Food, Diet, and Sleep – What You Eat Matters

Last updated: November 8, 2019

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In a nutshell, foods that are good for your overall health are also good for your sleep. A well-balanced diet with just enough complex carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, fruits, and veggies will help you sleep well at night. Some of the well-known sleep disturbers include diets that are extremely high or extremely low in carbs, too much or not enough proteins, spicy and heavy meals before bed, as well as alcohol and caffeine.

Here we’ll make a quick overview of the important nutrients that play a role in our sleep and present the actual foods that you can and should consume more as well as those to avoid, especially in the evening hours.

Finally, we’ll talk about some useful gadgets to keep track of your sleep quality and blood glucose levels. 

What are the sleep-inducing components of food?

Research has shown us that certain nutrients, amino acids and other chemicals found in food can help us fall asleep faster or stay asleep longer. Here’s a list of those food components.

  • Melatonin, also known as the “darkness” hormone, is naturally released in the body as a reaction to darkness. It helps us become sleepy. As a society living surrounded by technology and artificial light, we all suffer from a lack of melatonin. Blue screen lights and LED lights suppress melatonin tricking our brain it’s daytime. An important property of melatonin is that it is found to inhibit tumor growth and kill cancer cells.
  • Tryptophan is an essential amino acid (the body can’t produce it and we only get it from the food we eat). Tryptophan works as a precursor to melatonin, so it also plays a role in helping you relax and sleep well.
  • Zinc has many beneficial roles in our body and one of them is improving the quality of sleep. Recent studies show that sleep quality improves with the consumption of zinc-rich foods or zinc supplements (especially if paired with melatonin and magnesium). Zinc also helps people with insomnia fall asleep faster.
  • Magnesium can help people relax and it alleviates symptoms of some sleep disorders like restless leg syndrome. It also helps the release of a brain chemical (GABA neurotransmitter) that blocks out stress and helps promote sleep. People with magnesium deficiency often have insomnia.
  • Calcium is linked to melatonin and tryptophan – it helps our body use tryptophan and produce melatonin. It’s also related to our sleep cycles and maintaining deep sleep. Deep sleep is the most restorative of all sleep stages – that’s when your tissues restore, blood pressure lowers, and the brain clears out from harmful chemicals.
  • Vitamin B complex has many roles, from helping our heart and muscles be healthy, to DNA regulation, and finally, it regulates sleep and the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is our inner biological rhythm or clock which regulates when we sleep and wake up; when our hormones will be released, and much more.
  • The good bacteria – this is what the microorganisms living in our gut are often called. They are not just some parasites that eat our food, they communicate with the body and our brain. A change in your gut microbiome can make you depressed or happy; it can cause cravings; all this is because your gut bacteria “talks to” and impacts your brain. A recent study has shown that the gut microbiome can influence your sleep quality and cognitive function.
  • Carbohydrates make us sleepy almost instantly, as soon as we finish our meal. If it’s a moderate amount of carbs, our sleep quality will be good. Those who eat excessive amounts of carbs, especially carbs that come from refined sugar, may have less deep restorative sleep and more REM, our dream sleep. Obese people have better sleep with fewer disturbances after they go on a low-carb diet.
  • Unsaturated fats are extremely important and should not be avoided. They are fats from wholesome foods, vegetables, and vegetable oils as well as fish. They increase your serotonin levels which means you’ll be less stressed and will sleep better, especially if this is a regular part of your diet. Saturated fats found in meat are not dangerous but you shouldn’t have too much of them. The ones you want to avoid are trans fats which are found in margarine, processed and fried food.

Supplements as a solution

You can also find all these in stores where they are sold as food supplements. Please note that artificially manufactured compounds are typically not of the same quality as the ones found naturally in food. Another thing is that many chemicals interact with other chemicals which make them better absorbed or used by the body – just remember how calcium, tryptophan, and melatonin are connected. Natural food never contains only one ingredient like supplements tend to. Consult your doctor before opting for any supplement as some of them may interact with medications and some can be dangerous – for example, too much vitamin B can be toxic.

What to eat 

Prior to bed, stick to light meals and warm, calming drinks. 

Carbs

You can have some complex carbs like popcorn or oatmeal. You can combine your good carbs with some fruits or warm milk. 

Nuts

Almonds and walnuts are known to contain melatonin. You can snack on them about one hour before bed. Walnuts are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids which increases serotonin and helps you sleep.

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Warm milk, cottage cheese

These are rich in tryptophan so you’re more likely to sleep better if you have some dairy with your dinner. Milk also contains melatonin and is if you have it warm, you’ll be able to relax faster. 

Warm tea

Many types of tea can relax you and make you sleepy. The most famous ones are chamomile and peppermint, but you can also enjoy ginger, passionflower or nettle for a good night’s sleep. The antioxidants in tea help induce sleep as long as the tea you’re drinking is without caffeine.

Fruits

Fresh tart cherries and tart cherry juice, raspberries, kiwis, bananas, and pineapple hold vitamins, minerals, and melatonin. 

Seafood, turkey, and meat

Fatty fish is the oily type of fish which contains a lot of omega-3 fatty acids. Some of them are salmon, tuna, mackerel, and trout. They are also rich in vitamin D and the combination of those two can improve your sleep. 

Shellfish and oysters are rich in zinc which promotes healthy sleep. Meat is another great source of zinc as well as tryptophan.

Unprocessed turkey meat is another source of tryptophan along with many vitamins and minerals.

Eating protein before bed has shown a positive increase in muscle mass in both young and older men.

Yogurt, kefir, kimchi, kombucha

These are rich in healthy bacteria. Your gut bacteria loves a balanced diet, because such a diet maintains the gut balance. Foods like yogurt and kimchi contain many strains of bacteria that can enrich your gut and improve your sleep.

What to skip

Heavy and spicy meals, oversized portions, caffeine, and some medications can keep you awake for much longer than you wish or give you restless and non-restorative sleep.

Heavy meals

Eating strong food in big portions late at night will keep you awake because your body will try to digest all that food; digestion is extremely slow when you sleep. Hot spicy food can increase your body temperature which also doesn’t let you sleep. Late meals force your body to change its circadian rhythm and to adjust to a late schedule.  

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Caffeine

Cut all caffeine sources in the evening – this includes energy drinks, sodas, chocolate, and green and black tea. Caffeine stays in your system for about 12 hours – it takes 6 hours after consumption to lose get rid of half of the caffeine from your system. The tricky part is that, if you drink coffee, you can never know how much caffeine you’re taking. One study showed shocking results. After buying 16oz of coffee from the same cafe (same type of coffee) for six consecutive days, researchers tested the amount of caffeine. A 16oz cup contained anywhere between 260mg and 560mg of caffeine (a recommended daily maximum is 300-400mg per day). If you drink coffee after 2pm, it’s likely to disrupt your sleep causing you to wake up tired and go for more coffee.

Alcohol

Alcohol does make us fall asleep faster but it reduces our REM sleep. It also causes us to wake up frequently throughout the night, although many people are not even aware of waking up. Alcohol increases the risk of sleep-disordered breathing because the throat muscles are relaxed and can trigger or worsen sleep disorders and parasomnias (like insomnia and sleepwalking).

Watch your sleep – monitors and trackers

Technology advancements can help us keep track of how well we sleep and what goes on in our body so we can know if there’s a need to change anything. 

Oura rings

For example, Oura rings are, as the name suggests, the size of a ring and it contains several sensors which can detect your pulse waveform, amplitude, body temperature, heart and respiratory rate and inform you about your sleep stages, how much it took you to fall asleep and when you woke up. Oura can help you detect problems you didn’t know you had, like frequent night wakings; or you can simply keep track of things that interest you the most. All readings will be available on your mobile device.

Eversense Continuous Glucose Monitoring

A piece of technology that can help diabetics sleep without worries is a continuous blood monitor linked to the mobile app. Last year the FDA approved the first continuous blood glucose monitor with a sensor implanted under the skin. This sensor monitors blood glucose levels non-stop and alerts owners over the mobile app notification. A single sensor lasts for three months. These devices have gained great popularity with parents whose children suffer from diabetes. Continuous monitoring provides patients peace of mind and gives them more freedom while the monitor takes over some of the burden.

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