Many factors can influence our ability to get solid sleep, including activity levels, how we unwind, and yes our diets. What we eat and drink and when we consume our meals all play a part in how well and how much we sleep. Here’s what you should know about how food and drinks can affect your sleep habits.
The connection between eating and sleeping
Nutrition and sleep have a strong relationship, even if not commonly considered by most people.
The , so much so that our sleep can suffer based on what and when we eat. In the same respect, poor or inadequate sleep affects how we eat, sometimes causing us to make poor food choices. Studies show that poor sleep habits can be related to obesity and poor health, just as there is a link between poor health and poor sleep.
Some foods can promote sleep by increasing hormones the body produces, like melatonin. Increased melatonin helps the body relax so you can fall asleep and stay asleep. The same is true for foods that contain tryptophan, which converts into serotonin.
Other hormones, like glucose, fluctuate from eating and physical activity throughout the day and affect digestion which can also help improve your sleep. Foods also affect other hormones, such as adenosine, a neurotransmitter that helps make us tired but can be blocked by caffeine.
The timing can be as important as the contents of our meal. During sleep, bodily functions like digestion, metabolism, and the heart slow down so the body can rest and store energy for the coming day. The body is not designed to digest food while sleeping, so a late or overly large meal can lead to sleep troubles or loss of sleep.
Poor nutrition can impact your sleep
If digestion has such an influence on our sleep, what we’re trying to digest will as well. Studies have yielded an array of results when participants ate high-fat, high-carbohydrate, high-protein, or high-calorie diets. One study found improved sleep quality with a high-fat diet, but others indicated poorer overall sleep. Studies report that those whose diets were high in sugar, saturated fats, and calories had an increase in cortisol (the stress hormone that causes weight gain), which also has a negative impact on sleep.
Ultimately, our diet affects our body in numerous ways, whether inhibiting tryptophan or stimulating cortisol production, so it’s important to pay attention to how foods make you feel and to find balance in your diet.
The timing of your meals impacts your sleep
Your diet can also impact your sleep based on when you eat. In 2022, a study conducted by Harvard Medical School at Brigham and Women’s Hospital showed that eating late not only led to an increased risk of obesity but also increased overall hunger, decreased energy, and altered how the body burned calories.
On a more basic level, eating too close to bedtime can also lead to discomfort, including indigestion. Acid reflux, GERD, heartburn, or other abdominal discomfort related to indigestion can occur for several reasons, including triggering foods. But when lying down immediately after eating, your risk of discomfort increases. Eating large meals, aggravating foods, or late meals can all increase this problem. For anyone prone to digestive discomfort, doctors recommend not lying down for at least three hours after eating.
“Snacking on high-fat food like cheese, chips, and other dairy products can disturb sleep by inducing gastrointestinal discomfort from gas, bloating, and indigestion,” says Trista Best, registered dietician at Balance One Supplements. “They also tend to provide a surge of energy due to their high-calorie content and potential added sugars, which can make falling asleep more difficult.”
Foods that can cause bad sleep
The foods you eat can lead to poor sleep or sleep disruptions. Foods that are overly processed, high-calorie, high-carbohydrate, or high-saturated fat can cause these issues, as can acidic foods.
Though study results are mixed, one study found that a diet high in fiber, low in saturated fat, and low in simple carbohydrates could improve sleep, including more slow-wave sleep, better sleep latency, and fewer overnight awakenings.
To improve sleep, moderate your intake of:
High-saturated fat foods
When it comes to fats, monosaturated fatty acids — such as those found in avocados, nuts, and seeds — are great for sleep and your overall health and cholesterol. Saturated fats and trans fats, however, can disrupt sleep. Saturated fats are in dairy, red meat, fried foods, and junk food. Trans fats are fats found in hydrogenated oils, such as margarine.
Simple carbohydrates are often sugar- or sweetener-based additives to foods. Processed foods, junk foods, and sugary drinks are all common sources of simple carbs and can disrupt sleep. They are often a source of inflammation, which can also prevent or limit sleep. Like fats, not all carbs are equal. Complex carbohydrates contain more fiber and take longer to break down — meaning they provide prolonged sustenance and energy — think legumes, vegetables, and whole grains. Those are all great for your body and sleep.
Caffeine is an obvious one. “Coffee is the first thing that usually comes to mind when we think of caffeine, but there are other ways this stimulant can sneak into our diet prior to bed and disturb our sleep,” Best says.
“Teas are often enjoyed prior to sleep, but you must pay special attention to the caffeine content. As a general rule, most black, green, and white teas contain caffeine. You'll also want to avoid chocolate before bed as it contains a natural source of caffeine. Some over-the-counter medications, like headache or cold medicines, contain caffeine as well. So, it is important to pay attention to the medicines you take before going to sleep,” Best explains.
If you enjoy relaxing with a nightcap in the evenings, you may be hindering your sleep. Alcohol relaxes your system, which can be calming, but it also suppresses your neck and breathing muscles, increasing the risk of sleep apnea and acid reflux. Alcohol has also been shown to diminish REM sleep. “Alcohol consumption can disrupt the normal sleep stages,” Best says. “REM sleep is important for memory consolidation and emotional regulation. Alcohol can decrease the time spent in this stage, leading to less restful and restorative sleep. Alcohol also causes an increase in urination, which can disturb sleep.” REM sleep is important for memory consolidation and emotional regulation. Alcohol can decrease the time spent in this stage, leading to less restful and restorative sleep. Alcohol also causes an increase in urination, which can disturb sleep.”
Spicy foods can trigger heartburn or indigestion for some people. Flavors that have been known to trigger GERD include chiles, curry, cinnamon, and mint.
Acidic foods can cause indigestion that disrupts sleep too. Foods like tomatoes, citrus, processed foods, and vinegar-based foods may increase symptoms.
Sneaky foods, not sleepy foods
Some foods make you feel sleepy but aren’t good for your sleep. These sneaky foods can make you drowsy and may even help you get to sleep but won’t help you stay there.
High-protein foods can disrupt sleep because they take a long time to digest. Red meat and poultry may not digest well when eaten in the evening or closer to bedtime. Digestion already slows by up to 50%, and introducing these tough-to-process foods can slow things down more.
Tyramine is an amino acid or type of protein found in the body and in several foods. It helps regulate blood pressure and can stimulate the brain, which is not what you want when trying to sleep. Tyramine can be found in aged cheeses, cured meats like salami and pepperoni, smoked meats, soybeans, alcohol, overripe fruits, and MAOI antidepressant medications.
Foods that can improve your sleep
Just as foods can negatively impact your sleep, some can be beneficial. A diet high in fiber — whole grains, fruits, and vegetables may improve sleep. A healthy diet high in these foods could result in longer sleep, better sleep quality, and fewer periods of sleeplessness.
Studies on healthy diets and sleep suggest that tart cherry juice and kiwi increase melatonin. Foods high in antioxidants and fiber and low in saturated fats may help boost sleep quality. Fruits, legumes, and vegetables are natural sources of tryptophan and melatonin.
More foods likely to help improve sleep include:
- Herbal tea
- Pumpkin seeds
The body works differently when we sleep; relaxing and slowing different systems to allow others to utilize more energy. Digestion slows significantly, and if burdened by the foods we eat, it can really disrupt a good night’s sleep. Being mindful of what and when we eat is essential to our overall health.