Eat Your Way to Better Sleep
Fine-tune your dietary habits with this advice to boost your chance for great Z’s starting tonight.
Ever heard that saying “You are what you eat”? It could also be “You sleep how you eat."
You might think of food as fuel to power you up, but it can also power you down — in a good way. “Our diet is intricately linked to the kind of rest we can get,” says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, the director of Columbia University’s Sleep Center of Excellence, in New York, and an associate professor of nutritional medicine, who has studied how diet affects sleep for two decades.
In St-Onge’s research, people who regularly eat more fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, veggies, and whole grains, are more likely to sleep longer, deeper and better. This may be because many fiber-packed foods have prebiotics, compounds that feed the good bacteria in the gut, which can help regulate sleep hormones.
On the flip side, eating a high-glycemic diet, which typically includes foods with refined carbs and added sugars, like white bread and rice, pastries and soda, is associated with a higher risk of sleeplessness, according to a new study published in “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.” Those high-sugar foods can make your blood sugar spike and then plummet, which cues sleep-disrupting stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, to circulate, says James Gangwisch, PhD, an assistant professor at Columbia University and the study’s lead author.
“People who regularly eat more fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, veggies, and whole grains, are more likely to sleep longer, deeper and better.”
PhD, Director of Columbia University’s Sleep Center of Excellence
There are ways to dive deeper, however, and fine-tune your dietary habits to boost your chance for great Z’s. “These small things can be easily added or changed, and they lead to big results,” says Karman Meyer, a registered dietitian and the author of “Eat to Sleep.” Here’s where to start.
- Drink tart cherry juice.
If you make only one change to your diet to help you score better sleep, opt for this one. Tart cherry juice is one of the few foods and drinks that has been studied specifically for its benefits on sleep and shown to help improve it, says Meyer. She points to one study involving people with insomnia. “Those who drank 6 ounces of tart cherry juice in the morning and 6 ounces an hour or two before bed were able to prolong their sleep by about 84 minutes, and after just a two-week period,” she says, noting that the juice can promote sleep in non-insomniacs too. (Just to clear, no drink is a cure for insomnia; you’d want to talk to a doctor for that.) “Plus, it’s anti-inflammatory, so it can help you recover after a tough workout.”
One reason tart cherries are so effective is that they contain melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles. “People who take a melatonin supplement often don’t realize you can get it naturally from food,” says Meyer. Other melatonin-rich foods include almonds, tomatoes and grapes.
- Go bananas.
The fruit contains vitamin B6, which is important for the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps produce melatonin, says Meyer. (Your crib sheet: more serotonin = more melatonin = more ease drifting off.) Consider a daily banana with your breakfast or as a midday snack to boost your serotonin production, then follow it up with chickpeas or tuna, both high in B6, on your dinner plate for maximum results.
- 3. Load up on nuts and seeds.
They contain large amounts of magnesium, a nutrient that plays a key role in how well we sleep — and one that Meyer says some 70 percent of Americans don’t get enough of. Magnesium is important for reducing stress and inflammation, explains Meyer, and it works along with melatonin to help us fall and stay asleep. Not into nuts or seeds? Leafy greens and avocados pack the mineral too.
- Eat more watermelon, cantaloupe and cucumber.
“We can get about 20 percent of our fluid needs from foods, and these particular examples have a high water content,” says Meyer. While we know hydration is key for athletic performance and recovery, Meyer stresses that it’s also important for sleep, because dehydration can exacerbate snoring and muscle cramping, both of which can disrupt your shut-eye.
- Curb certain drinks.
Two things that don’t mix well with sleep: Coffee and booze. “Because caffeine has a half-life of about six hours, if you have a cup of coffee with lunch, a quarter of that caffeine is still circulating in your brain at midnight. It’s the equivalent of taking a swig of coffee right before bed,” says Matthew Walker, the founder and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science and a member of the Nike Performance Council. Alcohol, on the other hand, “acts as a sedative that puts your brain in a shallow sleep,” he says. Walker’s advice: Cut caffeine 12 to 14 hours before you plan to go to bed — by 10 am is a good rule of thumb — and, if you can, avoid drinking in the evenings.
- Go plant-based as often as possible.
Like refined sugars, large amounts of saturated fat in your diet can interfere with your rest, causing you to get less deep sleep. Meat, especially red meat, has more saturated fat than other protein sources. Consider making at least two of your three meals plant-based, suggests St-Onge. The increased fiber intake you get from eating more fruits and veggies will also help you at bedtime (prebiotics for the win).
- Rethink your dessert.
Capping the day with a sweet treat can lead to the blood sugar spike, crash and stress-hormone release that causes you to wake throughout the night, says Meyer. Dessert doesn’t have to be off the table, though. Meyer recommends balancing the sugar in your sweets with some protein and fat, which will help your body metabolize it more slowly. For example, spread some peanut butter on a brownie or have a glass of milk with your cookie. And maybe skip the dark chocolate: Meyer says even two small squares can mess with your rest if you’re sensitive to caffeine.
If tweaking the foods you eat still doesn’t give you the sweet Z’s you’re after, helping your body digest them might. Taking a walk after dinner, even for just 10 minutes, can aid food breakdown and stabilize blood sugar, says Meyer. “This can really help you fall asleep if you have stomach troubles or even acid reflux,” she says. Who knows? It might also put your mind at ease, inching you even closer to a much-needed slumber.
Words: Marissa Stephenson
Illustration: Davide Bonazzi