We pay attention to our diet when it comes to our weight, but common bedtime food mistakes can also have a huge impact on your sleep quality. In fact, your diet could be a big reason you can’t sleep.
After years of studying sleep, I realize we need to focus on improving our diet to unlock sleep and its benefits.
But it’s not all about what you’re adding to your diet, but also when you’re eating. Let me share with you these five easy tips for optimizing your diet so you don’t have to suffer through more sleepless nights.
I’ll admit it, the phrase “You are what you eat” was always a bit of a head scratcher for me as a kid. But now, after years of studying sleep and its benefits, the old adage has grown on me.
The fact is, what you eat — not to mention how much and when you eat — plays a crucial role in determining your quality of sleep.
We have a lot to cover, so I’m not going to drag this out too long. Here are five tips worth keeping in mind when it comes to your diet and sleep:
Add Melatonin Rich Food to Your Diet
Your parents weren’t lying when they told you fruit was good for you. Of course, we all know that fresh fruits and vegetables provide vital nutrients to help our bodies function at optimal levels. But did you know adding more fruit to your diet could also improve your sleep quality?
A number of fruits, such as oranges, bananas, pineapple, grapes and even tomatoes are naturally rich in melatonin. Melatonin is a vital hormone for regulating our sleep-wake cycles.
In fact, melatonin helps with several facets of sleep. Research has shown melatonin may shorten the time it takes to fall asleep, while also lengthening REM sleep. That means, simply by adding melatonin rich food into your diet, you can improve your sleep quality, reduce daytime fatigue, and boost your energy levels!
The fruits I mentioned, and especially tart cherries, are all great sources of melatonin. If you’re not feeling fruit, whole grains, such as rolled oats, and nuts and seeds can also give you a natural melatonin boost.
For a full breakdown of melatonin’s importance, check out my article on how melatonin helps promote better sleep.)
Giving yourself a natural melatonin boost isn’t hard, either.
Avoid Spicy Foods Before Bed
If you’re like me, you’re a big fan of spicy foods; I love a good kung pao chicken from my local takeout. But if spicy foods are a daily part of your diet, you may want to consider when and how often you eat them to avoid harming your sleep quality. Several studies have looked at the relationship between a diet high in spicy foods and sleep. The most famous example comes from Australia, where researchers had participants eat foods with Tabasco and mustard on some nights, followed by nights without spicy foods before bed. The results showed that on the night participants ate spicy meals, there was a noticeable shift in their sleep patterns; not only did it take participants longer to fall asleep, but they also spent less time overall in deep sleep compared to nights without spicy meals. That’s a toxic combination you want to steer clear of.
Researchers believe capsaicin, a compound found in spicy foods, could be a main culprit. Capsaicin is thought to raise body temperature, which interferes with comfortable sleep.
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Limit Caffeine and Alcohol For Better Sleep
If spicy food could be a problem in your diet, caffeine and alcohol may be even worse for interfering with quality sleep
If you’re like me, you enjoy a good cup of coffee, but you probably also know it’s not the best for sleep. Caffeinated drinks like coffee are a stimulant — they’re meant to keep you wired and awake. That’s great for when you’re churning through morning Zoom meetings, but obviously less ideal when you’re trying to get some shut-eye.
Caffeine is a melatonin suppressant, which could cancel out the benefits of adding melatonin rich foods to your diet. Drinking 8-16 ounces of coffee — about half of what the FDA says should be your daily limit — within a few hours of sleep is akin to falling asleep on a cloudless, 85-degree day at the beach. Without sunglasses.
Since caffeine has a long half-life of about 6-8 hours, I recommend having your last cup by 2:00 p.m. Still, craving a warm and comforting drink? I’ve been drinking Pique’s caffeine-free teas. I especially love the mint flavor and don’t miss that afternoon cup of joe.
While caffeine may seem like an obvious thing to cut in your diet, this one’s more surprising. Alcohol, after all, is the most popular sleep aid in the U.S., with about 20% of Americans having a drink to help them fall asleep each night.
The problem is, alcohol may help you get to sleep — but it doesn’t help you get quality sleep.
Drinking alcohol, Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found a correlation between alcohol consumption and more frequent nighttime interruptions.
While it may seem counterintuitive, it actually makes sense for two reasons. For one, alcohol acts as a diuretic, which leads to more trips to the bathroom during the night. The consistent sleep interruptions brought on by alcohol use also make it harder for you to reach REM sleep, the important final stage of sleep that helps regulate mood and improve memory retention.
This doesn’t mean you need to become a teetotaler if you want to get good sleep, but it does mean you should limit your alcohol consumption a few hours before calling it a night.
Limit High-Fat Foods
This is one point I’ve been stressing for years. Foods that are high in fat — including fast food burgers, margarine, and potato chips — taste good, but they also disrupt our sleep.
A few years back, I wrote about one study that looked at rats on high-fat diets over the course of eight weeks. By the end, high-fat diets led to more time spent sleeping, but also, more fragmented sleep. So not only did high-fat foods correspond with increased sluggishness, they also corresponded with less effective sleep. That’s not a great 1-2 punch.
Balance Is Key
As with most things in life, balance is key when it comes to your diet and sleep. You certainly don’t want to eat a full meal right before falling asleep; this can cause indigestion and heartburn, which can make it harder to stay asleep and properly work your way through the four stages of sleep. Optimally, give yourself about 3 hours, which is about how long it takes for your stomach to process food, before going to bed.
At the same time, you don’t want to feel starved at the end of the night. When you’re hungry, that’s when ghrelin, a metabolic hormone, kicks in. Ghrelin has a number of functions, but it’s primarily known for stimulating our appetites. It works in a yin-yang fashion with leptin, another hormone that lets your body know when it’s full.
The issue when you go to sleep hungry is it elevates your ghrelin levels. Several studies have found ghrelin is “significantly inversely associated with hours of sleep,” or, in other words, leads to shorter sleep duration. Ghrelin has also been shown to increase the odds you’ll wake up during the night — which explains why many of us sneak off for a midnight snack from time to time.
With summer right around the corner, I know a lot of people are dieting right now. That’s great! But don’t let yourself go to bed with a rumbling stomach. It’ll only get in the way of you getting a great night of sleep, which, by the way, is a big help when it comes to trimming weight at the gym the next day.
If you stick close enough to these 5 tips, you shouldn’t run into many issues.
Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!