How often do you think about the connection between nutrition and sleep? If you don’t think about it often, you may want to start doing it soon!
The foods you eat are not only vital to your physical health, but they’re key to your sleep health as well. But why is this the case, and what foods can have a positive— or negative— effect on your sleep?
How Food Affects Your Sleep
Put simply, the foods you eat during the day can impact how well you sleep each night. A wholesome, healthy diet contributes to better, more restful sleep while a poor diet contributes to poor sleep quality and short sleep duration. The right foods can encourage better sleep efficiency, healthier sleep onset latency— the time it takes you to fall asleep— and may even contribute to more restorative deep sleep.
In an article published in Sleep Review Magazine, Dr. Jose Colon dives into the details of sleep and nutrition. Here are a few highlights that stood out:
When it comes to diets that are good for sleep, there is not a definitive “best.” However, a variety of whole foods and a low-glycemic diet are good places to start. It’s important to keep your macronutrients in mind also.
- Protein: A low protein intake is associated with short and long sleep times— both are bad since you want between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. One study found that 20 percent of calories consumed as protein produce the most favorable effect on a person’s sleep.
- Carbs: Carbohydrates are helpful for sleep, but the type of carb matters. Your carbohydrate intake should primarily consist of wholesome, high-fiber foods like whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetables— sugar leads to excessive daytime sleepiness, and fiber leads to better overall sleep and less daytime sleepiness.
- Fats: A low-fat diet was associated with both non-restorative sleep and excessive daytime sleepiness. High-Fat Ketogenic diets— better known as Keto— have been associated with improved sleep quality, increased REM sleep, and increased slow-wave sleep. I’m not advocating for the Keto diet by reporting this— I’m just providing you with information that may be useful in making better food choices throughout the day to support sleep.
Looking at all of this data was interesting and definitely made me think through a few of my food choices! Here are a few important nutrients you can find in food that can help you get better sleep.
Other Nutrients That Can Improve Sleep
Macronutrients aren’t the only nutrients that matter for your sleep. Here are a few more that may surprise you:
- B Vitamins: These are probably the best vitamins when it comes to sleep regulation. B1 helps with sleep patterns, B9 improves mood and sleep, and B12 can influence your circadian rhythm. B vitamins can be found in foods like whole grains, dark leafy vegetables, meat, and dairy products.
- Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral found in foods like leafy greens, nuts, beans, and seeds. It helps regulate your sleep schedule and melatonin production. Magnesium is also available in supplements— if you’re looking for a great Magnesium supplement to help you sleep, I recommend Jigsaw Health— it’s the one I take.
- Zinc: This mineral can be found in foods like nuts and legumes. Research has found that low zinc levels in children can negatively affect sleep patterns.
- Melatonin: Commonly known as “the sleep hormone,” melatonin is vital to a good night’s sleep. Many foods are naturally high in melatonin, and can help you sleep better. If you want to know more about melatonin-rich foods, check out my article on the subject!
- Tryptophan: You may be most familiar with this amino acid thanks to its association with turkey and impromptu naps after Thanksgiving dinner. But tryptophan is actually present in many foods, ranging from poultry and fish to oats and even chocolate.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acid: This is found in fish, grass-fed animal proteins, nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, and leafy green vegetables. Omega-3’s promote healthy sleep quality and support a healthy circadian rhythm.
While there are plenty of foods that can help your sleep, there are many others that can make getting a good night’s sleep more difficult.
Foods to Avoid for Better Sleep
Even if they contain the nutrients above, not all foods will help you sleep better. Be sure to avoid the following foods in the evening— your sleep cycle will thank you.
- Caffeine: Many people rely on caffeine to get through the day, but thanks to its stimulating effect, drinking it too close to bedtime can make it harder for you to fall asleep on time. Instead, end your caffeine intake at 6 to 8 hours before your normal bedtime. This ensures that the effect has diminished by the time you’re ready for bed.
- Spicy food: While delicious, spicy foods can cause indigestion and gastrointestinal discomfort, and trigger symptoms of IBS or acid reflux. One of my favorite supplements to support healthy digestion is Atrantil.
- Chocolate: Chocolate’s high sugar content can keep you up at night, and some kinds— particularly dark chocolate— may also contain caffeine.
- Pizza: While an easy dinner solution, pizza can make getting a good night’s sleep harder. The combination of refined carbs, saturated fat, and an acidic sauce can cause sleep problems by slowing digestion and causing inflammation, and potentially acid reflux as well.
7 Things to Know About the Link Between Nutrition and Sleep
1. There’s No “One Size Fits All” Diet
Just like I said above, there is no single “best” diet for a good night’s sleep. Diet, nutrition, and sleep intersect in complex ways that differ from one person to the next depending on factors like age, lifestyle and activity levels, health, and genetics. Add chronobiology— the science of our daily chrono-rhythms, which regulate the body’s daily functioning— to the mix and things get really individualized.
There’s a huge and ever-growing body of research about how different diets from the Mediterranean Diet to Keto to Paleo affect health, longevity, weight, and sleep. Amid all this data, it can seem as though the “best” diet is changing all the time. It can be overwhelming, so let me try to simplify this a little bit right up front.
Do your basic research. Pay attention to your body and how it responds to your dietary patterns— not only in terms of your energy and performance, but also to your sleep. Focus on eating whole foods, and make plant-based foods a foundation of your daily diet. Limit sugar and heavily processed foods, and pay as much attention to when you eat as well as what you eat.
2. Nutrition’s Impact on Sleep Quality and Sleep Quantity
Broadly speaking, diets filled with fiber, moderate amounts of complex carbohydrates, plenty of high-quality protein, and healthy fats are associated with more deeply restful, restorative, and plentiful sleep.
The Mediterranean diet achieves this harmonious balance of macronutrients— protein, fats, and carbs— and has been shown in a strong body of research to help protect against insomnia and short sleep, also promoting high-quality sleep.
Very low carb and high protein/high-fat diets like Keto and Paleo are also popular right now. There’s not enough science yet to really know how these diets affect sleep over the long term— but there are definitely short-term changes to your sleep that are important to understand if you follow these diets. No matter which diet you follow, it’s your diet’s quality that is most important to your sleep.
3. Your Chronotype is Key to Optimizing Your Diet
The “when” of eating is so often overlooked, even when it’s critically important to sleeping well, staying at a healthy weight, and protecting your overall health. When you’re not sleeping or eating in sync with your chrono-rhythms, you’re more likely to:
- Be overweight and carry extra weight in your midsection
- Have digestion issues
- Have metabolic dysfunction— which can lead to heart disease and diabetes
- Have sleep problems
Understanding your individual chronotype gives you a roadmap for when to eat, when to sleep— and when to do most everything else you do on a daily basis. Early rising Lions, for example, are best suited to eat breakfast a full two hours before night-preferring Wolves— who may be inclined to not eat breakfast at all. Those same Lions ought to wrap up dinner well ahead of Bears, Dolphins, and Wolves in order to finish eating a full 3 hours before bed. Honestly, that’s a smart habit for all chronotypes.
Another chrono-strategy to consider when it comes to your diet and eating schedule? Following a daily eating restriction rhythm. This means restricting your eating schedule within an 8 or 12-hour window— known also as intermittent fasting.
Eating restriction schedules can boost weight loss and reinforce circadian rhythms. That’s because as with light, food intake signals your body’s circadian clock. Eating regularly— every 4 hours within an 8 or 12-hour window in relation to the 24-hour day— can help keep those clocks aligned and in sync with one another. Restricting eating to these windows also allows the body ample time for the digestive system to power down, which is helpful for sleep and cardiometabolic health.
Don’t know your chronotype? Take my Chronoquiz to find yours!
4. Consistency is Key
I talk a lot about how important it is to maintain a consistent sleep-wake routine each and every day. This is one of the pillars of healthy sleep that keep your circadian rhythm on track and help you avoid accumulating a sleep debt. A consistent sleep schedule also helps regulate your appetite and reduce cravings for the foods that disrupt sleep and contribute to weight gain.
Consistency matters in eating routines, too. Consistent eating patterns are linked to lower calorie consumption and a lower risk of obesity. When you consistently eat at the same, optimal times day after day, you’re sending the same messages to the clocks of your digestive system, keeping them in sync. After you’ve established the optimal times for you to eat, it’s also important to stick with that routine consistently— in the same way that you stick to your normal bedtime and wake time.
5. Personality Plays a Role in Chrono-Nutrition
Your personality is a major contributing factor to how well you stick to a consistent eating schedule. According to a study published by Advances in Nutrition, the different temperaments and personality traits of each chronotype have a direct impact on eating, nutrition, and sleep. The analysis also found that conscientiousness is the trait most closely associated with the ability to maintain a consistent eating schedule. Conscientious types also have the most success in controlling emotional eating and practicing restraint with their diets.
Early types— the Lions of the world— tend to be conscientious by nature. This chronotype is, to a degree, set up by chronobiology to be naturally adept at sticking to a regular eating schedule and eating healthfully. Impulsive Wolves— evening types— and restless Dolphins— short, irregular sleepers— tend to be less primed by their personality traits to maintain consistency in their eating routines.
Bears, as they always do, fall somewhere in the middle. Bears tend to be comfort seekers and may find it challenging to limit their food intake to certain windows of the day and not overeat.
Anyone can adopt and maintain a consistent eating routine that aligns with their chronotype. Depending on their personality, some types may find it takes a little more effort to establish the habit— it’s worth the extra work to get there though!
6. Timing of Eating Affects Gut Health
The composition of the gut microbiome— both the types of organisms and how abundant they are— directly affects your mental and physical health. It influences your mood, metabolism, cardiovascular and circulatory health, as well as your immune system and risk for chronic disease.
The gut microbiome is often referred to as your body’s “second brain.” That’s because the gut is home to a nervous system and about 100 million neurons. The nervous system of the gut microbiome is in constant communication with the brain and your central nervous system. The microbiome is responsible for producing some of the body’s melatonin supply, as well as other hormones and neurotransmitters involved with sleep— including dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.
Your microbiome is regulated by your circadian rhythm. When your circadian rhythm is disrupted and your sleep is irregular, the health and functioning of the gut microbiome suffers. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also suggests that the timing of when you eat has effects on both the composition and functioning of the gut microbiome.
Establishing a consistent eating schedule, optimizing those times to align with your circadian biology, and allowing sufficient time for the body to fast overnight may help you keep your gut stocked with more health-promoting bacteria.
7. Short Sleepers Have Distinct Eating Patterns
Not getting enough sleep alters your body’s hormones that regulate appetite— which increases cravings for salty, fatty, sugary foods, and increases overall daily calorie intake. People who don’t sleep enough get more of their calories from fat, and do more snacking than longer sleepers do. Short sleepers have been shown to eat a narrower range of foods than people who get enough rest each night.
Short sleepers also tend to spend more time eating during the windows of time when they would otherwise be sleeping. This can mean eating late at night, which is associated with the risk of weight gain and metabolic dysfunction as well as with acid reflux, GERD, and sleep problems.
What defines a short sleeper though? Many define short sleep as getting less than 7 hours a night. Nightly sleep needs vary from individual to individual— not everyone needs 8 hours of sleep a night. Most adults need somewhere in the range of 7 to 9 hours of sleep nightly to feel rested and function at their best.
Some of the hallmark symptoms of insufficient rest and sleep deprivation are:
- Having trouble waking up in the morning
- Feeling tired and lacking energy during the day
- Having trouble focusing, and with memory
- Experiencing ups and downs with mood, or irritability
In addition, eating habits like the ones I’ve described above can be a sign you’re not getting enough rest.
Food for Thought
A healthy diet isn’t just vital for your overall health— it’s important for your sleep health too. Not only that, but your sleep health can have a huge impact on your diet, for better or for worse.
If you’re still figuring out your ideal diet or are struggling with your sleep health, I hope this gives you something to think about! You may not always think about how your diet can affect your sleep or vice versa, but they’re both important parts of the same whole when it comes to living life your healthiest.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor