Nutrition and Sleep

Written by

Janet Larson, Staff Writer, Sleep Health

Reviewed by

Dr. Michael Breus, PhD, DABSM, FAASM, Clinical Psychologist, Sleep Medicine Expert
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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.

As the link between food and sleep quality continues to be explored, medical experts can better understand the relationship between what you eat and how you sleep. We discuss foods that may help you sleep or keep you up at night, and offer strategies for improving nutrition to get 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 increase the risk of sleep disorders. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), 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.
  • 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

Sugar can occur naturally in foods, and is also added to many foods to alter 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 developing sleep conditions. In addition, drinking high-sugar beverages like soda and energy drinks has been linked to sleep problems.

Research has found that those with diets high in added sugars were more likely to experience fragmented sleep. Ingesting large amounts of sugar can lead to a decrease in the amount of time spent in deep sleep, which may hinder the body’s metabolic and immune functions. Some sugary foods also contain caffeine, a stimulant which can make it harder to fall asleep and remain asleep throughout the night.   

Refined sugar is linked to increased levels of inflammation in the body, which may lead to chronic pain that hinders sleep. In addition, poor sleep has the potential to exacerbate low-grade inflammation levels, creating an unhealthy cycle that may contribute to disease.

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.

Meat

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 can worsen as meat consumption increases.

Alcohol

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. 

Liquids

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

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. 

Fatty Foods

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 sleep restriction can change the brain’s reactions 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 energy efficient, 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. 

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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. 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. It might also help to stop eating anything at least two hours before going to bed.
  • Stay away from caffeine after noon: Caffeine is a stimulant that can make it harder to get to sleep and may 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 sleep environment is dark and quiet.
  • 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.   

Frequently Asked Questions

Does Sleep Deprivation Cause Stress Eating?

Sleep deprivation is a common source of stress that has been linked to stress eating in people who are prone to emotional eating. Emotional eating refers to eating as a way of dealing with uncomfortable emotions or stress. Research has shown that high levels of stress can make some people more likely to seek out high-fat, high-sugar foods.

Inadequate sleep and other sleep problems are also associated with binge eating. Binge eating is an eating disorder that is defined by episodes of eating a large amount of food during a short period of time. During these binges, people feel that they have lost control over their food consumption.

People who have binge eating disorder are more likely to experience poor quality sleep, insomnia, inadequate amounts of sleep, and daytime sleepiness. However, it is not clear whether the sleep problems cause the binge eating, binge eating interferes with sleep, or whether both eating and sleeping problems are caused by other factors, such as stress.

Sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) is a sleep disorder that causes people to eat and drink during sleep with little consciousness or awareness of what they are doing. Some people with SRED have no memory of their nighttime snacking episodes, while some people can partially recall them.

Most people with SRED have frequent sleep-eating episodes. SRED has the potential to cause harm because people may consume inappropriate foods or substances during these episodes, such as raw meat, frozen food, or cleaning products. 

The majority of people with sleep-related eating disorder are women, with the disorder emerging during their 20s or 30s. It often occurs together with sleepwalking. People who experienced sleepwalking as a child are more likely to develop SRED. The disorder can also occur in people who are taking medications to help them sleep. 

SRED is not the same as night eating syndrome. Night eating syndrome involves excessive eating in the evening hours or eating after awakening during the night. Night eating syndrome is considered an eating disorder, while SRED is classified as a sleep disorder.

Which Foods Make You Sleepy?

Although there is not sufficient evidence proving that particular foods will make you feel sleepy, some research indicates that certain foods may help promote healthy sleep. These include kiwis, cherries, oily fish like salmon and sardines, and whole grains. 

Healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet and DASH, which include lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats like olive oil, less meat, and more fish, are linked with better sleep.

Which Foods Keep You Awake?

The most clearly established link between food and insomnia involves caffeine. Foods or beverages with caffeine, such as chocolate, coffee, tea, and energy drinks, can cause insomnia in many individuals. Research into diet and sleep also shows that higher consumption of foods with added sugars is linked with insomnia.

References

About The Author

Janet Larson

Staff Writer, Sleep Health

Janet is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Fancy Gap, Virginia. She has a bachelor’s degree in literature from Bennington College and has worked for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Janet particularly likes writing about sleep because it’s both mysterious and ordinary. She says it’s impossible for her to sleep without three pillows.

  • Position: Side sleeper
  • Temperature: Cold Sleeper
  • Chronotype: Dolphin

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