How to Eat for Better Sleep
Diet and sleep are the two factors that pretty much dictate your well-being, so it's no wonder that scientists are exploring how they interact and trying to pinpoint the best foods for sleep deprivation. According to Chris Winter, M.D., a sleep specialist in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the author of The Sleep Solution, there is a clear connection between them.
"Sleep and wakefulness are controlled by a series of chemical reactions in the body," he says. "Certain nutrients can affect them to alter how long it takes you to fall asleep, how often you wake up during the night, and how you feel the next day." (Related: 3 Quick Bed Stretches to Help You Sleep Better)
This is far beyond drinking warm milk to drift off. Your day-to-day diet is what has the potential to improve your night's sleep.
“When you're sleep deprived, your body produces more ghrelin, a hormone that tells you to eat more, and less leptin, which signals you to stop eating," says Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of Beauty Sleep.
The reverse is also true: Eating certain healthy foods calms your nervous system and triggers a sleep-inducing hormonal response, scientists say, helping you rest better at night.
Getting enough zzzs is particularly important for active women. "Sleep allows your body to recover from tough workouts and readies it for the next one," says Kristine Clark, Ph.D., R.D., director of sports nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. "During deep sleep, every muscle in your body works to rebuild itself stronger than before."
The seven to eight hours of sleep a night that experts say women need may sound like a lot, but just wait: Active women, especially those training for an endurance event, need up to 10 hours for peak performance, says James B. Maas, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Cornell University and author of Power Sleep. "Well-rested people are typically 20 percent quicker at performing physical tasks than those who lack adequate rest," he says. "Sleep plays a major role in muscle memory, which sharpens your focus and reduces reaction time." (More about why sleep is the #1 important thing for a better bod.)
When researchers at Stanford University asked tennis players to sleep 10 hours a night for five to six weeks, the athletes reported sprinting faster and hitting better. Equally important, they felt that they recovered quicker for the next day's practice than when they worked out with fewer hours' rest.
How exactly does sleep help you get fitter? During rapid eye movement sleep (REM), neural connections created during your workout are strengthened, ingraining a new skill (like a tennis serve) into long-term memory, Maas says. In stage 2 of sleep, small bursts of brain activity promote muscle memory for step-by-step actions (like a kickboxing sequence). And slow-wave sleep helps the body produce hormones essential for muscle repair.
On the flip side, too little sleep can slow down your workout. "Studies show that poor sleep quality has the same negative effect on performance as not sleeping at all," Maas says. "In both cases, the body's ability to convert sugar into muscle fuel slows, so muscles don't receive enough energy, causing you to 'hit the wall' during exercise 20 percent sooner." (Related: Is it Better to Sleep In or Work Out?)
In other words, eat smarter, sleep better; sleep better, get fitter. It's that simple. Start with the nutrition strategies below and our tips for the best foods for sleep deprivation to score sweeter, sounder dreams tonight and a stronger body tomorrow.
5 Ways to Eat Your Way to Better, Sounder Sleep
Eat Even More Fiber
People who fill up on this nutrient spend more time in deep sleep, the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reports. (People who get less fiber, more saturated fat, and more sugar wake up more often.) Although experts don't have the full story on how fiber influences sleep, it may have to do with the way your body digests different types of carbs. Low-fiber carbs like rice and white bread are quickly broken down into sugar, and if you eat them at night, they may reduce the overall quality of your sleep, says Robert Graham, M.D., co-founder of Fresh Med, an integrative health and wellness center in New York.
"They dramatically spike blood sugar, which causes a surge in insulin and makes us feel drowsy at first, but once insulin levels go back to normal, you get a swell of energy," he says. Fiber-rich carbs like whole grains are broken down slowly and don't set off the energy roller coaster. You want at least 25 grams spread out during the day. (Here are more benefits that make fiber is the most important nutrient in your diet.)
People who get less than seven hours of sleep a night tend to eat more fat overall, the journal Advances in Nutrition reports. "Long-term high fat intake can throw off your levels of leptin and ghrelin, two hormones that affect appetite and also regulate wakefulness," says Yingting Cao, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Adelaide in Australia.
To protect your sleep, avoid having a high-fat dinner. In Cao's research, people who ate the most fat were more likely to have sleep troubles than those who ate less. Aim for around 10 grams in the evening, or about what's in three ounces of salmon. And watch your intake of saturated fat, the kind that's in meat. In the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine study, participants who consumed larger amounts of saturated fat spent less time in restorative slow-wave sleep. It can trigger inflammation, which Cao says may affect your z's. (See 12 healthy high-fat foods *everyone* should be eating.)
Your gut has its own internal clock, and just like your brain's, it can get jet-lagged. In a study in the journal Science, mice who went more than 16 hours before eating a meal shifted their circadian rhythms. "If the same rules apply to humans—which seems likely but needs to be confirmed—the body clock would be thrown off whenever there is a long period of fasting followed by a meal. The new waking time would be an hour or two before the mealtime the next day," says Clifford Saper, M.D., Ph.D., the study's lead author.
To keep your stomach and brain clocks in sync, eat meals (including the best foods for sleep deprivation below) at semi-regular times. "It's especially important to eat breakfast to establish your biological morning and not to eat too late in the evening when the body is not ready to digest," Dr. Saper says.
Cut Back on These 2 Things
Processed foods like deli meats contain a lot of sodium, which can interrupt sleep by raising your blood pressure and dehydrating you, Cornell's Maas says. And surprise, surprise: Limiting caffeine is key. It stays in your system for up to 12 hours, so the effects of an afternoon latte could linger til midnight. Try skipping the joe tomorrow: Not having caffeine for a single day can improve sleep quality that night, research has found.
Don't Go to Extremes
When daily calories dip below 1,200, you miss out on key nutrients, and this may affect your sleep, says Susan Moores, R.D., a dietitian in St. Paul. Low iron, for instance, may cause symptoms similar to restless leg syndrome. A deficiency in folic acid may lead to insomnia. Studies also suggest that anorexics on extremely low-cal diets limit the time their bodies spend in the slow-wave sleep cycle, necessary for muscle repair and recovery.
The Top 5 Vitamins and Minerals for Great Sleep
These vitamins and minerals will help you snooze soundly tonight. Eat 'em and sleep:
- B Vitamins: They improve your body's ability to regulate its use of sleep-inducing tryptophan and produce more system-calming serotonin.
- Find Them In: Chicken breast, lean beef, salmon, bananas, potatoes, cereals fortified with B3 or B12
- Calcium: This natural relaxant has a calming effect on the body's nervous system.
- Find It In: Low-fat yogurt, milk, cheese, fortified orange juice
- Zinc: Deficiency in this mineral has been linked to insomnia.
- Find It In: Oysters, beef, Alaska king crab, fortified cereal
- Iron: A lack of this mineral can cause symptoms similar to restless leg syndrome.
- Find It In: Oysters, clams, beef tenderloin, dark-meat turkey
- Copper: This substance regulates serotonin.
- Find It In: Whole grains, beans, nuts, potatoes, dark leafy greens
6 of the Best Foods for Sleep Deprivation
- Tart cherry juice: It contains dietary melatonin, the sleep hormone. Sip eight ounces in the morning and at night. (This can also help speed up workout recovery!)
- Kiwifruit: Eating two an hour before bedtime has been shown to help you nod off faster and sleep deeper. It's packed with the sleep-promoting nutrients serotonin and folate.
- Whole-grain crackers: The carbs they contain can help boost serotonin levels.
- Fatty fish: Salmon and other fatty fish are good sources of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for the regulation of serotonin.
- Pumpkin seeds: A quarter cup of pepitas contains 200 mg of magnesium, a mineral that helps muscles relax the way some sleep meds do.
- Hummus: Chickpeas are naturally high in tryptophan, an amino acid that makes you feel sleepy. Try two tablespoons with your bedtime snack.
Tasty Bedtime Snacks Under 200 Calories
If you're not getting enough calories, your body turns to fat for energy. "As part of that process, your system releases noradrenaline, a natural upper," says Mike Roussell, Ph.D., a nutrition strategist and the author of MetaShred Diet. Feeling hungry is also uncomfortable, which can keep you up, says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University. To avoid this, have a protein- and fiber-rich snack two to four hours before bed. Bonus: Eating protein before you sleep helps build your muscles too. (Here are the best drinks for a peaceful night's rest.)
Choose one of these combos of best foods for sleep deprivation to help you drift off easier. The fifty-fifty mix of carbs and protein ups sleep-inducing serotonin levels.
- 1/2 cup whole-grain cereal with 1/2 cup milk
- 6 ounces low-fat yogurt and a sprinkling of berries
- 1 slice whole-wheat toast and 1 tablespoon nut butter
- 1/2 whole-wheat pita and 2 tablespoons hummus
- 1 oatmeal raisin cookie and 8 ounces milk
- 6 whole-grain crackers and a small handful of walnuts