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How to Eat for Better Sleep

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Photo: Somrudee Doikaewkhao/FOAP/Getty Images

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. 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. Here’s the deal:

You Need 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., a 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.)

Any Indulgence Should Happen Early

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.

Breakfast? Nonnegotiable

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 at semiregular 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.

Have a Snack Before Bed

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.)

6 Foods That Help You Sleep

  • Tart cherry juice: It contains dietary melatonin, the sleep hormone. Sip eight ounces in the morning and at night.
  • 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.

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