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What to Eat (and What to Skip) for a Better Night’s Sleep

By Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD | February 10, 2020 | Rally Health

Your eyes are bleary, your mind is churning, and your mood is not great. Not getting enough sleep can definitely put a damper on your energy levels and sense of well-being. But did you know that shoddy sleep may also have long-term effects on your health? Research suggests that chronic inadequate sleep increases one’s risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression. Not getting enough sleep may also make it harder to make healthier food choices to lose weight or prevent further weight gain. 

“Sleep is an integral part of overall health, just like diet and exercise,” says psychologist Deirdre Conroy, PhD, clinical director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the University of Michigan Medical School. “Prioritizing sleep in one’s life is key.”

Of course, as we all know, snoozing better isn’t always as simple as going to bed earlier, especially if you’re someone who struggles to drift off, tosses and turns, or wakes often at night. Many factors can affect how you sleep overall, including what you eat and when you eat it. The good news? Making a couple of small tweaks to your diet may help you get better, more restorative zzzs. Here’s what to nosh on — and what to limit — to ensure you get a good night’s sleep. 

Throughout the Day... 

Get your fiber. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that the amount of fiber you eat in a day may potentially play a role in sleep quality and duration. When researchers compared the sleep of 26 participants fed a controlled diet, the data suggested that eating more fiber was associated with more time spent in deep sleep. Eating less fiber, as well as more saturated fat and sugar, correlated with more frequent waking and less deep sleep. These possible associations are from only one study, but since dietary fiber is a nutrient most Americans consume below daily recommendations anyway, it’s not a bad idea to work more fiber-rich foods — like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts, and seeds  — into your diet. Similarly, a 2018 study found that adults in the UK who regularly got seven to eight hours of sleep nightly consumed higher amounts of produce. And lower fruit and vegetable intake has been linked to shorter sleep duration. In short, eating more fiber-rich foods is good for your overall health, and your shut-eye may benefit, too. 

Choose lean proteins. Not getting enough B vitamins may interfere with your sleep, since B6 and B12 are involved in melatonin secretion and production. Animal proteins such as chicken, pork, fish, and beef can all be good sources of both B6 and B12. Just note that when you’re eating animal proteins, it’s key – for your general health as well as your sleep quality – to not eat too much and to choose leaner options, since eating a lot of saturated fat can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke, and may also interfere with your ability to snooze restfully, according to the same 2016 study that associated higher fiber intake with better sleep. While B12  is only found in animal proteins and some fortified foods, B6 and most other B vitamins can be obtained from beans, whole grains, and some fruits and vegetables, like bananas, oranges, peas, and corn.

Before Bed...

Snack light. For a good night’s sleep, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) advises against eating your last meal before bedtime. But Conroy says going to bed hungry isn’t a good practice, either, since an empty stomach can make falling asleep harder, or cause you to wake in the middle of the night. “You don’t want to have a big meal within three hours of going to bed. But if you’re hungry before falling asleep or waking up in the night because of hunger, then I suggest incorporating a light snack just before bed,” she says. Conroy recommends a light carbohydrate-based snack such as yogurt, one or two graham crackers with a tablespoon of peanut butter, or a small bowl of cereal. 

Come up with a soothing bedtime routine. Warm milk is often credited with making one sleepy because, like turkey, it contains the serotonin-stimulating amino acid tryptophan. (Protein-rich foods like turkey and milk contain lots of amino acids, all of which compete to get into the brain; all of that jockeying for the entrance can inhibit tryptophan’s ability to cross through.) That said, Conroy says, if the routine of drinking a small glass of warm milk each night — or regularly eating or drinking something else you associate with sleepiness – gives you comfort, go for it. Bedtime rituals can have the psychological benefit, Conroy says, of priming your mind for sleep. Your personal nightly ritual might involve reading, a cup of tea, doing a few gentle yoga stretches, or “eating a small, sensible, healthy bedtime snack,” says Conroy. “It’s the routine that’s key.” 

Sip a cup of tart cherry juice. Cherries are a melatonin-rich food, and a few small studies have attempted to examine the effects that unsweetened, tart cherry juice — a specific type, made from sour or dwarf cherries — may have on sleep. In a small 2012 study, participants either consumed a cup of tart cherry juice or a placebo twice a day for seven days. Results suggested that those who drank the tart cherry juice got longer and better sleep and had higher levels of melatonin than those who didn’t. Similar improvements in sleep duration and quality were seen in a 2018 study, when a group of subjects were given two cups of tart cherry juice daily for two weeks; compared with the placebo group, those subjects slept better. Both studies were limited in size and duration, and were also supported by the cherry industry, so more research is needed. 

Limit or Avoid…

Sugar and Salt. Indulging in a sweetened coffee beverage in the morning or a salty snack in the afternoon may not seem like something that would affect your sleep — but it might. The same study that connected fiber with better sleep also found that people who consumed more sugar in general woke more frequently throughout the night. The research surrounding sodium isn’t quite as clear, but a 2014 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research suggests that eating a lot of the savory stuff might not be great for your sleep, either. Taking in more sodium may also make you thirstier, which can lead you to wake up more often in the night to go to the bathroom. (One small study from 1983 found that diets that heavily restrict salt may also disturb sleep.)

Spicy or greasy foods. Particularly within a few hours of bedtime. Adding a little hot sauce to a dish or swinging through a drive-thru for dinner may sound good at the time, but the effects of it could keep you up. Both spicy and greasy foods are common triggers for gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), or heartburn, and there’s a significant association between sleep disturbances and GERD. If you’re prone to heartburn, your physician may recommend limiting these foods all the time, but it’s especially key to avoid them late in the day and at night for good sleep. 

Alcohol and, duh, caffeine. A glass of wine may help you relax. The problem is, alcohol decreases the amount of time the brain spends in deep restful sleep and may actually cause you to wake more often. To avoid this, limit your alcohol consumption to no more than one or two drinks per day. Also, do yourself a favor and cut off the caffeine earlier in the day — way earlier. Research suggests that caffeine can linger in the system for hours; one study found that caffeine consumed six hours or more before bedtime could still disrupt sleep. “Have your last caffeinated drink at least eight hours before your usual bedtime,” Conroy advises. So if you’re aiming for a 10 pm bedtime, sip your last sip by 2 pm. Remember that sneakier caffeine culprits like chocolate and decaffeinated coffees and teas all contain small amounts of the stimulant, too, so take a pass on those as well after midday.  

While there’s no one food that can dramatically improve sleep time or quality, and while most all of these studies were limited in size, your diet does play a role. Take a look at what you’re eating or drinking for possible clues if you’re wondering why a previous night of sleep wasn’t restful. Adequate, good quality sleep isn’t just about getting your beauty rest — it’s about helping you stay happy and healthy in the long term, too.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
Rally Health