Sleep and Diet – Can food aid better sleep?
There’s a strong link between sleep and diet. This article explains why and offers advice on which foods and nutrients can help aid better sleep.
A well-balanced diet is essential for many aspects of your overall health and wellbeing, including sleep. Consuming the right food and drink can help promote better sleep quality, while a diet high in processed or sugary foods can disrupt our sleep.
Sleep, diet and hormone production
One of the key ways that diet impacts sleep is through its impact on hormones. Hormones such as melatonin and serotonin play a critical role in regulating your sleep-wake cycle. A diet high in certain nutrients can help support the production of these hormones.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland, a small gland in the brain. It is primarily known for regulating sleep-wake cycles but also plays a role in other biological processes, such as immune function and mood regulation.
Melatonin is synthesised from the neurotransmitter serotonin, produced in nerve cells throughout the body. Serotonin is converted to melatonin in the pineal gland through enzymatic reactions. Production is tightly regulated by the body’s internal clock, which is influenced by environmental cues such as light and darkness.
Being typically released in response to darkness, melatonin is inhibited by exposure to light. This means levels are highest at night and lowest during the day. The release of melatonin is also influenced by other factors such as age, diet and stress.
Melatonin helps to promote sleep by reducing alertness and promoting feelings of drowsiness. It also helps to regulate the timing and duration of sleep. Certain foods, such as cherries and bananas, contain melatonin and consuming these foods can help increase melatonin levels in the body.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in a wide range of physiological and psychological processes in the body. It is sometimes referred to as the “feel-good” hormone due to its association with happiness and wellbeing.
It is primarily produced in the enterochromaffin cells of the gut, which regulate gastrointestinal function. It is also produced in neurons in the brainstem and other areas of the central nervous system.
Production of serotonin begins with the amino acid tryptophan, usually obtained from dietary sources. Tryptophan is converted to 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) by the enzyme tryptophan hydroxylase, and 5-HTP is then converted to serotonin by the enzyme aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase.
The body tightly regulates the release of serotonin, and several factors, including diet, stress, and exercise, can influence its levels. Certain medications and supplements can also affect serotonin levels by increasing its production or blocking its reuptake.
The effects of serotonin on the body are diverse and multifaceted. One of its primary functions is to regulate mood, and low serotonin levels have been linked to depression and other mood disorders. Serotonin is thought to regulate mood by modulating the activity of other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and norepinephrine.
In addition to its role in mood regulation, serotonin is also involved in several other physiological processes. It plays a role in regulating appetite, body temperature and pain perception, and it is involved in regulating memory, learning and sleep. Foods that are high in tryptophan, an amino acid needed for the production of serotonin, can help boost serotonin levels and improve sleep quality. Tryptophan is found in foods such as turkey, chicken, fish and eggs.
Serotonin also plays a role in the immune system. It is involved in regulating inflammation and activating immune cells such as T cells and B cells. Some studies have suggested that low serotonin levels may increase the risk of autoimmune disorders.
One of the most well-known effects of serotonin is its role in regulating gastrointestinal function. Serotonin regulates the contractions of the smooth muscle in the gut, which helps move food through the digestive system. It is also involved in the regulation of secretions such as mucus and digestive enzymes.
Sleep and blood sugar levels
Another meaningful way that diet impacts sleep is its impact on blood sugar levels. Eating a diet high in processed or sugary foods can cause blood sugar levels to spike and then drop, disrupting sleep. A diet high in protein, healthy fats and fibre can help keep blood sugar levels stable and prevent this disruption. Additionally, eating a diet rich in foods that are high in magnesium, such as leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, can help relax muscles and promote calmness, which can improve sleep quality.
Diet also plays a role in our overall health and well-being, and certain health conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, can negatively impact sleep. Eating a diet high in processed foods and sugar can contribute to these health conditions, while eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats can help promote a healthy weight, and thus improve sleep.
Should I avoid caffeine?
Caffeine, found in coffee, tea, caffeinated soft drinks, energy drinks and chocolate, is a stimulant. It can interfere with the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, making it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep, if consumed close to bedtime.
It can take several hours for the effects of caffeine to wear off, and the timing of your last caffeine intake can affect the quality of your sleep.
It is generally recommended to avoid consuming caffeine for at least six hours before bedtime. This is because caffeine has a half-life of around six hours, meaning that half of the caffeine will still be in your body six hours after consuming it. Consuming caffeine later in the day can also affect your sleep quality and make it harder to wake up.
It’s important to note that the effects of caffeine vary from person to person. Some people may be more sensitive to caffeine than others and may need to avoid it for extended periods before bed.
If you’re having trouble sleeping or are experiencing insomnia, it might be a good idea to limit or avoid caffeine altogether.
Should I eat before bed?
Eating before bed can have benefits and drawbacks, depending on the type of food consumed and the individual’s specific circumstances.
What are the benefits of eating before bed?
Here are some potential benefits of eating before bed:
- A healthy snack before bed can help stabilise blood sugar levels and prevent hunger.
- Consuming foods high in protein, like cottage cheese or turkey, can help promote feelings of fullness and satisfaction, leading to better sleep.
- Some people may find that eating a small snack rich in magnesium, such as nuts and seeds, before bed can help them relax and fall asleep more easily.
What are the disadvantages of eating before bed?
It’s also important to be aware of the potential drawbacks of eating before bed, such as:
- Consuming a heavy or high-fat meal before bed can lead to indigestion, discomfort and poor sleep.
- Eating too close to bedtime can cause disruptions to your sleep as your body is working to digest the food.
- Consuming foods high in sugar or caffeine can disrupt your sleep and affect the quality of your sleep.
What foods should I eat before bed?
Several foods are considered to be good to eat before sleep, as they can help to promote feelings of fullness and satisfaction and can help to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Here are a few examples:
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese or yoghurt contain tryptophan, an amino acid that can help promote calmness and relaxation. Dairy products also contain calcium, which can help to regulate the sleep-wake cycle.
- Whole grains such as oats, quinoa or brown rice can help to promote feelings of fullness and satisfaction. Whole grains also contain complex carbohydrates that can help regulate blood sugar levels, promoting better sleep.
- Nuts and seeds such as almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds contain magnesium, which can help to relax the muscles and promote feelings of calmness and relaxation. They also contain healthy fats and other nutrients that can help to promote feelings of fullness and satisfaction.
- Fruits such as cherries, kiwi and bananas contain natural melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.
- Herbal teas such as chamomile, lavender or valerian root can help to promote feelings of calmness and relaxation, which can help to promote better sleep.
What foods should I avoid before sleeping?
Several foods and drinks should be avoided before sleep, as they can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle and affect sleep quality. Here are a few examples:
- Caffeine is a stimulant that can keep you awake and make it difficult to fall asleep. It’s found in beverages such as coffee, tea, energy drinks and soft drinks. It’s recommended to avoid consuming caffeine 6 hours before bedtime.
- Alcohol may make you drowsy, but it can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle and affect sleep quality. It also causes dehydration, leading to discomfort and wakefulness during the night.
- Spicy or rich foods can cause indigestion, discomfort and poor sleep. Eating heavy or high-fat meals close to bedtime can also disrupt the sleep-wake cycle and affect sleep quality.
- Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, which can keep you awake and make it difficult to fall asleep. It’s best to avoid consuming chocolate in the evening.
- Nicotine is a stimulant that can keep you awake and make it difficult to fall asleep. It’s best avoided, especially close to bedtime.
Which supplements may improve sleep?
Several dietary supplements may improve sleep, but it’s important to note that the effectiveness of these supplements may vary from person to person and that some may have side effects. Here are a few examples of supplements to consider:
- 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter regulating mood and sleep.
- Calcium is essential for the proper functioning of the brain and helps to regulate the release of melatonin. Calcium-rich foods include dairy products, green leafy vegetables and fortified foods.
- Chamomile is a herb used as a natural remedy for insomnia. It is believed to have a calming effect on the nervous system and may help promote relaxation and reduce anxiety.
- Theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves. It is believed to have a calming effect on the brain and may help reduce anxiety, making it easier to fall asleep.
- Magnesium is a mineral that plays a vital role in the body. Magnesium supplements can help improve sleep quality by reducing muscle tension and anxiety and promoting relaxation.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that are important for overall health, including brain health. They may help reduce inflammation and promote better sleep quality. Omega-3-rich foods include fatty fish such as salmon and sardines, flaxseeds and chia seeds.
- L-Tryptophan is an amino acid essential for producing serotonin and melatonin. Tryptophan-rich foods include turkey, chicken, fish and eggs.
- Valerian root is a herbal supplement and a natural remedy for insomnia, ideal for calming the nervous system and helping to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.
- Vitamin B6 is an essential nutrient for the production of melatonin and serotonin. B6-rich foods include chicken, fish and fortified cereals.
- Vitamin D is essential for overall health, including bone health, immune function and sleep. Vitamin D can be found in foods such as fatty fish and fortified foods but can also be synthesised by the body when exposed to sunlight.
- Zinc is an essential mineral that plays a role in immune function and wound healing. It also can affect the production of melatonin. Zinc-rich foods include oysters, beef and fortified cereals.
It’s important to note that before taking any supplements, you should talk to your healthcare professional to determine if it’s appropriate for you and identify any potential interactions with other medications you may be taking or any possible side effects.
Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any ailments.
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