Food is the fuel that powers your days, boosting energy levels, improving your focus, aiding in exercise recovery, and repairing tissues. However, the foods you eat can also impact your sleep in both beneficial and unfavorable ways.
Nutrition and sleep are two pillars of health, along with a consistent exercise routine and stress management. Sleep may be the key to improving the other aspects of health due to its impact on food choices, stress tolerance, and energy levels. But each factor affects the other, with nutrition and exercise also impacting your ability to sleep well.
Sleep is vital for your health and quality of life
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine determines that sleep is essential for health. It has quite the reach – sleep impacts cognitive functioning, mood, mental health, and cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and metabolic health. The amount of sleep you get, as well as the quality of that sleep, is essential for preventing accidents and injuries due to fatigue while in the workplace and while driving.
Experts recommend about 7 hours of sleep per night for most adults. Those who sleep at least 7 hours perform better cognitively and tend to have better mental health. Cognitive tasks such as processing speed, problem-solving, memory recall, and attention are improved; depression and anxiety symptoms are reduced. Your overall well-being is enhanced with enough sleep.
Short and long-term sleep disturbances and untreated sleep disorders can significantly impact your quality of life. This includes your physical and mental health, mood regulation, and the safety of others. If insufficient quantity and quality of sleep becomes chronic, research shows that it increases your risk of mortality and likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes.
Your sleep directly impacts your daily diet, too
Beyond your overall health and wellness, sleep also shapes your food choices. In fact, you might not even notice its impact on your diet and nutrition.
Sleep deprivation leads to a desire for higher-calorie foods with excess sugar and fat while decreasing your tendency to choose lower-calorie foods. Researchers believe that this effect is your body’s way of trying to increase energy through calorie-dense foods.
Unfortunately, this may lead to unwanted weight gain and lower quality nutrition. So, there is a two-way relationship between what you eat and your sleep quality. This means that improving your nutrition can positively impact your sleep quality, and vice versa.
Certain nutrients and foods can improve your sleep health
A 2022 review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at how diet can help improve sleep. The primary findings were that the amount of carbohydrates and fats you eat could affect your sleep quality for better and for worse.
For instance, diets with a higher amount of complex carbohydrates containing fiber and healthy fats are associated with better sleep quality. As well, higher protein diets may lead to improved sleep. Researchers indicated foods such as fruits, vegetables, and foods that provide anti-inflammatory properties are ideal.
Which foods – and nutrients – can foster better sleep? There is limited research demonstrating a clear link between specific foods and better sleep regarding particular sleep-promoting foods. However, research points to some foods that may increase your likelihood of getting a good night’s rest.
High fiber foods were associated with more deep (slow-wave) sleep. A lack of deep sleep will affect your mental abilities and make you feel as though you’re lacking sleep, even if you slept for the same amount of time as usual. Other factors involved with deep sleep include memory processes, the release of growth hormones, and healing.
Fruits and vegetables tend to be very high in fiber, especially if you consume the skins. Other high-fiber foods include whole grains such as whole wheat, rye, barley, amaranth, and oats. Beans and legumes are also excellent sources, including lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, adzuki beans, and black beans. Reach for pears, avocados, artichokes, broccoli, beets, carrots, and berries.
Some specific fruits may provide additional benefits. Kiwi has been shown to increase total sleep time and quality, and reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and the amount of waking during the night.
Tart cherries consumed as juice both morning and night during one study were associated with less severe insomnia, more time spent asleep, and better sleep quality than a placebo. The study found that tart cherry juice consumption increased melatonin levels, a hormone that helps your body know when to sleep. And similar findings have been shown with different types of cherries eaten out of hand. Cherries, in general, may increase your levels of melatonin and improve sleep.
Getting enough protein is also essential for healthy sleep. Low protein diets of less than 20 percent of total calories are associated with more difficulty getting to sleep and reduced sleep quality. People who consume less protein tend to wake up more frequently throughout the night. Choose proteins that are low in saturated fat but include healthy fats such as poultry, fish and seafood, lean cuts of steak, tofu, beans, and nuts.
Low-carb and high-fat foods
The amount of carbohydrates and fat you eat is also important for encouraging healthy sleep. Research indicates that people with insomnia, sleep apnea, or both, consume fewer carbohydrates and more fat than healthy individuals.
One of the more well-researched sleep-promoting foods is milk, especially when served warm. For generations, milk has been a popular sleep remedy studied since the 1970s. This older research involved participants consuming warm milk 30 minutes before bedtime and noted that those who drank the milk had fewer movements during their sleep and increased sleep time for older adults.
Although more research is needed, scientists believe that several vitamins and minerals in milk help improve sleep, including vitamin D and B-vitamins.
Fatty fish has also been studied as a sleep-promoting food since it is rich in vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutrients help regulate serotonin, an essential hormone for sleep. Consuming fatty fish increases vitamin D levels in your body, and having enough vitamin D improves sleep efficiency and sleep quality. More research is needed.
Some foods can interfere with your sleep
Although focusing on adding more health and sleep-promoting foods is the best strategy, there are some foods you may wish to limit. Researchers found diets higher in refined carbohydrates such as sweets, ice cream, and soda. Higher consumption of saturated fats may also interfere with sleep.
Caffeine is also best avoided near sleep hours – ideally 6 hours before winding down for the night. Caffeinated foods and drinks like coffee, black tea, sodas, and to a lesser degree, chocolate stimulate the nervous system, making restful sleep more difficult. Some people are particularly sensitive to caffeine and may do best to avoid it for 12 hours before bedtime.
Alcohol, especially hard liquor, can cause you to feel drowsy and fall asleep, but it interferes with your sleep cycles and decreases sleep quality. Wine and beer have less impact on sleep quality, but hard liquors may leave you feeling drained the next day.
The very same foods that promote general health, such as unsaturated fats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, beans, legumes, and nuts, can have you sleeping better and feeling more energized. A sleep-promoting diet is in line with the Mediterranean style of eating, consistently ranked as one of the most healthy diets in the world.