Sleep Is Not Always a Given; Diet Might Help You Get Those ZZZZs

Food choices may help in the journey towards improved sleep.

© Maglara | Getty Images Certain dietary practices can help improve sleep patterns.

Sleep. It’s necessary for good health, for life itself—just as much as the air we breathe and the food we eat. In fact, sleep has been referred to as the “foundational pillar of health.” While drifting off for a good night’s slumber comes easily to some of us, for others it’s frustratingly elusive. We spend one-third of our lives sleeping, or trying to. How well you sleep during that one-third impacts the quality of your life for the other two-thirds that you spend awake. Poor sleep is endemic in the U.S., with more than one-third of adults failing to sleep at least seven hours a night, which is the amount recommended. Another 35 percent report that their sleep quality is less than ideal—waking up in the middle of the night or experiencing fitful sleep. That’s concerning, since both short and poor quality sleep increase the risk of developing high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke, depression, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease. The American Heart Association has even recommended that sleep be included in campaigns to improve cardiovascular health.

While the factors that regulate sleep are complicated, research suggests that diet can play a role. It appears that the relationship between diet and sleep runs both ways i.e., while a poor diet can have a negative effect on sleep quality, poor sleep quality can lead to poor food choices, overeating, and obesity. One comprehensive review and analysis of previous studies that was published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics in 2021 found that restricting sleep to less than five and a half hours a night led to increased calorie intake. Another review found that while insufficient sleep actually increases calories burned by about 100 a day, it also increases calorie intake by about 250 calories a day. The shift is due in part to a negative effect on appetite hormones, of which there are several. The differences in calories consumed and calories burned may seem small, but it can result in weight gain over time. It’s not a coincidence that the same review concluded that inadequate sleep was associated with a 38 percent increased incidence of obesity versus people who get a normal amount of sleep.

The composition of your gut microbiota, the billions of bacteria that live in your intestinal tract, can also affect your sleep by changing your body’s circadian rhythm. Some health problems linked to a loss of sleep may be linked to the overgrowth of “bad” bacteria in the intestinal tract. Some studies have found that probiotic supplements can improve the quality of sleep. But more research is needed to pinpoint the type and dose of probiotic supplement that is likely to improve sleep.

Dietary Tips for Better Sleep. Several studies have indicated that eating a Mediterranean-style diet can help with getting enough shut-eye. A Mediterranean-style diet is one that includes olive oil, a lot of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fatty fish, and shellfish. Eating like this consistently could contribute to improved sleep.

Caroline Susie, RD, a Dallas-based dietitian in private practice and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics provides the following caveats and healthy eating tips that encourage healthy sleeping patterns.

Avoid eating large meals shortly before bedtime. Digestion slows during sleep, so food stays in the stomach longer, leading to indigestion.

Eating large meals and then lying down can also increase acid reflux.

Eat your last meal or snack a couple of hours before bedtime.

Alcohol and caffeine consumed before bed can disrupt sleep patterns and sleep quality.

A diet high in sugar-rich drinks, as well as high-fat and highly processed foods, can have a negative effect on sleep quantity and quality.

Dietitian Susie also says, “I am a food-first dietitian, so I would recommend foods that have been associated with promoting sleep.” These foods are high on her list of recommendations.

Foods that contain melatonin, a hormone that maintains your circadian rhythm, which is your sleep-wake cycle (eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, berries).

Foods that contain tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter (poultry, eggs, fish, milk, chocolate).

Foods rich in magnesium, which helps regulate melatonin (fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, kale, spinach).

If you experience restless leg syndrome and it’s keeping you awake, magnesium-rich foods may help with that as well.

Bottom Line. While diet is an important part of the prescription for good sleep, it’s only one aspect. Sleep patterns are a complex interaction of genetics, behavioral, and social factors. Stress, anxiety, depression, shift work, or a change in work hours, are all critical factors that can affect how well you sleep. The same is true for physical activity. Being active helps with sleep. Inactivity can aggravate any sleep issues you may be experiencing. Those have to be managed before any changes in your diet can make a noticeable difference in your sleep.

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