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Is Your Diet Enhancing or Hurting the Quality of Your Sleep?

The quality of your sleep each night – how fast you fall asleep, how long you sleep, and how much you wake in the night – profoundly impacts your health and well-being.  Poor quality sleep is linked to higher rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, dementia, depression, anxiety, and more.  While many factors affect sleep quality, emerging research says better quality diets result in better quality sleep.  This holds true for children, teens, and adults.

How What We Eat Affects Our Sleep

Although we still have much to learn about how what we eat impacts our sleep, research has shown that numerous factors are involved.  Primary among them is that what we eat influences the production of hormones and neurotransmitters in the body, such as melatonin and serotonin, which play key roles in regulating the sleep/wake cycle.  This includes stabilizing and reinforcing the body’s natural body clock or circadian rhythm.  What we eat can also impact how much inflammation we have in the body.  An inflammatory environment, especially when it’s chronic or ongoing, appears to play havoc with our sleep. 

Eat Better to Sleep Better

While everyone would love to know what one magical food will optimize their sleep each night, it’s the quality of your diet overall, that appears to matter most.  Numerous studies show that when you increase your intake of healthy foods, while also reducing your intake of less healthy options – including highly processed foods rich in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats – sleep quality improves.  In a U.S. study, involving over 12,000 men and women, short sleepers (those who regularly slept 5 hours or less per night) consumed diets that were significantly less healthy, including lower intakes of fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, dairy, and fish. 

Carbohydrates, Fats, Protein, & Sleep Quality

How does the amount and/or food source of carbs, fats, and protein in your diet impact your sleep?    

  • CARBS:  In the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, a large study involving over 77,000 postmenopausal women, higher intakes of added sugars, starches (from foods like potatoes, breads, and crackers), and refined grains (like white bread) were associated with a significantly higher risk of insomnia.  Minimally processed fruits, vegetables, and whole grains were all linked to a lower insomnia risk. 
  • FATS:  Based on a review of 17 studies, involving over 32,000 participants, not getting enough omega-3 fats in your diet (the kind that come from higher fat fish, like salmon and rainbow trout) leads to sub-optimal sleep.  These fats help regulate the production of melatonin in the body and reduce inflammation as well.  A diet high in saturated fat (the type found in higher fat meats, higher fat dairy, and many processed foods) has been linked to lower sleep quality, including lighter, less restorative sleep with more arousals.
  • PROTEIN:  In a research review of 19 studies, by the National University of Singapore, consuming a greater proportion of calories from protein was linked to better sleep quality.  Tryptophan, an amino acid found in many protein-rich foods, promotes the synthesis of both melatonin and serotonin.  Plant-based protein sources – such as nuts, seeds and beans – are recommended, based on their anti-inflammatory profile, as well as their fibre and polyphenol content.  Both fibre and polyphenols (health-protective compounds found in a variety of plant foods) are linked to significantly better sleep.  Diets high in meat, especially red and processed meats, are linked to poor sleep quality, snoring, and more severe sleep apnea (a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts). 

Vitamins, Minerals & Your Sleep

Vitamins and minerals don’t work alone in the body.  They work synergistically, or in combination, with each other.  That’s why for optimal health, including sleep quality, I always recommend getting a full range of nutrients, primarily from a healthy diet, and if needed, from a multivitamin and mineral supplement.  I generally don’t recommend taking high dose or single nutrient supplements (except for vitamin D – see below).  Ultimately, you want to make sure all your nutrient needs are met, and no nutrient deficiencies exist for any nutrient.  Specific nutrients that many people fail to get enough of, and that are important for sleep quality, include iron (females, prior to menopause, are at especially high risk for iron deficiency), zinc, magnesium, and vitamin D.  Do your best to regularly consume foods rich in these nutrients. 

  • Food Sources of Iron:  iron-fortified cereals, red meat (beef/pork/lamb), poultry (especially the dark meat), shellfish (especially oysters and mussels), sardines, dried fruit (especially apricots), beans (especially soybeans and lentils), nuts (especially cashews, pine nuts, and hazelnuts), and seeds (especially sesame, pumpkin/squash, hemp, and chia seeds).
  • Food Sources of Magnesium:  nuts (especially Brazil nuts, cashews, and almonds), seeds (especially hemp, pumpkin/squash, and flaxseeds), beans (especially black beans and soybeans), quinoa, dark chocolate, and dark leafy greens (especially spinach and Swiss Chard).
  • Food Sources of Zinc:  shellfish (especially oysters), red meat (beef/lamb/pork), poultry (especially the dark meat), zinc-fortified cereals, nuts (especially pine nuts, cashews, and pecans), seeds (especially hemp, pumpkin/squash, and sesame seeds), beans (especially soybeans and lentils), and whole grains (especially oats).    
  • Food Sources of Vitamin D:  Few foods are rich in vitamin D, therefore, taking a multi-vitamin or a vitamin D supplement (400 to 1000 I.U.), especially in the winter months (depending on where you live), is generally recommended.

The Ultimate Diet for a Good Night’s Sleep

The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, fish, and olive oil.  It contains smaller amounts of dairy and alcohol, and limited amounts of meat.  Several studies link this diet to better sleep quality.  In a study involving over 1,900 individuals from Italy, each person’s diet was scored based on how closely it aligned with the Mediterranean diet.  Researchers found that every 10% increase in diet score translated into a 10% higher likelihood of better sleep.  The DASH diet (rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, fish, and low-fat dairy) is similar to the Mediterranean diet and has been linked to less daytime sleepiness and a lower risk of insomnia.  The Nordic Diet (rich in fish, cabbage, apples/pears, root vegetables, rye bread, and oatmeal) also appears to promote better quality sleep. 

The Power of the Gut Microbiome to Impact Sleep Quality

The gut microbiome is incredibly powerful.  It impacts every aspect of your health and well-being, including your sleep.  A healthy microbiome is good for sleep, while gut dysbiosis (an imbalance in the various microbes that live in your gut) can alter neurotransmitter levels, trigger inflammation in the body, and cause misalignment of the body’s natural circadian rhythm – all of which can lead to sleep disturbances.  Eating a wide variety of plant-based, high fibre foods, as well as fermented foods, promotes microbiome health.  In a 30-day study, involving 68 menopausal women (all who were troubled sleepers), those who consumed 1 cup (250 mL) of kefir (fermented milk) each morning and evening experienced significant improvements in sleep quality.  A healthy microbiome may even help protect against the type of sleep loss that occurs due to stress.  It does this by making the body less reactive to stress (for example, the body releases less cortisol when exposed to stress).  In a 12-week study, involving 94 medical students, consuming a fermented milk drink containing a specific type of bacteria (Lactobacillus casei strain Shirota), resulted in significantly less sleep loss during exam time. 

Enjoy Your Coffee… Just Not Before Bed

Coffee is one of the world’s most popular beverages.  The caffeine it contains, however, can impede sleep by antagonizing or interfering with specific receptors in the brain that normally promote sleep.  In a large U.K. study involving over 82,000 adults, a habitually high coffee intake (>4 cups/day) was one of the most significant factors impacting sleep quality.  Caffeine not only makes it harder to fall sleep, but can also shorten sleep duration, and increase how often you wake in the night.  This doesn’t mean you need to give up your coffee habit entirely.  Simply limit your daily caffeine intake to about 400mg daily (about 2 to 3 cups of coffee) and refrain from consuming caffeine-containing foods or drinks for a minimum of 6 hours prior to bedtime, and ideally more.  Other sources of caffeine include tea, energy drinks or shots, soft drinks (especially those that are cola-based), and dark chocolate.  Lastly, also be aware than many children and teens are consuming enough caffeine daily to interfere with their sleep.  A safe level of caffeine intake for children and adolescents, based on body weight, is 2.5 or 3 mg/kg/day.  It’s easy to exceed this level, especially since sugary coffee drinks and energy drinks are so popular with many of today’s youth.   

Alcohol:  Sleep Aid or Sleep Hindrance?

Individuals who have trouble sleeping, sometimes reach for an alcoholic beverage as a sleep aid before bed.  Although alcohol can help people fall asleep faster, it generally interferes with REM sleep – the deepest, most restorative cycle of sleep that is essential to feeling rested the next day.  Chronic, excessive alcohol use is especially harmful to sleep, as damage to nerve cells and circadian rhythm disturbances caused by alcohol, can disrupt sleep significantly, sometimes permanently.  As for snoring and sleep apnea, based on a review of 13 studies, alcohol exacerbates the severity of both.  If you choose to consume alcohol, limit yourself to one drink daily.  Enjoy it at least several hours before bedtime. 

Regular Mealtimes Matter

Irregular mealtimes, which includes skipping meals and eating late at night, can cause misalignment of your body’s circadian rhythm.  In a comprehensive study involving over 6,000 employees from 29 different companies in Japan, an irregular meal pattern was one of the factors most strongly associated with sleep disturbance.  Do your best to eat meals at regular times.  Avoid eating late at night, especially large meals.

When a Healthy Diet May Not Be Enough

While a healthy diet promotes better sleep for many people, it may not provide the same benefits for those who are significantly overweight.  That’s because excess body weight and sleep disturbances generally go hand in hand.  This includes obstructive sleep apnea.  Obesity greatly increases the risk of this disorder, as fat deposits around the upper airway can lead to obstruction of breathing.  Excess body fat also creates a chronic inflammatory environment in the body, which also impairs one’s ability to regulate sleep. 

Bottom Line: 

Better quality diets promote better quality sleep.  Eat nutrient-rich, high fibre, plant-based foods, including beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, and whole grains.  Consume healthy fats, like those found in extra virgin olive oil and fatty fish, like salmon.  Increase your intake of fermented foods, such as kefir.  Consider a multivitamin and mineral supplement to ensure all your nutrient needs are met.  Limit your intake of alcohol, caffeine, red and processed meats, and ultra-processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats.  Maintain a healthy body weight.  Eat at regular mealtimes.  Avoid large, late night meals.

P.S. Please share this blog with family and friends (especially those who are troubled sleepers!)

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Author:

I’m a registered dietitian with a passion for peanut butter sandwiches and an undying love for chocolate. I’ve been researching, writing, and speaking about eating for optimal health for over 25 years. I have two wonderful daughters, love hiking year-round, and playing hockey in the winter. Perhaps, most importantly, I never let a good dance song go to waste!

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