Together with exercise, diet and sleep create the foundation for long-term health and well-being. A healthy diet can enhance sleep quality and sleep duration. And getting regular, high-quality sleep can actually help you eat better. Avoiding sleep deprivation helps to keep appetite-regulating hormones in balance, and decreases cravings for high-fat, high-sugar foods.
Research shows that when sleep deprived, we’re more likely to consume foods high in calories, fat, and sugar – and we’re less skilled at managing sudden cravings for those same kinds of foods.
Creating a good-sleep diet
What does a sleep-friendly diet look like? Broadly speaking, it looks very much like a diet promotes health in our waking lives. 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. Nutrients found in a range of healthy foods provide particular benefits to sleep.
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. Tryptophan-rich foods include bananas, dark greens, soy products, meats and fish, nuts such as cashews and walnuts.
Minerals make for better sleep
Foods with high levels of magnesium and potassium are also sleep-boosting. Magnesium and potassium are minerals that act as muscle relaxants. Research shows that magnesium deficiency is associated withfragmented sleep 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.
Mom knew best: milk before bed
Calcium-rich foods are often heralded as sleep-promoting – with good reason. Calcium helps sleep in a number of ways. 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 a good source of natural melatonin, a hormone that is essential to the body’s preparation for sleep. Research indicates drinking cherry juice provides an additional, beneficial source of melatonin.
Some foods are sleep stealers
While many foods are healthful to sleep, other foods can undermine your nightly rest. Foods that can interfere with sleep include high-sugar, high-carbohydrate, heavily-processed foods. The same junk food that’s problematic for your waistline is also 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 a regular diet, 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.
Don’t go hungry – even to 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 near 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 are smart choices for near-to-bed eating.
Drink plenty of water
Another important aspect of nutrition for healthy sleep? Hydration. Staying hydrated throughout the day promotes alertness and focus, and can help minimise shifts in energy levels. Dehydration leads to feeling sluggish and tired, which can eventually disrupt sleep patterns. By the time you feel thirsty, 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 caffeine consumed in too-large quantities and too late in the day can interfere with sleep. 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.