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What to Eat for Better Sleep
Foods to choose (and the ones you should avoid) to get more zzz’s.
Is there nothing worse than waking up in the middle of the night with heartburn? Or, waking up in the morning feeling like you got no sleep whatsoever? It’s no secret that getting a good night’s sleep is crucial to our health and wellbeing. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, sleep is involved in the healing and repair of heart and blood vessels. Ongoing sleep deficiency is also linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. From a mental health perspective, people with sleep disorders like insomnia are more likely to show signs of depression.
“Getting enough sleep helps regulate mood and emotions,” says Registered DietitianMartha McKittrick. “Sleep affects our emotional intelligence. Inadequate sleep increases anxiety and can compromise creativity.”
It’s clear why we all need to get a good night’s sleep, but what’s a little more difficult is how. One key component to getting better sleep falls down to what you can eat. The food choices you make before bed have a major impact on the quality of your sleep. To figure out which are the best foods to help you sleep, we turned to the industry’s leading experts. Read on to learn more about what to eat before bed.
How Did We Get Here?
There are many reasons why people don’t get enough quality sleep, and, like most things in life, it’s different for everyone. “For something that is inherently natural, sleep can actually be very complex,” says Adult Sleep Coach Kelly Murray. “There are some common themes to lack of sleep, like not waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day, too much screen time before bed and not dealing with mental and emotional stress.”
Nutritionist Jill Borba says that one of the most common reasons people don’t get a good night’s sleep is that they lack healthy sleep hygiene. “Too many of us try to stuff too much activity in our day, and don’t allow a transitional period of winding down before we go to sleep,” she says. “Using electronic devices like phones and computers that emit blue light suppresses melatonin production and impairs the body’s natural circadian rhythm. By shutting off screens at least one hour before bed and engaging in a calming activity like reading a book, we can support our bodies in restoring natural cycles.”
When We Eat Matters
“Your last meal should end at least three hours before bedtime to give you time to digest your food,” says Murray. “If you find that you wake up hungry in the middle of the night, you can eat a small bedtime snack that is 100 to 200 calories to help stabilize your blood sugar levels overnight.”
Borba says that sleep is when the body does its “housekeeping.” Not only is the body resting but it’s also engaging in important immune function. So if you eat right before bed and your body is digesting food, it can impair the normal immune function that should be occurring every night.
If you’re someone who feels like they need to eat before bed, McKittrick recommends a light snack with both carbs and protein, like whole grain crackers with peanut butter.
What To Look For...
“Magnesium is essential for relaxing both our minds and bodies,” says Murray. “Research shows that most individuals are not getting the daily recommended amount of magnesium. Foods that are high in magnesium are bananas, avocados, nuts, dark chocolate, beans, spinach and broccoli.”
“Calcium is synergistic with magnesium,” says Murray. “They work together to relax muscles. Sources of calcium are dark leafy greens like kale and collards, citrus fruits, nuts, fish like sardines and salmon, and dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt.”
“Tryptophan is important for the production of serotonin in the body,” says McKittrick. “It’s key to brain function and plays a role in healthy sleep. Tryptophan is found in dairy, nuts and seeds, bananas, chicken, turkey, soy and eggs. Foods that contain tryptophan are most effective if eaten alongside carbohydrates, like whole grain crackers and almond butter.”
Melatonin, 5-HTP and Vitamin B
“Melatonin promotes falling asleep and is helpful for jetlag when taken just before the new time-zone’s bedtime,” says author of “Pandemic Dreams” and “The Committee of Sleep” Deirdre Barrett. “5-HTP, the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, is relaxing and helps sleep for some people. Vitamin B has been shown to increase dream recall and vividness.”
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
“Higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with better sleep,” says Murray. “Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fish and other seafood (especially cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring and sardine), seeds (flaxseeds and chia) and plant oils (flaxseed oil and soybean oil).”
...And What to Avoid
Too Much Sugar
“Sugar is very stimulating and causes an imbalance in blood sugar levels that can affect sleep,” says Borba. “It’s best to eat high-quality sources of sugar and carbohydrates in fruit, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, corn and peas, and in whole grains like oats, rice and quinoa. It’s also important to balance them by eating with protein and healthy fat.”
“An excessively large meal will disturb sleep,” says Barrett. “Anything that gives you indigestion will result in more awakenings. Some people find spicy foods do this and others find trouble with high-fat meals.”
“Alcohol can cause sleep disruptions and inhibits REM sleep, which is thought to be the most restorative,” says Murray. “If you want to have an alcoholic beverage and also get good sleep, I recommend having it early in the evening. Think happy hour instead of nightcap.”
“Caffeine includes chocolate, coffee and some sodas,” says Murray. “It counteracts the chemical adenosine, which inhibits brain function and makes us sleepy. A general rule of thumb is that you should stop consuming caffeine by two in the afternoon.”
One of the most important benefits of a good night’s sleep is energy for the next day’s workout. If you’re ready to get going on your fitness goals, we’ve got you covered.