How Your Diet Affects Your Sleep

Last updated on : January 21 2022

Sleeping in bed

Have you noticed how a sleepless night makes you more likely to reach for pizza or doughnuts than for leafy green vegetables or whole grains? 

Or how a good night's sleep makes you more likely to make positive food choices in the morning?

That's because when you have the energy from a restorative sleep, you tend to make wiser food choices. 

Sleep 101

Before we focus on the link between sleep and diet, let's first understand the biology of sleep.

Sleep is controlled by melatonin and serotonin hormones. Melatonin helps regulate the wake and sleep cycles, while serotonin signals the body to create more melatonin. 

While there is no magic number of sleep hours for every person of the same age, most adults need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. After 60, nighttime tends to be lighter, shorter, and interrupted by multiple awakenings.

The Link Between Diet And Sleep

Your diet impacts your sleep, and sleep affects your diet.

 "You are what you eat" reflects the fact that the food you consume serves as the backbone for health. Your nutrition provides you with the energy you need and other inputs to make your body function properly throughout the day.

Consuming caffeine late in the day, for instance, can affect your sleep/wake schedules. And it's not just coffee but also chocolate, sodas, and teas. 

Caffeine-interrupted sleep could cause sleep deprivation the following day, characterized by problems with learning, problem-solving, memory, emotion regulation, and fatigue.

One study in the Life Sciences also suggested how spicy foods can cause sleep-disturbing heartburn. These foods cause the body temperature to increase, making it harder to fall asleep.

In the same way that food affects your sleep, sleep also affects your food choices and appetite. 

If you are not yet asleep at night, you will likely eat. Eating late leads to less chance for your body fat stores to be used and an increased likelihood of eating unhealthy or empty calories, based on a 6-year prospective study published in the Sleep journal.

The study shows that sleep deprivation can increase consuming unhealthy foods and overeating.

Here are some other factors to consider.


1. Eating Before Bed - How Long To Wait? 

How long should you wait before sleeping after your dinner? Is it evil to go to bed too soon after you eat? 

Of course, eating a meal too close to your bedtime can harm your sleep, especially if you eat a large amount of food. Nutritionists will tell you a good timing would be at least 3 hours between your dinner and bedtime.

Such a time window allows digestion to happen and the contents of your stomach to pass through your small intestine. In addition, lying down shortly after a meal can cause nighttime heartburn because the contents of your stomach go back into the esophagus.

So, if you have a big meal, it would be better to have it in the morning or the middle of the day. That way, your body is less likely to store the extra calories as fat since there will be enough time to burn them off during the day.

At night, eat enough so long as you are satiated, but not to the point that you're too full. And if you still want to eat something sweet at night, eat only a tiny portion after your meal.

2. Going To Bed Hungry Can Disrupt Your Sleep

However, going to bed hungry could likewise negatively impact sleep.

Ideally, eat enough at dinner, so you remain satiated until sleep time. And if you are still hungry before going to bed, opt for something light. A small bowl of cereal, for instance.

3. More Sleep Will Reduce Food Cravings

When your hunger hormone levels are increased, it makes you hungrier and makes you crave starchy, salty, and sweet things - leaving you craving cookies, chips, or some candy.

In a randomized controlled trial, researchers discovered that the desire for high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods increased by 45% in people who experienced high levels of ghrelin, often called the "hunger hormone."

Meanwhile, another group of researchers emphasized that sleep is one of the three lifestyle behaviors closely related to health. Their brain imaging study showed how the reward-seeking portion of the participants' brain is stimulated by less than 7 hours of sleep per night.

A lack of sleep increases a person's desire for refined carbs, inviting fat-promoting insulin and spiking blood sugars.

4. Exercising for Better Sleep 

Aside from food, exercise also affects your sleep. Diet, sleep, and exercise form the three pillars of healthy living. 

Improving one of these lifestyle factors can help you lead a longer life, but improving all three could be a better way to improve both mental and physical health.

Working out close to bedtime may undermine your best efforts to maintain a healthy sleep habit. Yet, regular exercise during the day can boost your energy level and lead to a more restful sleep.

Exercise in the daytime can also relieve stress, a significant cause of insomnia. Exercising in the afternoon is better than in the evening.

5. Setting Up Healthy Eating Habits

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans highlight the importance of building flexible and healthy eating patterns. 

As such, whether you choose to follow a Mediterranean-eating style, a vegetarian diet, or something in between to promote sleep. 

The most important thing you can do for overall health is to eat a varied diet of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins, and low-fat and free-fat varieties of dairy.

Use the below as a guide.  

6. Best Foods to Help You Sleep Through the Night 

So, what is the best diet for sleep? As a general rule, opt for a balanced diet made mainly of fruits and vegetables, so your body gets the recommended daily intake of nutrients and vitamins. 

All the following promote a healthy weight while contributing to better sleep.

A. Lean proteins

Lean proteins, such as fish, turkey, chicken, and low-fat cheese, are high in amino acid tryptophan. Your body uses amino acids to maintain and produce the body's protein, muscles, neurotransmitters, and enzymes. 

The amino acid tryptophan likewise tends to increase the serotonin level, a hormone that is a precursor to another hormone (melatonin) involved in sleep. On the flip side, avoid deep-fried fish, chicken wings, or high-fat cheeses, as they take longer to digest in the stomach and can keep you awake.

Drinking a protein shake before bed may also enhance sleep quality by pushing the amino amino-acid tryptophan. You may mix your protein powder in soy milk, milk, or yogurt - all these are rich sources of tryptophan.

B. Complex carbohydrates

Sandwiches and french fries

Complex carbohydrates, such as fresh fruit and whole-grain crackers, can make you sleepy at night and keep your blood sugar level stable. That's why we recommend you embrace cereals, crackers, brown rice, whole grain pasta, and whole-grain bread.

On the other hand, avoid simple carbohydrates, like (regular) pasta, bread, sweets, and other sugary foods. These simple carbohydrates tend to decrease your serotonin levels and do not promote sleep.

C. Unsaturated fats

Heart-healthy fats, which include peanut butter (peanut should be the only ingredient) and nuts, do not just boost your heart health but improve your serotonin levels too.

By nuts, we mean cashew, pistachios, almonds, and walnuts. Avoid trans and saturated fats, such as potato chips, french fries, and other high-fat snack foods.

D. Sleep-inducing snacks

You can also try eating sleep-inducing snacks, such as low-fat yogurt, banana, low-fat cottage cheese with 100% whole-grain pita chips, an apple, or a smear peanut butter on whole-grain crackers.

A 2016 study also found that dark chocolate can help one sleep better at night. Thanks to the magnesium content in dark chocolate. Also, dark chocolate contains serotonin. Plus, guilty pleasure has other health benefits, like reducing the risk of heart disease and boosting cognition. 

But to be on the safe side, avoid exceeding 1 to 1.5 oz per portion.

E. Kiwi and Tart Cherries

Now for specific foods that have sleep benefits, go for kiwi or tart cherries. Some studies have found that eating kiwi an hour before bedtime increases total sleep time and sleep efficiency. 

It could be because the fruit contains various sleep-promoting compounds, like calcium, melatonin, carotenoids, potassium, anthocyanins, flavonoids, magnesium, and folate.

Similarly, several studies have found that tart cherries have sleep benefits. Those who drank two one-cup servings of the said juice per day have higher sleep efficiency and total sleep time. 

These sleep-inducing benefits may come from the fact that the fruit has above-average melatonin concentrations and has an antioxidant effect conducive to sleep.

F. Barley Grass Powder 

Another powerful sleep aid is barley grass, rich in potassium, tryptophan, and calcium content. The chemical (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA)) inside the brain that has been shown to promote restful sleep is also found in barley grass. 

So, why not try adding barley grass powder to your soups, salad dressings, smoothies, or even plain water?


There you go. You can try the foods we recommend to lessen your tossing and turning at night. 

Lastly, if you are trying to lose weight, a sound piece of advice would be to "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper."

Sweet dreams!

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Editor: Charles Fitzgerald

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