How should you eat and drink to help you sleep better?
The stress and anxiety of the past few years have wreaked havoc on our ability to sleep well.
In March 2021 over half of adults who were surveyed by the American Academy of Sleep have reportedly struggled with pandemic-induced sleep disturbances, or “coronasomnia”— trouble falling or staying asleep, an uptick in vivid and disturbing dreams, and worse quality sleep overall.
While plenty of lifestyle hacks attempt to reclaim those Zs, such as journaling before bed or avoiding screens while winding down, many people might be overlooking one critical contributing factor: diet.
Research suggests that what (and when) we eat and drink has huge potential to impact sleep quality. For instance, eat too early and you might wake up hungry during the night. And too much caffeine could keep you wired well past the end of your workday.
Some studies have found that certain food choices and nutrient-poor diets are associated with insomnia, such as consuming too much sugar and saturated fats and not getting enough fiber.
So we asked the diet and nutrition experts: How can we eat for better sleep? Pour yourself a tart cherry juice, grab a blanket, and read on to discover their top five tips for more shut-eye.
Eat foods rich in sleep-promoting nutrients.
It’s important to note that no one food “will magically make you fall asleep,” says Marisa Moore, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and former nutrition program coordinator at the Centers for Disease Control. Still, “some nutrients can help.”
Moore urges those struggling with sleep to include more magnesium in their diets. Nearly half of Americans are deficient in the mineral, which can help ease stress and relax the body—among other benefits.
And magnesium-rich foods, like spinach, yogurt, nuts, beans, peas, and lentils, “may help enhance sleep,” Moore says, particularly if you’re not meeting the required amount of hours.
You might have heard of melatonin in supplement form. The hormone is produced naturally in our bodies as a response to periods of darkness. It aids with maintaining sleep and circadian rhythms—the 24-hour internal clock that dictates our physical, mental, and behavioral cycles.
Melatonin is readily available in our food, says Karman Meyer, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eat to Sleep. Tart cherries are a natural source; one 2017 study found that participants who drank tart cherry juice every morning and evening for two weeks slept for 84 minutes longer than normal. And while tart cherries can be hard to come by, pistachios, oily fish, eggs, and milk also contain melatonin.
People struggling with sleep should also “eat tryptophan-rich foods” like chicken, pumpkin seeds, tuna, and turkey, says Dana Bufalino, a board-certified health and wellness coach specializing in nutrition. The essential amino acid is a building block for melatonin, and studies have shown it does increase sleepiness and the ability to fall asleep faster. Unlike melatonin, though, it can’t be produced naturally and must be obtained through diet.
Go easy on the caffeine.
While caffeine is considered a stimulant, it’s “not actually providing your body with energy,” says Meyer. During the day a chemical called adenosine naturally builds up in our bodies, which eventually causes sleepiness. Caffeine boosts wakefulness by blocking our adenosine receptors and preventing us from feeling tired. When that morning joe wears off, the adenosine comes rushing back and we crash, says Meyer.
Only, consume too much caffeine during the day and it might not wear off fast enough for a restful night’s sleep. While the exact times will vary individually, Meyer says it can take 10 to 12 hours from consumption before the caffeine is “completely out of your body.”
Though some people can seemingly handle caffeine late in the day, Bufalino’s rule of thumb is to avoid stimulants of all kinds after 2 p.m., which includes sugar, coffee, tea, and cocoa.
Experiment with mealtimes.
Whether you’re an early riser or a night owl, Moore generally suggests eating to match your lifestyle. However, if you regularly find yourself waking up hungry at 2 a.m., she says, “revisit the time you eat dinner and what’s on the plate.”
It can take a little trial and error, but Moore suggests eating an hour later than normal so the grumbles don’t wake you up during the night. Consider adding high-fiber grains and vegetables, more protein, and a little fat—like olive oil or nuts—to your dinner to keep your stomach sated during the night. If you can’t eat dinner later, Bufalino says it might be worth having a snack (like my favorite nutty granola bar), that combines protein and complex carbohydrates an hour before bed to balance blood sugar levels, given the “long fast” that happens while we’re sleeping.
While the impacts of food on sleep are varied, Moore generally encourages people to avoid “heavy, greasy, or spicy meals within three hours of bedtime.” Going to bed full is not only uncomfortable, but might also trigger acid reflux and disturb sleep.
The relationship between hydration and sleep is a reciprocal one. Dehydration can block rest, and not enough sleep can increase your odds of dehydration. While people often feel lethargic if they haven’t had enough water, says Meyer, other resulting issues like headaches, snoring, and dry mouth might cause sleep interruptions. To avoid waking up to pee multiple times throughout the night, Meyer suggests front-loading hydration during the day. Everyone’s going to have a different cut-off point, she says, but your tolerance for liquid before bed should increase over time.