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How The Foods You Eat Affect Your Sleep

by Lauren Larson MS, RDN October 29, 2015

How The Foods You Eat Affect Your Sleep

If you’re like 50-70 million other Americans who suffer from a sleep or wakefulness disorder, you might be willing to do anything you can to improve your sleep. Especially since not getting enough sleep can increase the likelihood of suffering from chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, and obesity.  Food is one of many factors that can influence the quality of your sleep!

Foods that Promote Sleep

Aside from the usual advice of avoiding large meals and caffeine before bedtime, there are specific foods and combinations of foods that can help promote sleep.

Melatonin is an important hormone that helps control sleep and wake cycles. It’s mainly released at night time in effort to promote restful sleep. While light is the main factor in promoting the production of melatonin, some foods actually contain melatonin. Most notable are:

  • •Tomatoes
  • Olives
  • Barley
  • Rice
  • Walnuts
  • Milk

Other foods help promote the production of melatonin. To produce melatonin, the brain needs the essential amino acid, tryptophan, which is most commonly associated with that post-Thanksgiving turkey coma. Tryptophan is also found in chicken, buffalo, spinach, fish, shellfish, egg whites, soy beans and their products, cheese, nuts, seeds, in addition to other protein foods.

The brain converts tryptophan to serotonin and eventually to melatonin. Carbohydrates help make tryptophan more available to the brain, which is one reason why I recommend a combination of protein and carbohydrates at an evening meal or snack to promote restful sleep. The other reason is to stabilize blood sugar and prevent low blood sugar from disrupting your sleep. Great combos include:

  • Cheese and whole grain crackers or sliced apple
  • •Nut butter and whole grain toast, a banana, or dates (for something sweeter)
  • •Milk and cereal (aim for 10 g of sugar or less)
  • Plain yogurt with a few tablespoons of granola or a drizzle of honey

Foods that can Inhibit Sleep

  • Alcohol is controversial. While alcohol may help you fall asleep in the first few hours, it can prevent progression into those valuable deep sleep stages, ultimately causing you to feel tired even after spending enough time in bed. My suggestion is to always drink alcohol responsibly and in moderation (1 drink a day for women and 2 drinks a day for men), or even less would be better. If you know alcohol disrupts your sleep, avoid it on nights before you need to be awake and on your game the next day.
  • Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains caffeine, which if you are sensitive may inhibit sleep.
  • Spicy food can cause heartburn in some; if this is you, avoid spicy food at your evening meal. In fact, if you know of any particular foods that cause you to have heartburn, avoid them after 3 pm.
  • A load of sugar and/or refined white flour foods (desserts, cookies, breads, pasta, etc) before bed can increase the release of insulin, which lowers blood sugar. As you enter an overnight fast, your blood sugar can dip too low, causing you to wake up. Skip these types of foods or choose to have them earlier in the day when you have more time to use up the energy with daily activities and exercise.

Instead of these common evening foods and snacks, try some of the combos I mentioned above.

Or, try this delicious homemade nut butter recipe perfect for crackers, sliced apples, roasted sweet potatoes, or dates.

References

CDC. Insufficient Sleep is a Public Health Problem. http://www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep/

National Sleep Foundation. Food and Sleep. https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/food-and-sleep.

Peuhkuri, Katri, Nora Sihvola, and Riitta Korpela. "Dietary factors and fluctuating levels of melatonin."  Food & nutrition research 56 (2012).

Lauren Larson MS, RDN
Lauren Larson MS, RDN


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