Eat Well, Sleep Well: How Diet Affects Your Sleep

Eat well

You know all about the dreaded scale. You see it every morning and step on it every night but you still can’t understand why the numbers just won’t go down. You’ve heard if you eat right and exercise that the bounty of endless weight loss can be yours for the taking. So what’s going on? Why can’t you seem to lose weight? The answer may lie in how well you’ve been sleeping.

If you’ve been counting calories and hitting the gym but staying up all night to finish those Netflix marathons, you could be impeding your own progress. To get your body to its prime operating level, you need to balance your exercise, food, and sleep schedule. Together with exercise, diet, and sleep create the foundation for long-term health and well-being. Working together hand in hand, a healthy diet can enhance sleep quality and sleep duration and getting regular, high-quality sleep can actually help you eat better. Research shows that when sleep deprived, you’re more likely to consume foods high in calories, fat, and sugar—and we’re all less skilled at managing sudden cravings for those same kinds of foods. Avoiding sleep deprivation helps to keep appetite-regulating hormones in balance, and decreases cravings for foods high in fat and sugar.

What should your sleep diet look like?

Broadly speaking, your sleep diet looks very much like a diet that you’ve been using to try to lose weight. A sleep-promoting diet is varied and rich in fruits and vegetables and whole grains, lean proteins and dairy. A diet healthy for sleep also manages portion size, and limits amounts of high-sugar and heavily processed foods you take in each day.

Nutrients found in a range of healthy foods provide particular benefits to sleep. For example, foods rich in tryptophan are highly beneficial for sleep. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is involved in the production of the sleep-friendly neurotransmitter serotonin. Tryptophan works in concert with calcium to help the production of the melatonin, a hormone essential to sleep. [1] Tryptophan-rich foods include bananas, dark greens, soy products, meats and fish, nuts such as cashews and walnuts. Turkey also contains this nutrient that’s responsible for your Thanksgiving Day need to nap.

Certain minerals can also help you sleep better.[2] Foods with high levels of magnesium and potassium can boost your sleep. Magnesium and potassium are minerals that act as muscle relaxants. Research shows that magnesium deficiency is associated with fragmented and insomnia. Good sources of magnesium include whole grains like brown rice, beans and lentils, dark greens such as spinach and chard, and fruits including bananas, melons, and berries. You’ll find high levels of potassium in leafy greens and other vegetables including squash, cauliflower, and potatoes, as well as in beans, fruits including banana and avocado, and fish.

Calcium-rich foods are often heralded as sleep-promoting—with good reason. Calcium helps sleep in a number of ways.[3] It promotes strong sleep-wake cycles by helping to regulate melatonin, and it also helps to relax muscles. Disturbances in REM sleep have been linked to calcium deficiency. Dairy products are rich in calcium, and so are dark greens, nuts like almonds and sesame seed, soy products, some fish and citrus fruits.

Cherries are also a good food to eat for sleep. Cherries are a good source of natural melatonin, a natural antioxidant with a well-documented history of helping regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Research indicates drinking cherry juice provides an additional, beneficial source of melatonin.[3]

Are there foods that keep you awake?

While many foods are healthful to sleep, other foods can actually undermine your nightly rest.[4] Foods that can interfere with sleep include high-sugar, high-carbohydrate, heavily-processed foods. The same junk food that’s problematic for your waistline can also be troublesome to your sleep. These foods may find an occasional place in an otherwise healthful eating routine but they are particularly problematic to sleep when they compose a large part of your regular diet, especially when they are eaten in large portions, and when they’re eaten too close to bedtime. Eating sugary foods throughout the day can cause pronounced changes to blood sugar, which bring on feelings of fatigue that can alter your daily routine and your sleep patterns at night. Large meals high in carbohydrates can have a similar effect on blood sugar. Eating heavy meals close to bedtime interferes with the body’s process of winding down for sleep.

Should you eat and drink before bed?

That said, it’s not a good idea to go to bed hungry. An empty, rumbling stomach can be distracting, and make it more difficult to fall asleep. Still, it’s best to avoid large meals close to bedtime. Being too full at bedtime can also interfere with falling asleep, and sleep quality through the night can be disrupted as the body works to digest. A light snack before bed won’t hurt your sleep. Yogurt, a banana, or a small bowl of low-sugar cereal is a smart choice for near-to-bed eating.

You do want to drink as much water as you can. Staying hydrated throughout the day promotes alertness and focus, and can help minimize shifts in energy levels. Dehydration leads to feeling sluggish and tired, which can eventually disrupt sleep patterns.[5] By the time you feel thirsty, chances are, you are already dehydrated. Drinking water throughout the day can help you maintain energy levels and avoid dehydration, helping set you up for a good night’s sleep later. Other drinks like tea and juice can also help keep you hydrated, but it’s best to limit sugary drinks or avoid them altogether. Consuming sugar or caffeinated drinks gives a boost to mental clarity and alertness that’s important to many people, especially in the morning but, according to the National Sleep Foundation, caffeine consumed in too-large quantities and too late in the day can interfere with your sleep.[6] Moderate caffeine consumption early in the day is less likely to disrupt sleep later.

When thinking about creating a plan for healthful eating, don’t just think about your waking health. Make your sleep health a factor too. Take the time to carve out a sleep schedule that keeps your body heading to bed and waking up at the same time every day—even on the weekends. Setting your biological clock can let your body know when to expect to sleep, wake and even, eat. Sleep is vitally important for your health so you’ll just have to find another time to schedule those Netflix marathons!

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