What’s the Relationship Between Nutrition and Sleep Quality?
There are so many things that can impact your overall sleep quality—and nutrition plays a surprisingly large role in how well you’re able to sleep at night.
When it comes to sleep and nutrition, Brooke Stubbs, MD, a double board-certified internal medicine and lifestyle medicine physician, sees her fair share of patients who don’t achieve adequate nutrition to positively affect sleep.
In fact, one of the top issues she sees is consuming too much caffeine late in the day, which is one of the leading offenders related to diet and sleep.
Ahead, we’ll delve into the relationship between sleep and nutrition and offer easy dietary changes you can make to improve your sleep.
What is nutrition?
Just so you have an understanding before going further, Stubbs defines nutrition as “the exogenous [external] components of food and supplements that provide our bodies with biochemicals necessary for energy, growth, and cellular function.”
In other words? Nutrition is what fuels everything you do, from your waking hours to your sleeping hours.
What’s the relationship between nutrition and sleep quality?
There’s a scientifically proven connection between nutrition and sleep and sleep and nutrition. Basically, it’s widely known that a well-rounded diet can support healthy sleep.
When you sleep well, you’re more likely to make healthy food choices, and the opposite is also true: If you eat poorly, then chances are you’ll sleep poorly. And if you sleep poorly, you’ll be more likely to make bad choices when it comes to food.
Stubbs says this all comes down to your circadian rhythm.
“Every single cell in our body works on a circadian clock, meaning it has phases for specific functions that are entrained with our sleep and wake cycles,” she explains. “The goal for the circadian rhythm is to keep the body in balance. If we are following a regulated pattern, our body is constantly working to get back in balance.”
Eating too close to bedtime is one way food can affect circadian rhythm.
“Eating any kind of food too close to bedtime, when the lights start to dim and our cells are ready to shift to the restorative portion of the cycle, throws off their pattern and is detrimental to their function and ultimately our overall health,” Stubbs says.
Nutrition can also impact the restoration that’s needed during sleep, which replenishes your body’s energy stores and repairs damage. “We can’t enter this portion cycle if we are still breaking down and metabolizing food,” Stubbs adds.
What you eat is also important.
First, different types of food can affect the major hormone transmitters in the body responsible for maintaining circadian rhythms and homeostasis, or “a normal balance within the body,” as Stubbs says. Adequate nutrients can also act as building blocks for falling asleep and achieving good-quality sleep.
Lastly, fiber from plant foods is the fuel for healthy gut microbes.
“More and more studies have shown the important role these microbes play in sleep and overall health," shares Stubbs. "For example, they produce serotonin, the precursor to melatonin. The proper amount of serotonin is essential to quality sleep. Fiber also reduces inflammation, which improves sleep.”
What’s the best diet for sleep?
To achieve ideal sleep, there are certain foods you should always aim to consume in your diet.
“In my opinion, a plant-based diet rich in fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, sources of omega-3, like algae, walnuts, chia, and flaxseed, and vitamin D, like algae or a supplement, is optimal for promoting sleep quality and duration,” Stubbs says.
“Adding probiotic strains to your gut through fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso can also provide microbiome-boosting effects for your gut that reduce inflammation and promote mood and sleep through the production of serotonin.”
What foods interfere with sleep?
Some foods aren’t so helpful for sleep. In fact, they can make it very difficult to get a good night’s sleep. These include caffeine, alcohol, high-fat foods, and spicy foods.
Stubbs points to studies confirming these detrimental foods. One double-blind study shows caffeine consumption decreases both sleep time and sleep quality.
Saturated fat, the form of fat rich in animal foods, has also been associated with decreased sleep quality. Another study shows red meat significantly decreases the secretion of urinary melatonin, also needed for sleep.
Lastly, alcohol can decrease the amount of melatonin in your body within 24 hours of consumption.
How does nutrition affect sleep?
“You are what you eat” has never been truer when it comes to sleep. It can directly impact your circadian rhythm, the internal process that controls the sleep-wake cycle.
What nutrients disrupt sleep?
According to Stubbs, foods that are high in fat or contain caffeine or meals that include red meat or alcohol can greatly disturb sleep. Additionally, spicy foods aren’t the best for sleep since they can bring on acid reflux.
What nutrition helps sleep?
Dr. Stubbs encourages eating these foods to accomplish better sleep:
- Plant-based foods rich in fiber, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Sources of omega-3, like algae, walnuts, chia, and flaxseed
- Sources of vitamin D, like algae or a supplement
- Probiotic strains found in fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso
Can poor nutrition cause insomnia?
Poor nutrition can absolutely lead to sleep problems, such as insomnia. Stubbs says you need good nutrition to help promote sleep.
“Essential amino acids and fatty acids are important cofactors for the production of neurotransmitters that affect sleep,” she says.
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