How Nutrition Affects Your Sleep Cycle

Medically reviewed by
 Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi

Dr. Nayantara Santhi holds an academic position at Northumbria University. After completing her Ph.D. at Northeastern University (Boston, MA), she joined the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School as a post-doctoral fellow to research how sleep and circadian rhythmicity influence our cognitive functioning.

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Last Updated On August 22nd, 2023
How Nutrition Affects Your Sleep Cycle

The importance of both nutrition and sleep are vital for our bodies to thrive. While one, or both, of these are often overlooked, the complicated relationship between the two could be impacting your life. Both your diet and nutrition can affect your sleep quality, and certain foods and drinks can help with sleeping.

And, the inverse is also true. Getting enough sleep also plays a role in how your body absorbs certain nutrients. Regular, restful sleep can help you gain healthy weight or lose weight more easily, depending on your specific health goals.

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“Diet, sleep and exercise are three pillars of health,” says Dr. Nayantara Santhi. “It is not surprising that they are linked. Good to improve sleep is a convenient, and inexpensive strategy. It is the case that some nutritional components or their metabolites have been experimentally shown to benefit sleep.”

“But the story is more complicated, and nutrition and sleep is still an evolving field of study. One thing to keep in mind is that there is a circadian rhythm in metabolism and in the absorption of various nutrients. So its not just what we eat but when we eat that is equally important.”

Understanding the links between sleeping and nutrition allows you the opportunity to live a better, healthier life. I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about sleep and nutrition so you can boost your diet and improve your shut-eye.

Connection Between Nutrition & Sleep

While you likely know what sleep is, nutrition is a bit trickier to define, since it can mean something different to everyone. In simple terms, nutrition refers to the nutrients, vitamins, and essential amino acids you take into your body, and the way that these substances impact your overall health.

What you eat can impact your quality of sleep and vice versa. For instance, caffeine found in drinks like coffee and tea, has been shown to decrease your overall length of sleep, as well as the quality. On the other hand, foods associated with increased melatonin levels — a hormone known for helping to induce sleep — like pistachios, milk, tart cherries, and even rice bran supplements, can help improve your sleep.

Some vitamins have also been found to improve your sleep quality. Vitamin D, for instance, which can be found in some fish and fortified foods, has been linked to better overall sleep in many scientific studies. Depleted vitamin D levels, however, are often linked to sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea.

And, while low carb diets may be popular right now, studies actually suggest Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source  that diets high in minimally processed carbohydrates, and lower in fat, have led to increased REM levels and better sleep quality.

This all goes to show that while our knowledge of the exact links between food, nutrients, and sleep is growing, there is a connection, and understanding this connection better may help you get more rest at night.

Does Overeating or Restricting Calories Impact Your Quality of Sleep?

Overeating may also hurt your quality of sleep or the length of rest your body experiences. When you overeat, you typically eat a surplus of unhealthy foods, such as those high in processed sugars or saturated fats. Eating a diet high in these less healthy foods has been connected with less restorative sleep, as well as lighter sleeping periods. If overeating leads to obesity, you’ll also be at higher risk of more dangerous sleeping disorders, such as sleep apnea.

But, if you’re not eating enough, your sleep may also suffer. Studies have shown that Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source adults with eating disorders, specifically disorders where the person did not intake enough calories, led to a greater chance of sleeping disorders like insomnia.

And, if you’re not eating enough during the day, you might experience another side effect that disturbs your sleep — nighttime eating syndrome or NES. Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source Those with this syndrome typically find themselves eating a quarter or more of their daily calories after dinnertime, or even after going to bed. Those suffering from NES usually disturb their circadian rhythm, which is the cycle your body follows to determine when you’re hungry, tired, or awake. Messing with this rhythm has been known to lead to sleeping disorders.

With this in mind, maintaining a balanced diet that offers enough fiber, sources of fruits and vegetables, and whole carbohydrates may help balance your sleep.

Quality of Sleep Impacts Your Nutrition

If you’re not getting enough sleep or if you find yourself waking up and disturbing your sleep cycle, your nutrition could also suffer, leading you into a cycle of poor nutrition and bad sleeping habits, as a result.

For instance, not getting enough sleep Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source has been linked to overeating unhealthy foods, which in turn can cause health concerns, such as diabetes, hypertension, or obesity. While the causation is not entirely clear, it’s thought that poor sleep quality may trigger certain hormones in your body to crave foods higher in fat or sugar.

When you get enough sleep and are not disturbed throughout the night, you may also make healthier nutritional choices. A study found that those with more restful sleep were less likely to have unhealthy cravings, and when they did have cravings for sugar, opted for fruits or vegetables.

While more research is needed to fully understand this link, it’s clear that healthier sleep habits can lead to healthier nutrition, and vice versa.

Foods to Improve Your Sleep & Those to Avoid

If you’re suffering from poor sleep at night, what can you do to boost your chances of healthier rest? Here are some foods to incorporate into your diet for better sleep, along with some to remove to promote a good night’s sleep.

Add More Fruits to Your Diet like Tart Cherries & Kiwis

Fruits have been found to have a positive correlation with healthier sleep, and tart cherries are one fruit that may also help alleviate sleeping disorder symptoms. Studies have shown that when you add tart cherries Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source to your diet, both in the morning and at night, your melatonin levels increase, boosting your total sleep time and quality of sleep.

Kiwis may be tiny, but it contains high serotonin concentrations, as well as folate, and antioxidants. Studies have found that consuming two kiwis roughly an hour Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source before going to bed can increase your overall sleep time, as well as your sleep efficacy.

Avoid or Reduce Fatty Meat Intake

No one is saying you have to go vegetarian, but fatty meats have been found to lead to less productive sleep. While you don’t have to eliminate fatty meats entirely, opting for more lean cuts or simply reducing the intake of fattier meats may have a positive effect on your overall sleep.

Snack on More Nuts Throughout the Day

Not only are nuts a great source of healthy fats, but they also may help you get more rest at night. Research shows Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source that nuts high in melatonin, like walnuts, may help improve your sleep quality or length and could even reduce symptoms of sleeping disorders like insomnia.

Avoid Caffeine at Night

This suggestion may seem obvious, since most of us know not to drink coffee later in the day if we hope to get a good night’s sleep. But caffeine is in more than just coffee — it’s in drinks like soda and tea, which should be avoided in the evenings if you’re struggling to fall asleep.

And, interestingly enough, caffeine has been found to disturb your sleep cycle when ingested as early as six hours before going to bed. So, if you go to bed at 9pm, that means you should stop drinking caffeine as early as 3pm. If possible, stick to caffeine in the am.

Add More Rice to Your Diet

Rice is high on the glycemic index, and rice has been linked Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source to better sleep quality in some participants studied in Japan. It seems to be most effective when eaten approximately four hours before bedtime, and may be better for restful sleep than its carbohydrate counterparts like bread and pasta.

However, rice may not be good for people sleeping with diabetes or other metabolic conditions.

Other Ways to Hack Your Nutrition & Boost Healthy Sleeping Habits

Aside from adding and removing certain foods from your diet, there are a few other ways to improve your nutrition and hopefully increase your sleep quality.

Eat Your Last Meal Earlier in the Day

When you eat too close to bedtime, you may find your digestion is keeping you awake or causing other sleep issues. Eating too close to your bedtime — one to two hours before — can throw off your circadian rhythm, which might make it harder for you to fall or stay asleep.

Avoid Spicy Foods at Night

While there is some discussion in the scientific community that spicy foods may lead to less restful sleep, if you suffer from heartburn, avoiding spicy foods in the evening may help you get more shuteye. Dealing with acid reflux and heartburn from spicy foods may keep you up at night and make it impossible to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can what I eat affect my sleep cycle?

Yes, what you eat can affect your sleep cycle. Certain foods can promote sleep, while others can disrupt it. For example, foods that contain tryptophan, magnesium, or calcium can help you fall asleep. Meanwhile, foods that are high in sugar or fat can make it harder to fall asleep.

What are some foods that can improve my sleep quality?

Such foods include those that contain tryptophan, magnesium, or calcium. More specific examples include bananas, almonds, warm milk, and tart cherry juice. Additionally, foods that are high in complex carbohydrates can help you feel sleepy, such as whole grain bread, rice, or pasta.

Can caffeine affect my sleep quality?

Yes, caffeine can affect your sleep quality, particularly if consumed in the afternoon or evening. Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase alertness and make it harder to fall asleep or stay asleep. It’s recommended to limit or avoid caffeine intake at least 6 hours before bedtime to promote better sleep.

The Bottom Line

What you eat and how well you sleep are intrinsically linked — and both of these factors easily impact one another. Opting for a more well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole carbohydrates has been linked to more restful sleep. Reducing saturated fats and avoiding caffeine-rich drinks in the evenings may also improve your overall quality of sleep and length of rest.

About the author

Courtney Johnston is a seasoned freelance writer and editor with over 10 years of experience in publishing digital content. Her areas of expertise include personal finance, small business, and health and wellness. With her work published in reputable outlets such as The Chicago Tribune, MSN, AOL, The Motley Fool, Benzinga, The Balance, Best Reviews, and The Culture Trip, Courtney brings a wealth of knowledge and a strong editorial background to her writing.

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