Pinpointing why we aren’t sleeping well can be difficult, but one lifestyle factor many of us overlook is diet. From not getting enough vitamins and minerals to eating too close to bedtime, there are several ways our diet can cause poor sleep. Fortunately, there are changes you can make to your daily meals to improve your sleep. The trick is to recognize which foods may disrupt your sleep and either eat them earlier in the day or reduce how much of them you consume altogether.
Know the risks
Most of us recognize the symptoms we experience when we don’t get enough sleep — irritability, lack of energy and inability to focus, to name a few. While these may be minor inconveniences, a prolonged lack of sleep can cause serious health issues.
Regular lack of sleep increases your risk for depression, heart disease, diabetes and other issues that can cause long-term damage to your body and health. Sleep is when our body recovers from the strains and stresses of the day and without adequate time to rest and heal, our bodies are constantly trying to catch up. When that happens, we’re never running at optimum performance. It can also negatively affect our immune system, which makes it harder for our body to fight off illness.
Poor diet can cause poor sleep, but a few easy food swaps may help get that perfect 8 hours of sleep.
As the saying goes, you are what you eat, and that extends to your sleep as well. A poor diet can affect your sleep by not giving you enough of certain nutrients your body needs to function properly and prepare for restful sleep. These include B6, tryptophan, serotonin and melatonin, among others.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, which means our body cannot make it and must be acquired through diet. It helps our body create the two hormones serotonin and melatonin. Melatonin regulates your sleep-wake cycles, and serotonin helps with sleeping, eating and digestion.
- Eat your dinner on rice instead of pasta. Studies show a connection between eating white rice and having higher quality sleep, possibly because of rice’s high glycemic index. The rise in your blood sugar after eating rice — or other high-glycemic foods — causes an increase in insulin, which can help tryptophan enter your brain and convert into melatonin.
- Swap out your dinner protein for fish such as tuna, halibut and salmon. These fish are high in vitamin B6, which your body needs to make melatonin and serotonin. Other foods high in vitamin B6 include raw garlic and pistachios.
- Grab a bowl of yogurt and add honey instead of eating ice cream. The natural sugar found in honey slightly increases insulin without spiking your blood sugar. This allows tryptophan to enter the brain more easily, and the calcium in yogurt helps your brain use the tryptophan to create melatonin. If honey isn’t your thing, add some healthy cereal to your yogurt instead; the blood sugar and insulin increase from the carbohydrates may have a similar effect.
- Drink a warm glass of milk before bed. It may sound like an old wives’ tale, but there may actually be some truth behind it. The calcium in milk helps your brain use tryptophan to create melatonin, but also regulates muscle movements so you can relax and fall asleep.
Many of us suffering from poor sleep may be unwittingly causing the issue ourselves through lifestyle choices. Robert Finley, M.D., a board-certified physician at Monument Health Sleep Center, said, “a lot of us in developed countries are sleeping less and less. A lot of it’s voluntary. We stay up on social media all night, for instance, with all that blue light exposure. Even with a filter, that can be very stimulating and decrease our quality of sleep.”
Cell phones aren’t the only culprit; any electronic device, such as TVs or computer screens, also emits blue light. Engaging in stimulating activities before bed is part of the problem, as it doesn’t give our brains a chance to wind down and prepare for a good night of sleep.
Balancing diet and timing
If you’re having trouble sleeping, taking a closer look at your diet may also provide some answers. Both what you eat and when you eat it are important factors to consider. Dr. Finley recommends maintaining a balanced diet, including foods rich in vitamins and minerals that can help you get to sleep more easily.
“When you’re planning your meals, make sure you include things like calcium, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins,” he said. These nutrients are a vital part of how our body prepares for sleep. They also help our bodies stay in a deep, restorative state once we’ve fallen asleep.
Dr. Finley also recommends concluding your meals at least two to three hours before bedtime. If you need a snack between dinner and bedtime, stay away from foods that are high in fat and sugar.
“If you need something before bed, try something like a cold cereal that’s high in fiber with no added sugar. You can also try a banana; they’re high in serotonin, which can help with getting to sleep,” he said.
As part of the Monument Health Sleep Center team, Dr. Finley helps diagnose and manage sleep disturbances such as restless sleep apnea, insomnia and narcolepsy, as well as child and infant sleep problems. Treatment services at the sleep center include consultations, in-lab and home sleep studies and follow-up programs.
A healthy diet is critical to our overall health, but there are relatively healthy foods you should eat in moderation if your quality of sleep is poor.
Watch out for foods with caffeine, such as soda or tea, but also lesser known ones like chocolate and coffee-flavored ice cream. Foods with high levels of tyramine — such as bacon, pepperoni and certain types of cheese — can also make you feel more alert and affect your sleep.
Refined or processed carbohydrates can also contribute to poor sleep. Avoiding sugar before bed is common advice, but foods like white bread, white rice and pizza are also high in refined carbs that can have a similar effect on your body. Foods such as yogurt and pasta sauce use refined sugars as a preservative, so you may be consuming more sugar than you realize if you don’t check nutrition labels.
Unfortunately, poor sleep can become a self-perpetuating cycle; when we’re sleep deprived, we tend to eat unhealthy foods, which makes us sleep less due to lack of proper nutrition. This is especially true for shift workers and those in high-stress jobs. When we’re sleep deprived and stressed, our body craves foods that are calorie-dense and high in fat and carbs.
“We see this a lot in shift workers. In the middle of the night, hardly anyone is eating a salad — we have things like chips and cookies instead. We all get the urge to eat unhealthy food at night, especially if we don’t get enough sleep,” Dr. Finley said.
Set yourself up for success by planning snacks like nuts and healthy proteins, and keep an eye on how much sleep you’re getting every night. The average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep a night; if you’re getting less than that, keeping track of your meals can help you pinpoint whether your diet may be part of the problem.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, can disrupt our sleep cycles. While it can happen any time of year, it’s most common in the winter months when there’s less sun.
“SAD is actually a form of depression,” Dr. Finley said. “There’s a part of the brain, the kind of master clock that drives our circadian rhythm, that functions on daylight. In the winter months, when it gets less daylight, it can get a little off of its normal rhythm.”
Experts aren’t entirely sure why Seasonal Affective Disorder happens. It could be because we spend less time socializing and interacting with others, or possibly because
we spend more time indoors in the winter which means we’re getting less fresh air and sunlight exposure, and thus we get less vitamin D. It is important to recognize if you’re feeling unlike yourself for more than a couple days.
“We all have times where it’s a day or two, but if it becomes a persistent thing where you don’t want to do anything like exercising, eating healthy or socializing for a longer period of time, you should talk to your doctor or therapist,” Dr. Finley said. Seasonal Affective Disorder can also make you feel sleepy during the day or make you want to sleep longer than usual at night.
Diet can play a large role in your quality of sleep, but don't discount external factors. Things like stress at work and changing seasons can also cause poor sleep.