When you're facing sleepless nights and daytime fatigue, your diet might be part of the problem. While the link between food and sleep isn't completely understood yet, scientists do know that nutrition and eating habits can play a role in how well you sleep.
The idea of eating something that induces sleep might seem like magic, but food's effect on sleep is actually a function of biology. Sleep patterns are controlled by hormones in your body, and eating specific foods can affect hormone production.
In particular, the hormone melatonin helps your body regulate sleep and wake cycles. Another hormone, serotonin, causes the body to make more melatonin, so anything that boosts serotonin ends up increasing melatonin levels, too.
While it might seem as though eating a big lunch makes you feel sleepy, that isn't really the cause of most afternoon tiredness. The hormones that cause sleepiness and wakefulness naturally rise and fall in a repeating rhythm throughout the day. While individual circadian rhythms vary slightly, most people experience a hormonal dip that leads to sleepiness twice a day, at around 2 a.m. and 2 p.m.
You can work with your circadian rhythms to promote sleep by limiting heavy meals to earlier in the day and sticking to lighter meals or small, nutritious snacks in the evening.
If you're trying to improve your sleep patterns, eating a healthy diet helps. In general, better sleep has been associated with a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Specific components in foods actively promote sleep by directly affecting hormone production. Tryptophan, an amino acid found in a variety of foods including poultry and nuts, boosts the formation of serotonin.
Carbohydrates raise your insulin levels, which improves the movement of tryptophan into the brain. In practical terms, this means that the best foods to eat before bed include some combination of healthy carbohydrates and tryptophan-containing proteins. A snack of crackers and peanut butter or a small turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread delivers just what you need for a good rest.
Choose whole grains, fruits and vegetables over simple carbohydrates to promote sleep. The fiber in complex carbohydrates modulates your body's insulin production to prevent sudden spikes and drops that make sleep elusive.
When it comes to dietary interventions that send you into dreamland, a few specific foods stand out. Some of the top 10 foods that help you sleep include turkey, yogurt and fish. If you're craving something sweet at night, fruits you can eat before bed include kiwis, tart cherry juice, oranges and bananas. Time your evening snack for about 30 to 60 minutes before you intend to go to sleep, so your body has time to digest the food before you lie down.
Sometimes tiredness hits when you don't want to rest. Late-afternoon fatigue or mid-morning grogginess can affect your work, school and everyday activities. Caffeinated beverages and energy drinks are often used to promote wakefulness. While these drinks can perk you up for a short time, they aren't good as long-term solutions. The stimulant effect of caffeine and sugar is usually followed by a crash that leaves you even more tired. The best solution for daytime sleepiness is to get better sleep at night.
Sometimes your diet hampers sleep without providing any useful stimulant effect on daytime sleepiness. A diet high in saturated fats and sugar may lead to less restful sleep with more frequent night awakenings that could leave you tired the next morning. Using alcohol as a sleep aid also backfires for most people. While alcohol is a sedative and might make you drowsy, it also makes you more likely to wake up in the middle of the night.
For some people, specific foods interact negatively with the body to cause problems. Eating highly acidic foods, such as tomato sauce, might result in acid reflux that keeps you awake long past your normal bedtime, especially if you've been previously diagnosed with GERD. Spicy foods at dinnertime might also affect sleep quality if they cause indigestion late at night.
In general, a healthy diet helps your body maintain the natural rhythms that lead to consistent good sleep. Including a few nutritious sleep-promoting foods could improve your rest even more.
© 2020 American Sleep Association.