Have you ever had a late night snack and then struggled to go to sleep? Or maybe, that food you ate for a bedtime snack lulled you into the perfect night of sleep. I have struggled myself with those late night cravings only to have a sleepless night.
As a functional medicine doctor, I know that food is medicine. We use a whole body approach to get to the root cause of your symptoms and consider diet and supplements to be a key solution to most health conditions.The same principle applies to getting a good night’s rest.
I’m about to tell you about the foods to help you sleep and the foods to avoid to ensure you’re getting optimal sleep. First, let’s talk about how your diet impacts your sleep pattern.
How Your Diet Impacts Your Sleep
Did you know that every cellular process in your body relies on nutrients from the food you eat? It’s true! Your body needs a healthy balance of macronutrients (protein, fats, and carbohydrates) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). If that delicate balance gets disrupted, it can thwart your body’s natural production of all the hormones it uses to regulate your body’s critical processes including the sleep hormone melatonin.1
Melatonin doesn’t directly make you sleep. Instead, levels of these messenger hormones increase as it gets dark outside to tell your body that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin binds to receptors in your body to help you relax.2 While your body naturally produces melatonin, there are foods that are rich in melatonin that will help mimic this pattern and you sleep. I’ll discuss those and other foods that help you sleep more in detail later.
Just as there are foods to help you sleep, there are foods that will hinder your ability to get a good night’s rest. You likely know that if you drink a can of soda or a cup of coffee before bed you can be sure you’re not getting much quality sleep that night. For a typical person, caffeine remains in the blood for roughly 6 hours after you consume it.3 Reducing your intake of toxic caffeine and/or limiting your caffeine consumption to the early hours of the day is an easy first step to make when using food for better sleep.
I typically recommend that you don’t consume anything containing caffeine at all but if you must, limit intake of drinks such as coffee, soft drinks, or tea after 2 p.m. It’s also important to limit your caffeine intake throughout the day. The recommended daily intake is 400mg, according to the Food & Drug Administration.4 That may seem like a lot, however an 8 ounce cup of coffee contains between 95 to 200mg of caffeine so you reach the limit very quickly. Of course, as I said earlier, in The Myers Way® I recommend removing all caffeine from your diet.
Just as your diet can impact your sleep, your sleep pattern can also affect your diet. Let’s talk about how your sleep impacts the foods you eat.
How Your Sleep Impacts Your Diet
When your sleep pattern and diet live in harmony with each other it boosts your overall health. Quality sleep boosts your metabolism, supports your immune system, improves memory, increases productivity, and builds protein molecules. When you are getting optimal sleep, you also are more likely to eat healthier and maintain an optimal weight.5
On the other hand, when you don’t get enough quality sleep the hormones that control appetite and hunger – leptin and ghrelin – become imbalanced. This imbalance can trigger cravings for foods full of carbohydrates, sugar and caffeine.
Your body turns carbohydrates into glucose quickly for energy if it isn’t getting enough calories from proteins and fats. A spike in glucose triggers your pancreas to produce insulin, a hormone that regulates glucose levels. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, it can increase your risk of developing insulin resistance. This can have long-term effects such as weight gain and an increased risk of heart disease, sleeping disorders such as sleep apnea, or diabetes.
These disorders in turn affect your ability to get a restful night’s sleep and start the cycle all over again. It’s a tough one to get out of.
Don’t worry! I’m about to tell you how you can adjust your diet to get foods that will help you sleep and what foods to avoid. What’s just as important as eating foods that help you sleep is when you eat those foods. Let’s talk about that.
How When You Eat Impacts Sleep Health
If your goal is to eat more foods that help you sleep it’s important to understand how the digestive system works at night. Just like you, your digestive system needs a break after strenuous activity or a day on the go. Your digestive system is constantly working throughout the day absorbing the nutrients from the foods you eat and eliminating waste. It gets tired, too! When you sleep, your digestive system gets a much deserved break from all of its hard work throughout the day. It takes this time to recover and rebuild.
Eating a high-calorie snack or heavy meal before bedtime can make it harder for your digestive system to digest the food and result in weight gain.6 This is because your metabolism slows as your body ramps down its functions to prepare for rest. What’s more, as you are lying down, food cannot move through your digestive tract as easily and this can lead to acid reflux, heartburn, and indigestion.
A small snack before bed is perfectly fine. As a general rule, it’s best to eat your last meal three hours before bedtime to ensure proper digestion.7
Five Foods That Help You Sleep
You likely have taken a nap after eating Thanksgiving Day turkey. It’s not necessarily the amount of food you eat on Thanksgiving that makes you sleepy. Instead, it’s the turkey itself! Turkey is rich in tryptophan, which boosts natural melatonin production in your body.
Tryptophan- and melatonin-rich foods are two types of foods that help you sleep. I’m going to talk about those more in-depth and tell you about three other foods to help you sleep.
1. Tryptophan-Rich Foods
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is essential for normal growth in infants. It also is essential for maintenance of proteins, muscles, enzymes and neurotransmitters. However, it’s a misconception that tryptophan itself makes you sleepy. Instead, tryptophan plays a role in the production of serotonin, a mood neurotransmitter that relaxes you. It also supports the natural production of melatonin. Because it’s an amino acid, your body can only get it from your diet.
Foods rich in tryptophan include chicken, turkey, fish, and fruits such as bananas, apples and prunes. Milk is also high in tryptophan and some people drink warm milk before bed to help them sleep. However, dairy products contain lactose, casein, and whey. Casein is a protein very similar to gluten. Most people that are sensitive to gluten are also sensitive to casein. I recommend everyone eliminate dairy from their diets.
2. Melatonin-Rich Foods
As I mentioned, your body naturally produces melatonin. Some people take melatonin supplements to boost their body’s natural production of this hormone. However, you can also find melatonin in foods. Melatonin-rich foods include wild-caught salmon, pork, tart cherries, grapes, and radishes.
3. Magnesium-Rich Foods
Magnesium boots the production of GABA, another amino acid that promotes relaxation and supports optimal sleep. Since it’s an amino acid you can only get it through diet and supplementation. Bananas, avocados, almonds, and green leafy vegetables contain lots of magnesium.
4. Herbal Teas
Drinking a cup of caffeine-free herbal tea before bed is a fantastic way to promote a restful night. It is thought that the herb chamomile contains large amounts of an antioxidant called apigenin, which may help initiate sleep. Valerian root can also be beneficial because it naturally raises GABA levels in the body.
L-Theanine is another amino acid that’s naturally found in green tea and coffee. However, remember that tea and coffee contain caffeine, which can affect your ability to sleep. The good news is that decaffeinated tea and coffee still contain this amino acid. L-Theanine is added to some commercial beverages such as soft drinks, however those too can contain caffeine, sugar and other toxic ingredients and the amount added is not significant enough to notice a difference. The best way to get this amino acid is through tea or supplementation.
Now that you know the foods that help you sleep, I’m going to tell you about foods you should avoid to improve sleep.
Foods to Avoid for Sleep Health
I discussed caffeine, sugar and carbohydrates and how they affect your sleep health earlier. Let’s go more into those foods and others.
Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in coffee beans, tea leaves, and cocoa beans. It can also be produced synthetically like that found in soft drinks and most energy drinks. Caffeine promotes alertness by blocking the chemical messenger adenosine, a neurotransmitter that causes that sleepy feeling.
Energy drinks can have anywhere from 77 to 173 mg of caffeine per 16 oz can, whereas a cup of black tea contains 55 mg. The caffeine in one 12 oz can of soda can range from 34 to 54 mg depending on the brand.8
I recommend that you avoid caffeine altogether. However, if you must have caffeine, remember the maximum daily amount of caffeine is 400 mg per day.
When you drink a caffeinated beverage, the caffeine begins to affect your body quickly. It reaches its peak level within 30 to 60 minutes after consumption. Caffeine can stay in your body for a long time as it takes 3 to 5 hours for your body to eliminate half of the levels you consume. I recommend avoiding caffeine altogether, however if you have to have a cup of coffee in the morning limit the total amount you drink in a day and cut yourself off early in the day..
A common misconception is that alcohol helps you sleep. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s true that alcohol is a depressant that slows down your nervous system. It does allow you to fall asleep quickly, however drinking alcohol causes disruptions in the sleep cycle. Studies have shown that drinking alcohol before bed suppresses REM sleep and decreases the quality of your sleep.9
What’s more, alcohol is linked to insomnia. Since alcohol can cause disruptions in your sleep cycle, it can lead to feeling excessively sleepy the following day and cause insomnia symptoms.
It’s a good idea to eliminate alcohol from your diet completely. If you must have that glass of wine before bed, one glass likely won’t disrupt your sleep. However, more than one glass can affect the quality of your sleep. To reduce the risk of sleep disruptions, it’s best practice to stop drinking alcohol at least four hours before bedtime.10
3. Fatty Foods
We’ve all had that afternoon lull after eating a big lunch. That feeling isn’t caused by eating lunch, however it’s caused by what you ate for lunch. When you eat fried foods or other high-fat foods such as burgers or fast food you grab while on-the-go, it impacts your sleep. It does this by promoting lower sleep quality and impairing REM and slow-wave sleep cycles.
Even healthy high fat-foods like avocados and fish can impact a good night’s rest. High-fat foods activate your digestive system, which can lead to diarrhea and other digestive issues. It’s best to avoid fatty foods before bed. I always incorporate healthy fat into my breakfast smoothie and light lunch to ensure I get in enough of those heart healthy calories without affecting my sleep.
Gluten inhibits digestion because it damages the gut and because it is itself poorly digested. The undigested food particles that linger in our intestines serve as food for bacteria and yeast. When the yeast grow too numerous, they create a layer over the intestines, suppressing the production of neurotransmitters such as melatonin. As I mentioned earlier, melatonin sends signals to your body that it’s time to rest.
Bacteria produce chemicals that actually mimic our own neurotransmitters, which travel from the gut to the brain and cause anxiety and impact your quality of sleep.11 I recommend everyone remove gluten from their diet as it can lead to leaky gut. If you are following The Myers Way® then gluten is an absolute no-no.
It’s true that dark chocolate is a superfood and packs an abundant amount of health benefits, including supporting your heart health. What’s more, the flavonoids in cocoa can protect your skin from the sun. Unfortunately, it’s not as beneficial to your sleep health.
A small 1 oz square of dark chocolate contains 12 mg of caffeine. Chocolate also contains theobromine, an alkaloid in chocolate that increases heart rate and causes sleeplessness. If you’re going to eat chocolate, it’s best to have some early in the day or with your lunch to avoid any disruptions to your sleep.
We all go through those stages where it feels like we aren’t getting enough sleep. I have been there. If you’ve been having a hard time getting quality sleep, you’re not alone. Our diet and sleep health are connected to each other in so many ways. The empowering part is that by eating more foods to help you sleep and avoiding ones that hinder your sleep pattern will put you on the path to get a better night’s rest. If you’re looking for a little more support for a good night’s rest, I recommend Rest and Restore™. This physician-formulated combination of targeted amino acids and minerals is designed to support relaxation and a healthy night’s sleep.
What vitamins help you sleep?
What vitamins help you sleep?
B vitamins, including niacin (B3) and vitamin B6, support the body’s natural production of melatonin. Vitamin D regulates serotonin production. These two sleep inducing hormones are essential for a good night’s rest.
Does melatonin make you go to sleep?
Does melatonin make you go to sleep?
Melatonin doesn’t directly make you sleep. Instead, levels of these messenger hormones increase as it gets dark outside to tell your body that it’s time to sleep. Melatonin binds to receptors in your body to help you relax.
What foods have the most caffeine?
What foods have the most caffeine?
Energy drinks can have anywhere from 77 to 173 mg of caffeine per 16 oz can, whereas a cup of black tea contains 55 mg. The caffeine in one 12 oz can of soda can range from 34 to 54 mg depending on the brand. Remember, the recommended daily amount of caffeine is 400 mg.
- Dietary factors and fluctuating levels of melatonin. Katri Peuhkuri, Nora Sihvola, and Riitta Korpela. Food & Nutrition Research, vo. 56. 2012.
- How Melatonin Can Help You Sleep and Feel Better. Ryan Raman, MS, RD and Jill Seladi-Schulman, Ph.D. . Healthline. 2021.
- How What You Eat Affects Your Sleep. Sarah DiGiulio. NBC News. 2017.
- Caffeine and Sleep. Logan Foley. Sleep Foundation. 2021.
- Nutrition and Sleep. Eric Suni. Sleep Foundation. 2020.
- Should You Eat Before Bed? All the Pros and Cons. Sanchita Sen. Amerisleep. 2021.
- How Long to Wait Before Sleeping After Eating. Brandon Peters, MD. Verywell Health. 2020.
- Sleep and Caffeine. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 2013.
- Alcohol and Sleep. Danielle Pacheco. Sleep Foundation. 2020.
- Disturbed Sleep and Its Relationship to Alcohol Use. Michael D. Stein, MD and Peter D. Friedmann, MD, MPH. Substance abuse, vol. 26. 2005.
- Gut Bacteria Might Guide The Workings Of Our Minds. Rob Stein. NPR. 2013.