Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
There are plenty of factors that influence your ability to fall soundly asleep each night. And unfortunately, everything from daily stress to anxious thoughts to missing nutrients in your diet can leave you tossing and turning into the early hours of the morning. But here’s a culprit that could wreck your sleep that you might not have considered: Inflammation.
There’s a surprisingly close link between poor sleep and inflammation. In fact, studies show that ongoing, chronic inflammation impacts your immune response, disrupts your circadian rhythms, creates an imbalance between cellular energy availability and expenditure, and even promotes persistent weariness. And if you don’t deal with this inflammation head on, you’re likely to find yourself completely drained – even if you do sleep decently.
If you’ve tried everything and you’re still exhausted, you’re going to want to implement the following science-backed strategies to halt inflammation and re-energize your weary self.
Try these nutrient-rich, inflammation-fighting foods
Certain nutrients in foods are known to fight free radical damage and blunt your body’s production of inflammatory chemicals. You can elevate your energy with these flame-taming eats:
Sweet potatoes contain beta carotene and other carotenoids that dampen inflammation. Carrots, pumpkin, winter squash, broccoli, apricots and leafy greens are also loaded with carotenoids.
Sunflower seeds are rich in vitamin E, which can reduce levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a key marker of inflammation. Other sources include almonds, hazelnuts, peanut butter, beet greens, spinach and asparagus.
Kale offers glucosinolates, which are also found in broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and other crucifers. This nutrient is broken down by the body into sulforaphane, which is linked with significant reductions in CRP.
Avocados provide you with monounsaturated fats (found in peanuts, almonds, olives and pecans too), which activate enzymes that modulate the inflammatory process and even reverse inflammation generated by excess saturated fats.
Extra virgin olive oil is anti-inflammatory thanks to oleocanthal, a unique antioxidant found in few other foods. Its anti-inflammatory properties mimic those of ibuprofen, and research shows oleocanthal significantly influences both chronic and acute inflammation.
Sardines are rich in EPA and DHA, omega-3 fats (also found in salmon, trout, herring and mackerel) linked with lower inflammation.
Red bell peppers give you vitamin C, which protects against inflammation-triggering free radical damage that can affect sleep too. Other foods that will get you some vitamin C include kiwi, strawberries, broccoli, tomatoes, bell peppers and papaya.
Cherries deliver anthocyanins and other antioxidants, plus vitamin C. Research suggests eating cherries regularly significantly lowers inflammation.
Pineapple is a source of bromelain, a plant enzyme that blunts inflammatory chemicals, especially in response to infection or injury.
Papaya can offer you papain, another plant enzyme shown to fight inflammation; plus, it’s loaded with carotenoids and vitamin C.
Pomegranate juice contains ellagitannins, a class of antioxidants (also in raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, walnuts and almonds) linked with measurable reductions in inflammation.
Green tea provides epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) and other antioxidants shown to inhibit the body’s release of inflammatory compounds.
Avoid these inflammatory foods
In addition to upping your intake of anti-inflammatory foods for improved sleep, you’ll also want to limit how many inflammatory foods you’re eating. While some items (like fast food or fried foods) may be obviously feeding the fires of inflammation and fueling fatigue, others can seem healthy yet sneakily contribute too. Say sayonara to these sometimes-surprising suspects:
Potato chips are usually fried in corn, soybean, cottonseed or other oils high in omega 6 fats, which are shown to disrupt omega-3 to omega-6 balance, exacerbating inflammation. Even some natural chips use omega-6 oils like safflower or sunflower.
French fries typically contain trans fats, which are partially hydrogenated oils that significantly boost whole-body inflammation. Technically, they’re banned, but crafty label trickery allows products with less than 0.5 grams per serving to be labeled as “zero trans fats.” Hidden trans fats add up, often to dangerous levels.
Natural colas often aren’t as great as they seem. They may be free from preservatives, but natural or not, sugar-sweetened soft drinks promote crazy inflammation. Research shows only 40 grams of sugar (the amount in most canned soft drinks) significantly increases CRP and other markers of inflammation. Plus, studies link excess sugar consumption with chronic inflammation – which will wreck your sleep.
Agave might be billed as a “healthy alternative” to sugar, but it’s highly refined and primarily fructose (a simple sugar shown to disrupt gut bacteria, trigger intestinal permeability and encourage inflammation worse than cane sugar).
Bagels, along with bread, pasta, biscuits and other foods made from refined flour, are made with refined, processed grains. These grains are rapidly metabolized, spiking blood sugar and fueling inflammation similar to sugar. Whole, unrefined versions (oatmeal, brown rice, millet) are better, but too many grains of any kind can exacerbate inflammation.
Gluten-free, vegan cookies are another sneaky food. Wheat-free, dairy-free goodies (pastries, muffins, bagels and cakes) are loaded with sugar, and they may swap butter for partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening that’s high in trans fats. And refined flour, gluten or no, feeds inflammation.
Drive-through burgers feature red meat, which contains arachidonic acid. This compound is linked with measurable increases in inflammation; conventionally raised beef has higher levels than grass-fed or free-range versions. If it’s on a bun with a side of fries, you’re escalating the impact.
Microwave popcorn is like chips, crackers and packaged snacks; it’s usually made with partially hydrogenated oils. Most bags are also coated with toxic compounds that prevent oil from seeping through. In the body, those break down into perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is shown to promote inflammation and increase the risk of cancer.
Happy hour margaritas feature alcohol. And even in moderation, alcohol initiates inflammatory processes. Sweet cocktails (like pina coladas, daiquiris and cosmopolitans) are laced with sugar too. Red wine is a possible exception; it’s rich in resveratrol and other antioxidants, and studies suggest it’s less likely to trigger inflammation.
Try these anti-inflammatory lifestyle tips too
Sure, what you eat (or don’t) is crazy important – but if you’re sedentary, sleep-deprived and stressed to the max, an anti-inflammatory diet has little impact. In order to do the most good possible, try to put these healthy lifestyle habits into practice in addition to avoiding inflammatory foods:
Reset your clock to battle ongoing inflammation. Inflammation upsets circadian rhythms, disrupts slumber and leads to next-day exhaustion. Plus, insufficient shuteye exacerbates its fire, leaving you in a vicious, sleep-deprived circle. Stabilize your biological cycle: Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, and shoot for 7 to 8 hours a night. Struggling to snooze? Try melatonin; besides inducing restful slumber, some research suggests it dampens inflammation.
Practice PMR to ease into sleep. If you’re faced with an all-day onslaught of stress, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) teaches the body to unconsciously recognize and release tension. And studies show it significantly eases stress and anxiety. Lie down in a comfortable location, take a few deep breaths, then start tightening and relaxing all your muscles. Start with your face and forehead, and move all the way down your body, ending with your toes.
Work out regularly…. Exercise enhances the release of anti-inflammatory chemicals, and studies show even 20 minutes of walking or other moderate-intensity exercise decreases inflammation. Regular activity also trims excess body fat—important, since being overweight initiates a cascade of physiological responses that end in inflammation.
…but not like a beast. Movement is key, but intense or prolonged exercise triggers inflammation. Modulate vigorous workouts and alternate them with gentler routines. Studies show yoga reduces markers of inflammation, eases stress and promotes sounder sleep, especially when the practice includes meditation and deep breathing.
Baby that belly, as research links gut and microbiome disruptions with low-grade, chronic inflammation. Balance bacteria and support your gut by minimizing sugar and stress, prioritizing sleep and adding probiotic-rich foods to your anti-inflammatory regimen. And drink plenty of water; even minor dehydration can impair gut function.
Take anti-inflammatory supplements (besides turmeric) like ginger root, alpha-lipoic acid, andrographis, boswellia, resveratrol and MSM (methylsulfonylmethane). They’re all shown to blunt the release of chemicals, impact physiological processes that fuel chronic inflammation and significantly tame those fiery flames.