While we have all heard (and many experienced) that drinking too much coffee can keep you from sleeping, there are lots of other foods that can impact how well you sleep. In this article we will look at the different foods that can hinder or help your sleep, how your meals impact your sleep and also steps you can take to get the best sleep possible.
To start with, we need to know how sleep, and the different stages of sleep works to be able to understand how and why food can impact these stages.
What are the different stages of sleep?
Throughout the night you cycle between 4 stages of sleep, which, in turn, is divided into two types of sleep — rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM (NREM) sleep.
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep
REM sleep takes place about an hour and a half (90 minutes) after you fall asleep. You usually dream during REM sleep and, during this stage of sleep your eyes move back and forth very fast. While the first sleep cycle’s REM stage lasts only about 10 minutes, the final REM sleep of the night may last up to an hour.
Non-REM (NREM) sleep
NREM sleep is divided into three stages some of which are deeper than others. Your body uses these deep stages to repair and regrow tissues, build bone and muscle and even strengthen the immune system.
- Stage 1 (NREM) — During the first stage of sleep you actually fall asleep. This is light sleep during which your heartbeat, breathing, eye movements, and brain waves slow down. You muscles relax and may also twitch every now and then.
- Stage 2 (NREM) — The second stage of sleep is the stage you spend most time in. Your brain wave activity slows down, but there are still brief bursts of electrical activity. During this stage your breathing and heartbeat slows and your muscles relax further.
- Stage 3 (NREM) — The third stage of NREM sleep is the deep sleep that makes you feel refreshed. It is also known as Slow Wave Sleep (SWS). During this stage your heartbeat and breathing is at their slowest during sleep. It is also difficult to wake someone up in this stage of sleep. Your brain waves slow down even more as well. During this stage of sleep memory consolidation takes place.
- Stage 4 (REM) — During the last stage of sleep, your eyes move rapidly behind your closed eyelids, your brain waves are almost what they are in waking and your breathing becomes faster and irregular. Your heart rate and blood pressure also rises until they are almost at the levels seen when you’re not asleep. Most of your dreaming will occur now and, to prevent you from acting out your dreams, your arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralyzed.
Now that we’ve seen how the different sleep stages work, we can look at how the food you choose and the meals you eat can affect the different stages of sleep. (We’ll use REM, NREM, and SWS throughout this article.)
How does food affect how well you sleep?
In a recent study it was found that eating less fiber, more saturated fat and more sugar during the day was linked to the participants getting less refreshing sleep and waking up more through the night. When you wake up a lot during the night, your body doesn’t get a chance to cycle through all the stages of sleep before waking up. This means that you don’t have a refreshing night’s sleep.
Unhealthy food and dietary choices also mean that you won’t get the necessary nutrients that your body needs every day to be and remain healthy. Anna Krieger, the Medical Director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, notes that:
“Eating healthy and allowing the body to absorb proper nutrients provides the brain with the chemical environment that it needs to produce the neurotransmitters that it needs for adequate sleep”.
Kristen Eckel-Mahan, Assistant Professor at the Center for Metabolic and Degenerative Diseases at the University of Texas Health and Science Center of Houston, points out that there is also a connection between our sleep and the way in which we metabolize our food — our diet actually helps to keep our circadian rhythm (the 24-hour cycle that our bodies follow each day) in check.
This is also why you should try your best not to shift mealtimes or even skipping meals altogether — you can mess with your circadian rhythm and, therefore, your sleep patterns as well. When you are sleep deprived, you also have a higher level of the hormones in your body that signals that you’re hungry; exacerbating the situation (and making you reach for that leftover dessert in the fridge just before bed).
The 2015 research paper by Dashti et. al., Short sleep duration and dietary intake: epidemiologic evidence, mechanisms, and health implications, also notes the links between short sleep duration and (mostly) lifestyle diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease do exist and how a change in diet could influence them.
The same paper addresses the fact that studies have observed consistently that those with short sleep duration often have a diet that’s higher in fat and lower in fruit — i.e. they have a lower quality diet. Improved sleep is, therefore as much an outcome of healthy eating than is weight management. (Studies are still underway to see just what and how large the impact and relation between sleep and diet changes are.)
Now that we can see that there is definitely a link between our diet and our sleep and sleeping patterns, you’re probably wondering just what foods you need to avoid before bed to be able to sleep better. Here’s a list of the most common foods to avoid before bedtime.
Which foods should you avoid before bedtime?
- Coffee, chocolate, black tea, energy drinks, and other sources of caffeine — Coffee gives us that jolt when we’re tired because the caffeine in the coffee. How the caffeine does this, is to affect the adenosine receptors in the brain, causing you to not feel that you are tired. As you can imagine, this is not a good thing when you’re trying to go to sleep! Avoid having caffeine 4 to 6 hours before you go to bed. If caffeine affects you a lot, you can even cut all caffeine from midday onward — leaving you enough time to enjoy your morning coffee.
- Fatty foods like fries — Besides being unhealthy in general, fatty foods and deep fried foods will be too taxing for your digestive system when you’re trying to sleep. This uncomfortable feeling itself can keep you from falling asleep or having a restful sleep.
- Sugar — While a bit of honey in your chamomile tea probably won’t hurt, eating sweets or sweet foods before bed can ruin your sleep pattern.
- Alcohol — A drink or two may make you drowsy, but you won’t get through all the sleep stages that you’re supposed to get, leaving you tired and worn out the next day when you may have to get up very early in the morning. As a rule of thumb, don’t have alcohol 4 to 6 hours before going to bed.
Which foods may help you fall asleep more quickly?
- Caffeine-free teas like rooibos (also called “red bush”), chamomile, and lavender — By drinking tea that soothes your senses and also relaxes you, you’ll be able to fall asleep more easily. Creating a bedtime mindfulness habit that includes herbal teas like these can also be a wonderful way to “wind down” before you go to bed.
- Milk — Dairy contains tryptophan that is a substance that promotes sleep, which is why some warm milk can help you to fall asleep.
- Nuts — nuts are a source of melatonin; a sleep regulating hormone, so if you want a snack around bed time, rather reach for a few almonds than chocolate. Walnuts are also very good as an aid to fall asleep.
- Tart cherry juice — This juice is, like nuts, a source of melatonin. It also contains various vitamins and antioxidants.
What compounds the effects of your diet and influence on how well you sleep?
Although you can already do a lot to sleep better by watching what you eat and when you eat (or drink) it, there are also other habits to keep an eye on in order to have a better night’s sleep.
These habits include:
- Not spending time on your phone, tablet, or other screen right before going to bed — staring at the sharp light of a screen before going to bed (especially in a darkened room) signals to your brain that it’s not yet time to “switch off” and get ready to sleep. Not to mention that negativity on social feeds can make you feel anxious and negative as well and influence your sleep in that way.
- Having a mindfulness ritual that you do at night before going to bed — writing in your gratitude journal, drinking caffeine-free tea, reading, etc. can all — when done every evening — become a way for you to wind down and get your body and brain ready for bed.
- Having a warm and soothing bath or shower — Add some essential oils or shower melts that contain lavender or similar sleep promoting scents can do a lot to help you float off to your dreamworld as soon as your head hits the pillow.
- Using white noise or ambient noise — There are many apps and playlists that can help you to get the perfect mix of sounds to help you fall asleep and even stay asleep longer. Sleeping headphones can also be very handy if your room is too light.
Paying attention to your diet is a lot more important than simply trying to keep your weight in check. What you eat — and don’t eat — can have a huge impact on your sleep patterns. Although it’s not always possible to keep to a strict schedule and bedtime (especially once you’re out of the house or have kids) doing this most of the time may help any sleep disturbances from causing damage to your health or even becoming something permanent that you struggle with.
Now, how does that cup of chamomile tea with honey sound?