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What is the best diet for sleep?

By Sara Lindberg | Mar. 2, 2022Medically reviewed by Jesse P. Houghton, MD, FACG 

If you’re tossing and turning, adding these 9 foods to your diet (and avoiding these 5) could help

If getting a good night’s sleep is a challenge, did you know your diet could be partly to blame? Sleep and nutrition play a key role in your overall health and well-being, so understanding the relationship between the two can help you optimize both.

The amount of time you spend asleep and awake during a 24-hour period is part of your body’s circadian rhythm, which controls your sleep-wake cycle. However, this cycle can get thrown off by your sleep environment, medical conditions, stress, and what you eat and drink, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

In general, experts recommend that adults get between seven and nine hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. If you’re struggling to meet this goal, there are many things you can do to promote good sleep, such as swapping out certain foods that interrupt sleep for foods that help it. Here, we look at how diet affects sleep, foods that help you sleep, foods that keep you awake, and other ways to sleep better at night. 

Does diet affect sleep?

While certain foods can have a positive or negative impact on sleep, there is a lot more research needed in this area. “Some studies show benefits while others show negative impacts on sleep, but in general, diets that promote healthy, complex carb intake such as a vegan diet may help promote healthy sleep,” says Monique May, MD, a board-certified family physician and acting medical advisor of Aeroflow Sleep

There are three diets that could help fight sleep issues: 

  1. Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet
  2. A whole foods diet
  3. Mediterranean diet

How do these foods help sleep? They recommend the intake of fish, nuts, and seeds, which contain sleep-promoting vitamins. “The Mediterranean diet contains the plants, fish, whole grains, dairy, and lean protein needed to optimize overall health and good quality sleep, although a vegan or vegetarian diet focused on real whole food would also be supportive,” says Seema Bonney, MD, founder and chief medical officer at the Anti-Aging and Longevity Center of Philadelphia. A sleep-promoting diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins. “These whole, real foods contain the nutrients that we need to promote deep sleep,” Dr. Bonney says. 

Just be sure not to overload on protein. That may cause insomnia due to the increase of an amino acid that makes the brain-stimulating epinephrine and norepinephrine. What’s more, research shows that simple carbohydrates, heavily processed foods, and high sugar foods impact the quantity and quality of sleep. “These foods cause pronounced blood sugar changes throughout the day, bringing on general fatigue, which can wreak havoc on sleep patterns,” Dr. Bonney explains.   

9 foods that help you sleep

The best foods for sleep are also some of the most healthy for you. Many of the foods that help you sleep through the night naturally contain magnesium, which is not only important for sleep but other bodily functions too, like digestion and muscle function. In other words, even if they don’t improve your shut eye, all of the foods listed below have other health benefits, making them an excellent addition to your daily diet. 

1. Tart cherry juice

While it might not be your favorite bedtime drink, tart cherry juice may aid with sleep since it’s a natural source of melatonin, says Alyssa Bosse, RDN, LD, director of nutrition at Central Ohio Primary Care. In fact, results from a 2012 randomized controlled trial found significant increases in time spent asleep and total sleep efficiency with cherry juice supplementation.

2. Turkey

It’s no secret that Thanksgiving dinner triggers sleepiness, but why do we feel so tired after this festive meal? “Turkey or poultry contains tryptophan—an amino acid that helps your body make serotonin, which in turn allows your body to produce melatonin, the sleep hormone,” Dr. Bonney says. Research shows that 1 gram or more of tryptophan increases sleepiness and decreases time to fall asleep.

3. Bananas

If you’re looking for a good source of tryptophan that’s not turkey, then try a banana. In addition to potassium and magnesium, bananas contain tryptophan, which promotes the release of serotonin. Plus, magnesium may help regulate neurotransmitters directly related to sleep, according to the Cleveland Clinic. However, bananas are not part of a sleep apnea diet as they can increase mucus production and therefore worsen breathing problems.

4. Chickpeas

Chickpeas pack a punch when it comes to sleep-friendly nutrients. For starters, chickpeas are a complex carbohydrate that contain a good dose of tryptophan. They also have high levels of magnesium—about 78 mg per cup. Magnesium may help improve sleep quality by changing the amount of certain neurotransmitters to produce a calming effect.

5. Nuts

Nuts such as pistachios, walnuts, peanuts, and almonds are a great addition to a sleep-friendly diet. Pistachios are loaded with vitamin B6 and potassium, which both play a role in sleep. Plus, they have the highest melatonin content of any nut, according to a 2017 review. While walnuts and almonds contain some melatonin, it’s not as high as pistachios. But they are high in minerals like magnesium and zinc, which may help with insomnia. Peanuts also contain serotonin, which can enhance sleep. Try replacing your bedtime snack with a spoonful or two of peanut butter. Don’t forget to read the label and choose a natural peanut butter with a single ingredient—peanuts.

6. Fatty fish

Ensuring you have an adequate omega-3 intake can help improve sleep quality. In addition to being high in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, fatty fish (such as salmon) are rich in vitamin B6 which, Dr. Bonney says, can stimulate the production of serotonin and melatonin. 

7. Complex carbohydrates and whole grains

Whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, barley, and whole-grain crackers may improve insulin sensitivity and prevent blood sugar spikes at night. They’re also an excellent source of magnesium. Complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes are nutritious and rich in potassium, magnesium, and vitamin B6—all of which can promote sleep.

8. Kiwis 

Kiwis may be small, but they sure are powerful. In addition to being rich in antioxidants like vitamin C, kiwi may also contribute to better sleep by boosting natural levels of serotonin. According to a 2016 review, daily consumption of two kiwifruits one hour before bedtime significantly increased total sleep time and sleep efficiency in participants. 

9. Herbal tea

Could a cup of herbal tea be your answer to better sleep? While it won’t cure all your sleep woes, Bosse says chamomile tea may have calming effects that make it easier to fall asleep. That’s because chamomile contains a flavonoid called apigenin, which induces sleepiness when it binds to GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that causes relaxation. Other sleep-inducing foods with apigenin include parsley, celery, vine-spinach, artichoke, and oregano.

5 foods that keep you awake

Whether your sleep-wake cycle is totally off the tracks or you’re just looking to improve your overall sleep quality, experts recommend avoiding the following foods if you are having trouble sleeping. 

1. High sugar-containing foods

It probably goes without saying that sugar is not part of a sleep diet. “Refined sugars, such as those found in white bread, cakes, cookies, and soda, cause blood sugar levels to surge, and then when they come down too quickly, can cause insomnia if eaten too close to bedtime,” Dr. May says. What’s more, research from a 2016 study found that consuming a higher percentage of sugar is linked to more restless, disrupted nights of sleep. Additionally, Dr. Bonney says foods high in sugar rapidly increase blood sugar, which triggers your body to release adrenaline and cortisol, leading to anxiety, hunger, and irritability.

2. Fatty foods

Rich foods that are high in saturated fats are a no-no when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. “The digestive tract slows when you are sleeping, thus eating a fatty meal before bed can overwhelm the digestive tract and disrupt sleep,” says Dr. Bonney. That said, not all fats are bad. Healthy fats such as the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, nuts, and seeds are beneficial and should not be excluded from your diet. 

3. Caffeine-containing food and beverages  

Any food or drink containing caffeine can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. In general, the recommended cut-off time for caffeine is about six hours before bedtime, according to the Sleep Foundation. Some of the main culprits include:

  • Coffee
  • Chocolate
  • Soda
  • Caffeinated tea
  • Coffee-flavored ice cream 
  • Energy drinks 

4. High salt foods

Salty snacks like processed snack foods, fast food, cold cuts, and crackers can leave you thirsty and reaching for water, which Dr. May says may result in disruptive nighttime bathroom trips.

5. Spicy foods

Spicy foods may trigger heartburn and worsen acid reflux, according to a 2019 review, which can have a negative impact on your sleep quality. Bosse says spicy foods that can trigger acid reflux symptoms should be avoided before bed as laying down can increase the acid from the stomach backing up into the esophagus.

Does fasting help you sleep?

Fasting is a popular method of dieting that involves abstaining from food for specified time periods. There are a variety of ways to go about fasting, including intermittent fasting, which restricts food and drink to chunks of time during the day or specific days of the week. For example, you might fast for 16 hours, followed by an eight-hour period of eating, or follow an alternate-day fasting program. People use fasting for various reasons, such as weight loss and overall health. 

But when it comes to the effect it has on sleep, the research is mixed. A 2021 review of human trials looked at sleep quality and sleep duration and found that both remained unaltered when using time-restricted eating and alternate-day fasting. Further, one study found worsening sleep issues while another found no effect at all, leaving researchers to conclude that the impact on sleep quality, duration, and efficiency still remains largely unknown. 

Other ways to sleep better tonight 

Adding certain foods and eliminating others is one step toward healthy sleep, but it’s not the only option. There are many things to try in your quest for good sleep, including lifestyle changes, supplements, and medications used to treat sleep disorders. 

Supplements

Dietary supplements are over-the-counter products that may contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, or other botanicals. Many people take supplements like vitamin D, vitamin C, and calcium to help boost overall health. Some people also take dietary supplements to help with sleep quality. 

One popular supplement is the hormone melatonin, which your body produces naturally in response to darkness, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Melatonin helps with your circadian rhythm and sleep, which explains why many people take it in the hours leading up to bedtime. According to the NCCIH, short-term use of dietary melatonin is relatively safe for most people, but the research on long-term safety is lacking.

Magnesium may help improve sleep quality by changing the amount of certain neurotransmitters that produce a calming effect, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The herb valerian may also play a role in sleep quality, but make sure to talk to your doctor before using it, especially if you’re pregnant. 

Some research points to folate as a possible supplement for sleep deprivation. For example, scientists found that folic acid could resolve the sleep-deprivation-associated disturbances through its antioxidant activity. 

Medications 

If you’re experiencing chronic or severe sleep problems, your healthcare provider may recommend a medication that treats sleep disorders. Insomnia may respond to benzodiazepinesbarbituratesantidepressants, or an orexin receptor antagonist like Belsomra (suvorexant)Ambien, which works by interacting with GABA receptors to slow down activity in the brain, is another commonly prescribed drug for sleep issues like insomnia. 

On the flip side, certain medications cause insomnia. Many types of blood pressure medications can cause insomnia as well as corticosteroids, SSRI antidepressants, and statins.

Sleep hygiene

Sleep hygiene refers to your sleep habits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), certain sleep hygiene habits can improve your sleep health, allowing you to get the best sleep possible. 

Some things to try:

  • Waking and going to bed at the same time each day
  • Participating in physical activity during the day
  • Avoiding caffeine and large meals before bed
  • Creating a sleep-friendly environment by removing electronics from the bedroom and making sure the room is dark and at a comfortable temperature

Even with dietary changes, OTC medicines, and lifestyle modifications, some people still have problems with their sleep cycle and may need a doctor or dietitian to take a closer look at how their diet may be impacting their sleep. 

If you’re plagued by chronic sleep problems like waking often during the night, trouble falling asleep, or daytime sleepiness, it might be time to see your doctor. A physician can do a thorough physical exam to rule out any other health conditions that may be causing sleep disturbances and recommend a treatment plan to help you get a better night’s sleep. 

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