What to Eat for Better Sleep
There are many factors that can affect your rest and steal your sleep, especially as you get older. And some, such as disorders like sleep apnea, can be tricky to treat. But among the often overlooked contributors to your nightly sleep problems are the food and beverages you consume during the day.
Fortunately, avoiding foods that disrupt sleep and replacing them with sleep-promoting alternatives is something that’s within your control. “The healthfulness of your diet can significantly impact your overall sleep—or lack of it,” says Samantha Cassetty, R.D., a nutritionist in New York City and co-author of the book Sugar Shock.
An analysis of 29 studies published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews in June 2021 found that eating more processed and sugary foods was associated with worse sleep. In contrast, a study published in the journal Nutrients in September 2020 found that women who followed a nutritious Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, veggies, and other high-fiber plant foods, reported better sleep quality and fewer sleep disturbances.
“People in the U.S. tend to exceed added sugars and red meat recommendations yet fall short on fiber targets,” Cassetty says. According to one study published in 2016, this type of diet is associated with poorer sleep and more arousals during the night, so your sleep suffers when you eat like this.
What Foods Disrupt Sleep?
Some common dietary habits may be having a bigger impact on your nightly rest than you realize. Here are a few foods that disrupt sleep:
Caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea block a sleep-promoting chemical called adenosine, which is why they keep you awake. But caffeine can affect everyone differently, so be mindful of its impact on you.
“People can be fast or slow metabolizers of caffeine, so that can determine how it may affect someone’s sleep,” says Melanie Keller, a naturopathic doctor in Los Angeles. “Fast metabolizers are the ones who can have an espresso at the end of a meal and still be able to fall asleep, whereas a slow metabolizer would never think to order the espresso because they would be up all night.”
Your best bet may be to abstain from caffeine later in the day, Cassetty says, adding, “Caffeine can take up to six hours to clear your system, so it’s helpful to limit your caffeine intake by midday.”
Spicy, Cheesy Fiestas
Acid reflux is known to keep people awake at night. You may already know to watch out for acidic triggers such as lemons, limes, and oranges; however, there are other less-obvious foods that are high in acid, Keller says.
High-acid foods that can disrupt sleep include dairy products, carbonated beverages, beer, processed meats, and hot chocolate. Similarly, spicy foods such as salsa and hot peppers can cause heartburn, which contributes to acid reflux. Eating any of these foods in the hours before bedtime may lead to discomfort when you lie down.
Aside from not eating trigger foods, people with reflux may be able to find relief by avoiding large meals within three hours of bedtime, sleeping with the head of their bed elevated, and losing weight. Antacids may also be helpful.
A study in the journal Nutrients found that men who consumed diets high in fat were more likely to feel sleepy during the day, more likely to suffer from sleep apnea, and more apt to report sleep problems. Avoid fried foods, butter, cream cheese, and ice cream.
Besides increasing risk for acid reflux, scheduling dinner too close to bedtime can cause your digestive system to keep running even after you’re ready to turn in for the night. “For optimal health and digestive function, finish your last meal for the day three hours before bedtime,” says Keller. A recent study showed eating too close to bedtime increased the amount of time waking up from sleep and thus leading to disrupted sleep.
Despite what you may think, alcohol is indeed a food that disrupts sleep. It may help you fall asleep quicker, but you won’t get deep sleep, where you get the health benefits. “Alcohol can make you drowsy, but it can also worsen your overall sleep,” Cassetty says.
And once it wears off, alcohol can cause you to wake from the restorative stages of deep sleep. You may get up in the middle of the night and not be able to drift off again. To reduce your risk of poor-quality sleep, stop drinking alcohol at least four hours before you go to bed, according to the Sleep Foundation.
A Cup of Tea Before Bed
That chamomile tea may help you relax, but it’s not worth the additional bathroom trips throughout the night. To avoid the sleep disruptions, Keller suggests cutting yourself off from fluids well before bedtime. “Resist drinking water or any other fluids at least two hours before [going to sleep],” she advises.
5 Sleep-Promoting Foods
In addition to eating a healthy Mediterranean-style diet, there are specific foods that can actually help you get better zzz’s, according to Keller. These foods in general have high amounts of melatonin or lead to high amounts of melatonin, which is a hormone that regulates your circadian rhythm to help you sleep.
You may want to incorporate the following sleep-promoting foods into your weekly meal rotation:
- Turkey. Research shows that consuming moderate amounts of protein before bed is associated with better sleep quality. Turkey also contains tryptophan, which increases the production of the sleep hormone melatonin.
- Tart cherry juice. High levels of melatonin in tart Montmorency cherries have been shown to improve sleep quality and quantity.
- Walnuts. They are a good source not only of melatonin but also fatty acids, which may aid in sleep.
- Almonds. These nuts are an excellent source of magnesium, which may help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is known to interrupt sleep.
- Kiwifruit. The exotic fruit is rich in serotonin, a precursor to melatonin.
The Bottom Line
Knowing what to eat for better sleep and making the necessary dietary changes can improve the quality of your rest and overall health. If you’re eating a lot of heavily processed foods, red meat, and sugary sweets and beverages, then it’s worth reevaluating your choices—for the sake of your sleep as well as your health.
As Cassetty says, “You will probably sleep better after you transition to eating more whole foods and incorporating more fruits, veggies, and other plant-based foods into your diet.”
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