Can What You Eat Sabotage Your Sleep? An Expert Weighs In
Sleep is unquestionably a key supporter in our overall health. It affects our mood, energy levels, overall productivity, and there are a myriad of factors that can contribute to us getting either a good or bad rest. There's growing evidence to support the idea that what we eat can impact how we sleep, and dietitian Jessica Spendlove says the relationship between sleep and nutrition is highly intertwined.
According to Jessica, a balanced diet made up largely of a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and wholegrains, helping meet both macro and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) appears to be the best overall dietary approach to regularly getting a good night's sleep.
Below, she provides her expert commentary on the relationship between diet and sleep and the foods we should and shouldn't eat before bed.
Can Your Diet Sabotage Your Sleep? An Expert Weighs In
How your diet can affect your sleep
There are nutrition strategies and food behaviours which can support a good night's sleep, but there are also a few things which can hinder.
Similarly, getting enough sleep is associated with maintaining a healthier body weight, or the ability to gain lean mass and optimise our hormone profiles including regulate our appetite hormones (leptin and ghrelin), highlighting just some of the ways diet and sleep are intertwined.
Some examples of how our diets affect sleep include:
- Alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep initially, but reduces our sleep quality. It decreases our slow wave sleep which is where all the magic happens including recovery, regeneration, repair and growth for optimal day to day function.
- High tryptophan food sources with quality carbohydrates on the other hand can aid in sleep (examples below).
- Magnesium can help with muscle relaxation and improve sleep.
- Caffeine should be distanced at least 6 hours before bed (for some people more) as it can impact our ability to sleep.
Foods that improve sleep
In general, a balanced diet made up largely of a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and wholegrains, helping meet both macro and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) appears to be the best overall approach to improving your sleep.
Protein is seen to reduce waking time during the night and carbohydrates are seen to increase REM sleep, so I suggest combining the two as part of well-rounded meals across the day. While what we consume immediately before sleep can help improve (or inhibit sleep), taking a bigger, more macro approach is key, as our overall dietary pattern is significant here.
If you are someone constantly waking through the night, an element of this could be a lack of protein, but the other factor could be you're not consuming enough – particularly if you are active.
- High tryptophan food sources with quality carbohydrates on the other hand can aid in sleep.
- Tryptophan is an amino acid and the precursor for melatonin and serotonin (sleep hormones) which influence our sleep-wake cycle big time. Pair with high fibre carbohydrates to allow tryptophan to compete with other amino acids to cross the blood brain barrier.
- Magnesium and its role in muscle relaxation has also been seen to have preliminary role in improved sleep.
- Melatonin rich food – While we want to aid in the natural production of melatonin, there are some foods which also contain melatonin like cherries.
Foods (or combinations of) to eat before bed:
- Dairy based products – milk, yoghurt, cheese
- Soy milk
- Fatty fish
Foods to avoid before bed
My approach in this space is always to look at the individual and all the factors which could be contributing to a poor night’s sleep – food and nutrition is one piece of that puzzle, but so is distribution of food and meals across the day, use of screens at night, as well as their overall sleep routine.
Some of the foods/food behaviours to avoid before bed include:
This includes some teas, snacks and other beverages. These foods act as stimulants. They make it more difficult to slip into the deeper stages of sleep and decrease the amount of REM sleep you would normally get.
Food and drinks with refined sugars create spikes in insulin which can disrupt sleeping patterns. Rather at night you want to consume a high protein, high fibre carbohydrate rich snack to help promote sleep and keep blood sugar levels more stablised.
Alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep initially but reduces our sleep quality (it decreases our slow wave sleep which is where all the magic happens including recovery, regeneration, repair and growth for optimal day to day function).
Large meals, late at night
The rate at which a meal digests can be a factor to aiding in sleep. The large the meal, and the more fat contained, the slower the digestion. From a sleep hygiene perspective, ideally your main meal would be 2-3 hours before bed. If your evening meal is by far your largest, you may want to consider spreading you intake out across the day, this has many benefits but relating to this article, it may help improve your sleep.
Drinking large volumes of water
Focusing on your hydration is one of the best things you can do for your overall health and wellbeing, but it is important to spread this intake out across the day for better absorption and retention. If you are consuming large volumes at night, this may impact your sleep by waking to go to the bathroom regularly.
Enjoyed this? Read: 6 Dietitian-Approved Foods to Eat Before Bed to Improve Your Sleep