How’s your sleep? Getting high-quality sleep is essential for good health. If you toss and turn one night, you might feel tired and irritable, but the health implications go even deeper. Research shows short sleep times raise the stress hormone cortisol which suppresses your immune system and increases the risk of viral infections. Plus, when you don’t sleep enough, cravings for sugary foods go up along with your appetite.
What should you do if you’re not getting a good night’s sleep? First rule out medical causes of insomnia. Some health conditions, including sleep apnea, can cause frequent nighttime awakenings and daytime fatigue. It’s a common cause of interrupted sleep and many people don’t know they have it. Once you’ve ruled out medical causes, look at your lifestyle, including your diet. Certain foods and dietary habits can make it harder to slumber at night. Let’s look at some.
Consuming Too Much Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates
This cause of poor sleep is more common than you might think. Have you ever grabbed a snack, like a few cookies or a bag of chips before bedtime? Refined carbohydrates and foods with added sugar cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, followed by a spike in insulin. Not only is this bad for metabolic health, but the spike in insulin also causes your blood sugar to drop back down quickly. Such fluctuations and a rapid fall in blood sugar after a meal of refined carbohydrates can trigger nighttime awakenings and reduce sleep quality.
The effects of a sugar overload will be most pronounced if you eat sugar or refined carbs within an hour or two of bedtime. The solution? At dinner, replace those refined and sugary foods with whole foods that contain fiber. Include a source of protein, too. Doing this will help stabilize your blood sugar and prevent rapid blood sugar fluctuations that can destroy sleep quality.
Consuming Caffeine Later in the Day
You might enjoy a trip to Starbucks in the late afternoon, but if you chug a caffeinated beverage, it can make for a restless night. People metabolize caffeine at varying rates. Some people are slow metabolizers, meaning caffeine stays in their system longer, sometimes hours longer than a fast metabolizer. If you’re a slow metabolizer and get a caffeine fix after the morning, you may still have enough caffeine in your system to make falling asleep hard.
If you like to drink a hot beverage in the afternoon or evening, herbal tea is an excellent choice because it lacks caffeine. Plus, some, like chamomile or lemon balm, or passionflower tea, contain compounds that help with sleep. For example, chamomile contains apigenin, a compound that binds to receptors in the brain that promotes sleep. So, switch coffee for herbal tea after 12:00 P.M. to give your sleep a boost.
Not Eating a Nutritionally Balanced Diet
There’s some evidence that diets deficient in vitamins and minerals contribute to insomnia and poor sleep quality. With so many people eating fast food and junk food, it’s not surprising that insomnia is on the rise. According to Sleep.org, people who suffer from insomnia may not get enough vitamins A, C, D, and E. Research finds that some poor sleepers also don’t get enough calcium and magnesium.
One way to correct this imbalance is to eat whole foods in their natural state, including lots of fruits and non-starchy vegetables. Remember, a balanced diet is an important for all aspects of health. Eating a junk food diet won’t supply your body with the nutrients it needs to support healthy sleep.
Avoid Eating Before Bedtime
Tempted to sneak a bedtime snack? Eating within a few hours of turning in to sleep can make it harder to get a good night’s sleep. When it’s time to turn in, you want your body to be in a relaxed state, not to be focused on digesting what you just ate.
Acid reflux causes some people to wake up during the night. If you’re prone toward acid reflux, lying fat in bed will aggravate it and make it hard to sleep at night. Spicy foods and foods high in fat are known for worsening acid reflux. However, eating too close to bedtime may interfere with sleep independent of its effects on acid reflux. One study found young, healthy adults who ate or snacked within 3 hours of bedtime, had more frequent awakenings during the night.
Watch the Alcohol
You might feel more relaxed when you have alcohol at dinner or after dinner, but it can disrupt your normal sleep-wake cycle. Plus, alcohol contains sugar too and that can make it harder to fall and stay asleep. Even if you fall asleep successfully after drinking alcohol, you’re more likely to wake up in the night if you have alcohol on board. So, resist the temptation to chill out with a glass of wine. You might feel relaxed at first, but it could be followed by a rude awakening a couple of hours later. Choose herbal tea instead.
The Bottom Line
People who don’t have insomnia often take sleep for granted, but you realize how frustrating struggling to fall asleep is if you’ve ever experienced it. What you eat plays a role but make sure you’re practicing other good sleep hygiene habits like:
- Sleeping in a pitch-black room
- Cutting back the temperature to around 65 degrees F.
- Keeping electronic devices out of the sleeping area
- Avoiding electronic devices within 2 hours of bedtime
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day
- Getting physical activity. Exercising in the morning improves sleep, based on a study
- Exposing your eyes to natural light early in the morning
- Sleep.org. “What to Eat to Sleep Better at Night”
- HealthLine.com. “The 6 Best Bedtime Teas That Help You Sleep”
- Chung N, Bin YS, Cistulli PA, Chow CM. Does the Proximity of Meals to Bedtime Influence the Sleep of Young Adults? A Cross-Sectional Survey of University Students. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Apr 14;17(8):2677. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17082677. PMID: 32295235; PMCID: PMC7215804.
- WebMD.com. “What You Eat Can Sabotage Your Sleep”
- St-Onge MP, Mikic A, Pietrolungo CE. Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality. Adv Nutr. 2016;7(5):938-949. Published 2016 Sep 15. doi:10.3945/an.116.012336.