Nutrition for a Restful Night's Sleep

Sleep. The ultimate rest and rejuvenation time we have the opportunity to experience every single day. But most people don’t get enough quality sleep to the point sleep deprivation is considered one of the public health crises of our day.

In today’s blog, I want to help you optimize your sleep by strategically using the science of food and nutrition. Yes, there are foods and drinks that can help you fall asleep and sleep longer. And, yes, there are foods and drinks that do the opposite. (Hello: evening double shot of espresso!) The best part is that you don’t need to give up your favorite things to sleep better . . . you only have to enjoy them more strategically throughout the day.

So Why is sleep so important?

Sleep is essential for good health and a sense of well-being. It gives your cells (in your brain, muscles, etc.) time to rest, clean out waste, and repair. Enough quality sleep helps to reduce inflammation throughout the body and lower the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, depression, metabolic syndrome, and high blood pressure. Being well-rested promotes physical and mental energy, attention, and productivity. Sleep supports your memory, immune system, and exercise performance, and can help you to better manage stress and weight. In short, getting enough quality sleep every day can help optimize just about everything for your body and mind.

Poor sleep, on the other hand, is linked to increased risk for weight gain, larger waist circumference, and obesity. This is partly due to sleep’s impact on appetite hormones, leading to increased hunger and cravings, and decreased feelings of satiety. Lack of sleep also increases levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Higher cortisol levels are linked to more belly fat and insulin resistance.

When it comes to sleep goals, the ideal amount of sleep adults need to maximize health and well-being is 7-9 hours per night. The reason for this amount is because, during sleep, our brains cycle through different stages. These stages include rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). High quality sleep involves 3-5 cycles of REM sleep to non-REM sleep (and back again) every night, and this needs 7-9 hours uninterrupted. Adults who get at least 7 hours of sleep each night have reduced risk for many chronic conditions (as listed above).

Nutrition Tips to Improve your Sleep

Sleep and nutrition are intricately linked. Poor sleep can increase cravings and hunger. On the other hand, there are several foods and drinks that can impact the quality and amount of z’s you get. Lifestyle and dietary choices like when to enjoy caffeine, and what foods and drinks promote better sleep (and which do the opposite) are nutrition strategies to consider if you’re trying to get more, better quality sleep.

Be smart about when you enjoy caffeine. The reason coffee is so popular in the mornings is because of its proven ability to stimulate the mind and help you feel awake. This also means that focusing on caffeine intake when you wake up, and reducing—or eliminating—it in the hours leading up to your bedtime can help you get better sleep. Coffee and caffeinated energy drinks are the obvious sources of higher quantities of caffeine, but lots of other foods and drinks contain caffeine in smaller amounts that can add up. Many teas, sodas, chocolate, and even decaffeinated coffee contain some caffeine, so consider limiting these several hours before bed to try to get a better night’s sleep. 

 

Fun Fact: For many people, caffeine starts to exert its stimulating effects in 30 minutes or less, but those effects can last for 10 hours or more. (That’s why I recommend cutting back on the java and other sources of caffeine around noon).

Below are tips on nutritious foods and drinks for better sleep (and overall health). And while there isn’t a magical food or drink that helps you get very sleepy very quickly, eating a nutritious diet has a positive effect on sleep quality. Here is a list of specific foods that can help promote better sleep.

Cherries. Several studies have looked at people who eat cherries and found that eating them may help improve sleep. This sleep effect of cherries is thought to be because they contain serotonin and melatonin, along with phytonutrients (plant-based nutrients).

Fun fact: Melatonin is a natural sleep-inducing neurotransmitter (sometimes called a “sleep hormone”) that helps to set your sleep-wake cycle and tells your brain when to get ready for sleep. Melatonin is made from the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, serotonin. 

Fatty fish. Eating fatty fish is also linked to better sleep. Fish like salmon, mackerel, and trout contain essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, as well as vitamin D. These are thought to influence serotonin secretion, leading to drowsiness.

Whole grains. Johns Hopkins suggests eating complex carbohydrates like whole wheat bread and pasta, oatmeal, or brown rice before bed. That’s because complex carbohydrates can trigger the release of serotonin. (Simple carbohydrates like sugary and starchy foods and desserts are linked to insomnia, increased stress hormones, and can reduce serotonin levels—none of which are good for sleep.) Plus, whole grains contain fiber which seems to help increase the time spent in deeper sleep.

Poultry and dairy. Serotonin and melatonin are made from the amino acid tryptophan. Eating foods that contain tryptophan ensures that it’s readily available when those neurotransmitters are needed to improve mood and induce drowsiness. Foods that contain tryptophan include poultry (chicken and turkey), fish, eggs, dairy (milk and cheese), beans, and pumpkin seeds.

Legumes, nuts, and seeds. The essential mineral magnesium is thought to help improve sleep quality. Foods high in magnesium include whole grains, fish, spinach, avocados, legumes, soy products, and nuts and seeds.

Warm milk or herbal teas. Sometimes a small cup of a soothing warm beverage can help you feel sleepy before bed. The Cleveland Clinic recommends warm milk or an herbal tea like chamomile or peppermint. [(But don’t drink too much liquid if it’s going to wake you up in the middle of the night to go to the washroom/bathroom.)]

Foods and drinks can also disrupt your sleep. Good sleep isn’t only about neurotransmitters that impact your brain and sleep patterns. How your body digests and eliminates foods and drinks can also impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. For example, your digestion tends to slow down during sleep. So, if heartburn or indigestion cause you nighttime discomfort, try not eating large meals or troublesome foods (like spicy or acidic foods) within a few hours of bedtime. Also, if you need to wake up in the night to go to the bathroom often, consider getting all of the fluids you need earlier in the day so you can stop drinking an hour or two before bedtime. 

Does alcohol’s drowsing effect mean better sleep?

It’s pretty common to feel relaxed and drowsy after that last cocktail or glass of wine at night, but does that nightcap really help you get enough high-quality sleep? Alcohol can help you fall asleep, however making you feel sleepy doesn’t mean you’ll get a good night’s sleep. Drinking alcohol often leads to fragmented sleep, where you wake up several times throughout the night. Alcohol suppresses your essential REM sleep and can lead to more vivid dreams and nightmares, sleepwalking and other disruptive sleep disorders, insomnia, and even breathing problems like sleep apnea. In fact, as more alcohol is consumed, sleep quality tends to get worse. 

Not to mention the morning after a night with too much alcohol: the oversleeping and grogginess can really prevent you from feeling like your best self for the next day. These sleep disturbances happen because, as your body breaks down and metabolizes the alcohol, it disrupts the natural healthy sleep cycle that helps you have sound and restful sleep. The metabolism of alcohol is what prevents you from waking up feeling refreshed and rested. 

Fundamentally, alcohol messes up your sleep because of what it does to your body’s physiology and biochemistry. For example:

  • Several hours after drinking alcohol, your body releases the stress hormone (epinephrine/adrenaline), which is a stimulant that increases your heart rate and causes you to wake up. 
  • People who drink alcohol tend to have more leg movements during sleep and this often wakes them up when they should be sleeping.
  • Alcohol can reduce your melatonin levels. 
  • Drinking alcohol can worsen indigestion, heartburn, and the need to wake up to go to the bathroom when you should be sleeping soundly.

If getting more, high-quality sleep is important to you, consider cutting down on alcohol—especially before bedtime.

Bringing it all together

Sleep is crucial for optimal health and well-being. Many people struggle to get the coveted 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night and don’t wake up feeling refreshed and energized. But there are things you can do to start turning that around.

By making some changes to what and when you eat and drink, you can positively impact your body’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Keep caffeine to the mornings, enjoy a nutritious diet that includes a few foods to help regulate your sleep, and cut back on alcohol. This way you can look forward to waking up rested and recharged while caring for your body and mind.

Have specific questions or need help managing your nutrition and lifestyle habits for better sleep? As Registered Dietitians here at The Dietitian Center, we’d love to help! Book an appointment today to get your own personalized nutrition plan for better rest.

References

Binks, H., E Vincent, G., Gupta, C., Irwin, C., & Khalesi, S. (2020). Effects of Diet on Sleep: A Narrative Review. Nutrients12(4), 936. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12040936
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7230229/

Cleveland Clinic. (2020, June 17). Why you should limit alcohol before bed for better sleep. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/why-you-should-limit-alcohol-before-bed-for-better-sleep/

Cleveland Clinic. (2022, May 25). 6 foods that help you sleep. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/foods-that-help-you-sleep/

Duke Health & Well-being. (2020, August 11). Understanding the connections between sleep and nutrition. https://dhwblog.dukehealth.org/understanding-the-connections-between-sleep-and-nutrition/

Harvard Health Medical School. (2019, August 9). Alcohol and fatigue. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/alcohol-and-fatigue

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Better Sleep: 3 simple diet tweaks.  https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/better-sleep-3-simple-diet-tweaks

Pan American Health Organization. (2021). Alcohol and sleep: How alcohol can affect your sleep. https://www.paho.org/en/documents/alcohol-series-alcohol-and-sleep-how-alcohol-can-affect-your-sleep

Sejbuk, M., Mirończuk-Chodakowska, I., & Witkowska, A. M. (2022). Sleep Quality: A Narrative Review on Nutrition, Stimulants, and Physical Activity as Important Factors. Nutrients14(9), 1912. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14091912
https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/14/9/1912

Sleep Foundation. (2023, July 18).  Alcohol and sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/nutrition/alcohol-and-sleep