesity, which in turn can raise the risk of sleep disorders. Obstructive sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder, is much more common in people with obesity. Obesity also increases the likelihood of having other sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome and obesity hypoventilation syndrome.
Foods That Help You Sleep
Research investigating foods that may improve sleep is ongoing. To date, research has found that getting enough sleep is associated with eating a variety of foods. Specific diets and foods that are rich in certain nutrients may also be helpful in achieving quality sleep.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based foods along with healthy fats like olive oil, while including less meat and sugar than the standard American diet. Research has found that people who stick to a Mediterranean diet are more likely to have adequate sleep quality.
Research also suggests that the dietary approaches to stop hypertension (DASH) eating plan is associated with a lower frequency of insomnia, daytime sleepiness, and sleep disturbance. A DASH diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains such as whole-grain bread or brown rice. The diet also limits the intake of sugar and saturated fats found in full-fat dairy products and fatty meats.
Additionally, research suggests that certain foods and nutrients may be helpful in promoting healthy sleep. Study results suggest that some foods may help people sleep through the night, get to sleep faster, and experience better quality sleep.
- Fruits and vegetables: As well as supporting health in other ways, eating more fruits and vegetables can help improve your sleep quality. Low consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with less sleep.
- Kiwi: Kiwi fruits are nutritional powerhouses that offer lots of health benefits. Some research shows eating kiwi before bed provides several sleep benefits, including longer total sleep times, plus an easier time falling and staying asleep.
- Cherries: Some cherries have high levels of melatonin and serotonin, both of which play a role in better sleep. Consuming these types of cherries is associated with both better sleep quality and longer total sleep time. Other foods that are high in melatonin include grapes, strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers.
- Milk: Milk provides the amino acid tryptophan and vitamin D, both of which may promote better sleep. Other foods with tryptophan like turkey, chicken, and egg whites may also promote better sleep.
- Fish: Eating oily fish like sardines, mackerel, herring, and salmon may help you sleep better. This may be particularly true for individuals who are over the age of 40.
- Nuts: Some types of nuts contain melatonin and may be beneficial for sleep. For example, eating walnuts has been shown to increase the level of melatonin in the bloodstream. Pistachios are particularly high in melatonin. Almonds are rich in melatonin as well as the nutrients zinc and magnesium.
- Pumpkin seeds: Pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, pack a powerful nutritional punch. These seeds provide an array of micronutrients, including zinc and magnesium, along with tryptophan, which may improve sleep.
- Herbal teas: Although chamomile tea has been promoted as a remedy for sleeplessness, there is no strong evidence that it benefits people who have insomnia. Nevertheless, herbal teas may be a sleep-promoting beverage choice, especially later in the day, since they typically don’t contain caffeine.
- Carbohydrates: Research into the impact of carbohydrates on sleep has produced conflicting results. Certain foods high in carbohydrates, like whole grains and fruit, seem to promote healthy sleep. Research has also found that insomnia is less common in people who eat more whole grains. Other high-carb foods, like sugar and refined grains, have been associated with insomnia.
Foods That Can Impact Sleep
The link between foods and beverages and their impact on sleep is an area of ongoing research. However, certain foods and beverages seem to contribute to an increased likelihood of sleep problems.
Sugar can occur naturally in many foods. It is also added to many foods to change their taste. Added sugars are linked to sleep problems like insomnia. Research shows women over 50 whose diets are high in sugar are at increased risk of insomnia. In addition, drinking high-sugar beverages like soda and energy drinks has been linked with sleep problems.
Caffeinated Beverages and Chocolate
Caffeine is a stimulant found in coffee, tea, cola, and chocolate that can interfere with sleep. Caffeine consumption can make it harder to get to sleep, can reduce the total time spent asleep, and can make people feel like their sleep quality was worse than usual. Caffeine should be avoided later in the day because of its potential to interfere with sleep.
Although meat is a good source of protein, regularly eating large amounts of meat can put you at a higher risk for sleep problems. People who consume a lot of meat are at higher risk of snoring and experiencing poor sleep quality. These sleep problems get worse with increasing meat consumption.
Alcohol is a double-edged sword when it comes to sleep. While it may help you relax and get to sleep, it can impact your overall sleep quality by causing lighter sleep or more wakefulness during the second half of the night.
Drinking too much liquid in the evening can interrupt sleep by causing you to wake up to use the bathroom. In particular, drinks such as caffeinated beverages and alcohol can increase the need to go to the bathroom. Drinking more fluid during the day and limiting consumption of beverages in the evening may help promote uninterrupted sleep.
Spicy foods can disturb sleep, making it harder to fall asleep and interfering with deep sleep once asleep. This may be due to indigestion caused by spicy foods, but it may also occur because spicy foods can raise core body temperature, which impacts sleep.
Several research studies have shown that consuming saturated fats and trans fats is linked with sleep problems such as insomnia and reduced total sleep time. Saturated fats are found in animal foods like butter, cheese, and meat, as well as palm oil and coconut oil. Trans fats are often found in margarine, fried foods, and store-bought pastries and cookies.
How Sleep Affects Nutrition and Body Weight
Sleep, or lack of sleep, can affect the food choices we make. Sleep habits also affect how our bodies use the food we consume.
Sleep and Food Choices
People who are sleep deprived are more likely to make less healthy food choices than people who get a good night’s rest. Research shows that one of the things sleep restriction changes about the brain is how it reacts to food. Some research has also shown that restricted sleep can lead to increased hunger and calorie consumption.
Specifically, people who haven’t slept adequately are more likely to choose calorie-rich foods such as candy, pastries, cake, cookies, and sugary sodas. Small experiments that intentionally deprived healthy young people of sleep found that lack of sleep increased their taste for sweet foods and led to more frequent snacking.
Sleep, Metabolism, and Appetite Hormones
Sleep plays an important role in the creation of chemical messengers that affect metabolism, which is the way our bodies use energy. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies are less efficient at using energy, yet we may experience an increase in appetite. Consequently, not getting enough sleep is associated with obesity and weight gain.
Research shows that people who sleep less than six hours per night are at increased risk for obesity. Short sleepers are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of symptoms that raise the risk of cardiovascular disease, including abdominal obesity, which is a disproportionately large waistline.
Chronic sleep deprivation may be linked with higher body weight because of how it affects appetite hormones. Research involving sleep deprivation shows that people who are sleep deprived have lower levels of leptin, a hormone that makes you feel full, and higher levels of the hormone ghrelin, which stimulates hunger.
As a result, people who haven’t had enough sleep may be inclined to consume more food before feeling satisfied.
How to Improve Sleep and Diet
Although information about nutrition and health can sometimes be complex, there are simple steps you can take to improve your diet. Improving your diet quality, nutrient intake, and adopting other healthy sleep practices may help you sleep better.
- Avoid foods with added sugar: As well as potentially contributing to chronic health problems like obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, added sugar has been linked with insomnia.
- Eat light at night: Heavy meals close to bedtime can cause indigestion and sleep disturbance. Also, limit your beverage intake in the evening so your sleep isn’t disturbed by the need to get up to use the bathroom during the night.
- Stay away from caffeine after noon: Caffeine is a stimulant that can make it harder to get to sleep as well as have a negative impact on your sleep quality. Caffeine’s effects can last a long time, so try to avoid beverages and foods that contain caffeine, including coffee, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate, later in the day.
- Practice good sleep hygiene: Good sleep hygiene can help you get better sleep. Make it a habit to go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day, to do something relaxing before bed, and to ensure your bedroom is a quiet, dark sleep environment.
- Talk to a health care professional: Your doctor or a nutritionist is in the best position to provide guidance about your diet. If you have concerns regarding your sleep, your doctor may suggest a nutrition plan, and can also assess if ruling out other causes of sleep problems might be helpful.