How Food Affects Our Sleep

By Wendy Bacigalupi-Bednarz, Editorial Contributor

For early risers and night owls alike, a poor night’s sleep is rarely the top choice on your menu. Whether you struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up too early, these issues may have a common denominator: the foods you eat.

Eating and sleeping are two of our most coveted creature comforts and are vital to our overall health and wellness. But how are these basic needs related?

What we eat and how much we eat both play a role in sleep quality, says Lauren Popeck, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health. She points to research from the University of Pennsylvania and University of Chicago that found study participants who slept less than five hours a night lacked certain nutrients in their food intake. Among the missing nutrients was lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes, grapefruit, watermelon and other red fruits and vegetables that may lower cancer risk and protect against cell damage. Study participants who slept five to six hours a night also took in less vitamin C and certain antioxidants that reduce the risk of age-related vision conditions, such as macular degeneration. 

Early Birds vs. Night Owls

People who stay up later — night owls — also tend to eat later and have different eating habits than early risers. Researchers discovered through a Finland-based nutritional study that night owls ate more unhealthy foods, such as fats and saturated fats, late at night. These poor eating habits may increase their risks for future obesity and metabolic issues. 

On weekends, night owls’ eating habits went into overdrive. “The gap between morning and evening types widened during weekends, as evening types consumed more unhealthy foods, ate out more and had more irregular meal times than their morning counterparts,” says Popeck. 

Sleep and eating patterns may be related through hormones, which are produced in varying amounts throughout the day and help regulate our appetite and even affect our metabolism.

The amount of sleep you get, as well as when you get your sleep, can affect hormone production, creating different eating patterns in early risers and night owls, says Popeck.

She suggests a couple of changes to help adjust your eating patterns and remove poor sleep from your menu:

Eat frequently throughout the day and avoid eating after 8:00 pm: Consuming high-fiber plant foods and lean proteins will keep you from getting so hungry late at night that you reach for processed, unhealthy foods.

Stay away from lots of saturated fat: Red meat, whole-fat dairy products and fast foods contain too much of this fat. Instead, choose options with healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, fish and nuts.


Best and Worst Food Choices for Better Sleep

The Best

Foods that contain melatonin, which helps control sleep cycles: Tart cherries or tart cherry juice, gogi berries and raspberries 

Foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid the body uses to make serotonin and melatonin: Low-fat milk and yogurt

Tip: Pair milk or yogurt with a complex carbohydrate such as oatmeal to make tryptophan more available to the brain.

Almonds: A good source of melatonin and magnesium, which help with relaxation

Bananas: A great source of magnesium and potassium, which help muscles relax. Plus, bananas contain tryptophan

Herbal tea: Valerian root, passion flower or chamomile

5 Best Bedtime Snack Hacks

  • Raspberries + almonds
  • Yogurt + frozen tart cherries
  • Banana + almond butter
  • Oatmeal + milk
  • Homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds and dried gogi berries

The Worst:

  • Caffeine: Found in coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks and chocolate, this stimulant can last from 8-14 hours
  • Alcohol: Diminishes sleep quality and may worsen snoring
  • Sugar: Too much before bedtime can create an energy spike that makes falling asleep difficult
  • Spicy foods: Can raise body temperature, which can make you feel more awake, and may contribute to acid reflux when lying down
  • Fatty foods: Take longer to digest and may cause bloating and indigestion, which interfere with sleep

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