When it comes to sleep, there’s a wealth of advice online about what you should or shouldn’t eat and drink at night.
But is there any evidence to support this advice, and can a change in diet really help you sleep better?
To an extent the answer might depend on your specific circumstances, for example:
- If you already have a healthy and well-balanced diet, then small changes may not make that much difference.
- If you don’t have such a good diet or eat certain high sugar/fat foods, then you might find that some changes to your diet could help a lot.
- For some people, even though they may be eating a healthy diet, it’s important to ensure you’re getting the right amount of nutrients and vitamins.
- For most people, there are probably some foods to avoid before bed.
In this article, I’ll give you some ideas about what might be good and bad food for sleep. Like a lot of sleep advice though, what works for one person won’t necessarily work for the next.
What does research tell us?
One of the most comprehensive reviews of the relationship between diet and sleep was carried out by researchers at the Universities of Pennsylvania and Chicago.
They based their analysis on the outcomes from very large sleep surveys, supported by reviews of other research findings.
Overall, they found that many aspects of your diet can indeed affect your sleep. If you’d like to know more about the findings of this and other studies, see my article about how a healthy diet can help you sleep.
It’s usually healthy food that might help you sleep
This might be the most important advice when it comes to food and sleep. If you eat healthy food as part of a balanced diet, then you should hopefully be giving your body and mind what they need to be healthy.
The Pennsylvania/Chicago Universities study also highlighted that many of the nutrients which affect sleep are also important for general health.
For example, people who had low levels of selenium also had more difficulty falling asleep.
Selenium is present in meats, dairy products, seafood, grains and nuts. It also plays an important part in initiating and improving immunity as well as in immunoregulation.
Thus it can help to prevent excessive body responses to infections, which could result in chronic Inflammation.
One of the other findings from various studies is that people who sleep badly are also prone to eating more than they need to. What’s not always clear is whether poor sleep leads to over-eating and bad diet, or a poor diet leads to less satisfying sleep.
I guess many of us after a bad night’s sleep have craved for a strong coffee and a pastry to help us get through the day. But if that becomes a regular habit, it could result in a vicious circle of poor sleep and higher calorie intake.
On the other hand, the researchers also showed that people who didn’t have sufficient variety or amounts of food during the day could also sleep badly. So a starvation diet is also not the answer.
What should you eat?
Low Glycaemic Index (GI) foods
It’s better to eat food which is low on the Glycaemic index before bed. This is because high GI food will raise the blood sugar faster, but really you want to keep blood sugar stable.
Some good examples of low GI food are: Wholewheat pasta, porridge, multigrain bread, brown rice, low-sugar wholegrain cereal, barley, buckwheat, peas, beans and lentils.
Most vegetables are also low GI, and you should include plenty of fruit and vegetables in a low GI diet.
You can eat dairy products like milk, cheese and eggs too as well as fish and lean meat. If you’re eating these in the evenings, try to avoid higher fat content – so low-fat dairy options are better for helping you sleep.
It’s not really that low-fat food helps you sleep, but more that high-fat food can keep you awake.
Again, try to have a balanced diet. This is why it’s important to include vegetables, some fat and protein in your evening meal, so you avoid the roller-coaster of carbohydrate ups and downs.
Food containing calcium
Food containing calcium can help you sleep because a lack of calcium can show up as a factor involved in stress and not being able to relax.
Sources include dairy products like cheese, milk and yoghurt. You can also find it in Kale, lentils, oats, almonds, seeds, tofu and soya.
Food containing Magnesium
Magnesium has been recommended by many nutritionists as aiding relaxation of both the body and mind.
So it’s another great mineral to keep in mind when preparing evening meals.
You can find magnesium in almonds, so with their high calcium content as well, almonds are high up the list of food that may help you sleep.
Magnesium is also found in dark leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and broccoli. You’ll also find it in good quantities in black beans, seeds, pumpkin and squash, okra and plantain.
Tryptophan, serotonin and melatonin
Food containing the amino acid tryptophan may help you sleep. Tryptophan is used by the body to make serotonin which is then used to make melatonin.
Melatonin is the hormone which plays an important part in sleep through helping to regulate our body clock.
Food that contains tryptophan includes bananas, which are another good source of magnesium.
So bananas are another great evening snack. You can also find it in animal meat like chicken, turkey, tuna, shrimp, sardines, cod, scallops and eggs. And it can be found in rice, oats, seeds, nuts and beans like black beans and kidney beans.
Researchers have discovered that cherries, particularly the tart variety like Montmorency, help the body produce melatonin, so they could also a useful addition to the insomnia shopping list.
Get your vitamins
Following on from the importance of tryptophan, B vitamins have a role to play because they are involved in the biological processes involving tryptophan, serotonin and melatonin.
So eating animal proteins, oats, nuts, avocados, bananas (they just keep cropping up!), green vegetables, whole grains and yeast extract might be worth considering.
It’s also important to get enough vitamins D and C.
Foods that are good for getting vitamin C include dark leafy greens, broccoli, kiwifruit, berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, peas, and papayas.
On the other hand, vitamin D doesn’t really come from food and the best source is getting sufficient exposure to daylight and, if possible, sunshine.
It’s important to stay hydrated by drinking enough plain water. It might not stop you falling asleep, but dehydration can result in lower quality sleep and feeling sleepy the next day.
But interestingly, the researchers emphasize the importance of drinking plain water as opposed to other liquids.
What food should you avoid before sleep?
You probably noticed that everything listed so far is fairly healthy food. There’s no high sugar content food listed and this is the key really.
Try to avoid food which is processed – think brown rice, pasta or brown bread instead of white bread. Stay away from sweet treats and snacks.
Very spicy food is also good to avoid late in the evening.
The closer it gets to bedtime, the lighter your evening meal should be. If you live in a country where the main meal of the day is lunch, or in the afternoon, then you’re doing the right thing where sleep is concerned.
For those people used to dinner being the big meal, try to keep it a minimum of 2-3 hours before bed time – more if possible. If you have to eat late, keep it light.
Here it’s not just about the type of food. A big meal just before bed can increase your body temperature as your body works hard to digest the food. But ideally, you want your body temperature to be lowering before going to sleep.
High-fat diets bad for sleep
Virtually any health publication will tell you that a high-fat diet is bad for you. The usual reasons quoted are related to weight gain or bad cholesterol and the consequent increased risk of health problems, such as diabetes and heart attacks.
Research published in April 2016 in the Nutrients Journal has again shown that high fat diets can also have detrimental effects on your sleep. Researchers from the University of Adelaide looked at the eating habits and sleep of 1,815 men in Australia over a 1 year period.
They found that those with a high fat diet suffered from two common problems:
- More daytime sleepiness.
- A significantly higher probability of having sleep apnea.
They also found that these increased risks weren’t directly associated with having a higher body-mass index. This suggests that the high fat intake itself may be the problem, rather than weight gain.
The researchers concluded that the high fat diet may interfere with your internal body clock, resulting in disruption to sleep.
What are good bedtime snacks?
Of all the types of food listed above, not many immediately spring to mind as good bedtime snacks. Unless you’re a bodybuilder in which case a can of tuna on toast if often mentioned as a good bedtime snack.
Some examples of good bedtime snacks would include: a bowl of cereal (low sugar), a banana, cottage cheese on toast, a handful of nuts, a yogurt or a peanut butter sandwich.
You should try to eat at a stable and sensible rate throughout the day. If you eat too much before bed then that can keep you awake. But if you go to bed feeling hungry, that can also stop you from falling asleep easily.
Try to keep your blood sugar balanced and steady throughout the day. Sugar spikes are not helpful for falling asleep.
So a bar of chocolate in front of the television just before bed might be appealing, but for many, it can result in a long wait to fall asleep.
So although there’s no miracle wonder food that can cure insomnia, if you stick to a normal healthy and balanced diet you may well find it can make a big difference.
I suggest that you try not to eat heavy, sugary, spicy or very fatty food before going to bed. If you do feel like a light snack before going to sleep, there’s nothing wrong with that.
You could try picking something from the food discussed in this article and use your imagination to come up with a good light snack.
For many people it might well be a matter of trial and error. You could try keeping a sleep log or use a sleep tracker to see what works for you.
I’d be interested to hear if you’ve found any specific food that helps you sleep or indeed stopped you sleeping. Please feel free to share your experiences with others by adding any personal tips you have in the comments box.