How Does Diet Affect Sleep?

How Does Diet Affect Sleep?

Digestion-fuelled nightmares. Caffeine induced restlessness. The dreaded acid reflux triggered by a takeout that was much spicier than advertised.

On the surface, the relationship between what you eat and how you sleep is obvious – some foods disrupt your sleep, others improve it. But the truth is much more complicated and understanding the link between diet and sleep is essential if you’re eager to get better shut eye.

However, with so much information online (some good, much bad) it’s difficult to separate the myths from the facts - which can be disastrous to your health.

Fortunately, we’ve pulled together some key insights, meaning you can make the dietary and lifestyle tweaks needed for the best night’s sleep. So, let’s find out – once and for all – how does diet affect sleep?

A plant-based burger and fries on a plate

Diet and Sleep: The Facts

The better you eat, the better you sleep. And while that sounds a bit… buzzword-y, it’s a statement rooted in science.

And while it’s a common (and totally understandable) mistake to assume that there are foods that help sleep and foods than hinder, it’s more of an overall nutrition issue.

You see, maintaining a healthy, balanced diet allows your brain to do what it does best and create the perfect chemical balance for sleep. Simply put, the right blend of vitamins, minerals and nutrients helps your brain produce the neurotransmitters needed for sleep.

And you’d be forgiven for thinking that finding that balance is a gruelling task involving careful planning, precise timing, and graphs galore.

But you’d be wrong. (Of course, if you want to use charts, that’s totally on you.) No, it’s simply a case of understanding nutrition.

And realistically, nutrition is literally just balance - the right mixture of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients* that your body needs to function at its best.

*Macronutrients is the umbrella term referring to carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre, and water.

So, forget everything you know about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ foods for sleep, and start viewing it as a dietary rethink – including when you eat.

Timing Your Meals

Second only to what you eat, when you eat is a key ingredient in the diet and sleep mix.

For example, load up on sugar an hour before bed and you’re going to find yourself counting the cracks in your ceiling come 3am.

Quick tip: many nutritionists recommend eating your largest meal at lunchtime and taking a lighter evening meal, not later than 3 hours before bed, allowing your body time to digest.

A bowl of walnuts, sat next to a nutcracker

Best Diet for Good Sleep:

So, that’s the underlying science. You know how diet affects your sleep. Let’s get practical. Fortunately, finding the best diet for good sleep is easier than you’d imagine.

If you’re eager to switch up your eating habits to get a better night’s sleep, there are a few key things – and key foods - to consider.

1. Eat Melatonin-Rich Foods

Ah, melatonin. The magic hormone (produced by your pineal gland, if you’re curious) that controls your sleep cycle. As your day winds down, your body’s melatonin production ramps up, preparing you for natural, restful sleep.

But while melatonin is naturally occurring, eating foods that are rich in melatonin can boost your body’s natural supply - potentially improving the quality of your sleep.

But which foods are bursting with melatonin-y goodness, you ask? Well, you might try:

  • Walnuts, pistachios, and almonds.
  • Tart cherries.
  • Grapes
  • Mushrooms
  • Oats
  • Rice

So, whether it’s a handful of walnuts before bed (a popular sleep tip in 2022), stirring tart cherries into your yoghurt, or a dinner where mushrooms are the main event, making melatonin-rich foods a regular fixture in your diet is a low-cost, high-reward means of boosting your snooze-count.

2. Limit Starchy Foods (Especially Late at Night

Starchy foods: the double-edge sword of a balanced diet. (And an important balance to strike when considering the links between diets and sleep.)

Your body needs starchy food. They’re where the carbohydrates live. Ideally, they should make up approximately a third of your diet as they contribute to energy levels, calcium intake, and B vitamins.

Also, they’re super-comforting.

But for all their necessity (and morish-ness), eating starchy foods too late in the day can have a negative impact on the quality of your sleep. You see, while you may feel drowsy after a starch-heavy meal, they take much longer to digest than other food groups.

So, you may be able to fall asleep easily enough after a carb-y meal, your body will prioritise digestion while you’re snoozing, resulting in a much lighter, and therefore much less restorative sleep.

Quick tip: try to avoid eating starchy foods in the 3 hours before bedtime. Your body will thank you.

3. Cut Out Caffeine

If your obvious-o-meter ™ just exploded, hear us out.

You already know that a double espresso thirty minutes before bed isn’t likely to result in blissful sleep. Ditto for a big ol’ mug of tea. But what you may not know is the caffeine content of certain foods and drinks – caffeine content that may be surreptitiously stealing your snooze-time.

You know that image of someone sipping a steaming hot chocolate at bedtime? Take it with a pinch a salt. Hot chocolate contains caffeine, as does its solid form.

Another caffeine-filled culprit is green tea. That’s right. While it may be calming, green tea (like black tea) is caffeinated. But worry not, bedtime tea lovers, there are several other types of teas to drink at bedtime that won’t keep you up.

Certain soft drinks are also known to be high in caffeine (especially colas), so it’s wise to consign them to daytime drinking, too.

4. Try Out Tryptophan

FYI: It’s pronounced trip-tuh-fan. We looked it up.

And while it may sound like a space-age substance, its more common than you might think – and it hugely improves your chances of a good night’s sleep.

Most notably found in bananas, peanuts, oats, soybeans, broccoli, and most dairy products, tryptophan stimulates the production of serotonin and melatonin, both of which induce sleep.

Of course, we’re not suggesting scarfing broccoli before bedtime, or weaving bananas into your nightly routine, but gently increasing the amount of tryptophan in your diet can massively benefit your sleep.

5. Go Booze-Free at Bedtime

File under: common sleep myths that disrupt sleep. And we’ve (mostly) focused on foods, we’d be remiss not to mention the negative impact alcohol can have on your sleep.

But it’s easy to see where the myth originates - alcohol does make you drowsy. You’ve probably felt your eyelids getting heavy after a drink or two, but the quality of sleep you get whilst under the influence is hugely diminished.

Essentially, it comes down to your sleep stages, of which you have four: three on-rapid eye movement (NREM), and one rapid eye movement (REM). At the risk of oversimplification, you need to naturally move through each stage for restful sleep.

And booze disrupts that. How? Well, in several ways. Alcohol interferes with REM sleep in the first two cycles and contributes to a shorter overall sleep duration.

It also leads to more frequent trips to the bathroom. And that’s just irritating.

You don’t have to go teetotal, but limiting your alcohol consumption (especially if you’re struggling with insomnia) can do wonders for your sleep.

A pizza, topped with mushrooms and basil

As you can see, the relationship between diet and sleep is extremely complex, and the best diet for a good sleep one that’s evenly balanced. So, try to get more tryptophan, consider melatonin-rich foods, and avoid starchy late-night snacks.

And watch out for caffeine. It’s in more than you realise.

If you’re eager to upgrade your sleep but don’t know where to start, check out our sleep blog, which is packed with tips, tricks, and useful insights. And if you don’t want to miss a post, you should sign up for our emails.

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