How A Healthy Diet Can Help You Sleep

photo of healthy food example

Have you noticed that on the days you eat healthily, you sleep better? And do you find that when you sleep badly, you tend to eat more junk food the next day to keep you going?

If you’re not the best of sleepers, it can be very helpful to assess your diet to see if there’s anything that might be affecting your sleep. With a few simple changes, you might find your sleep improves, as well as your overall health and wellbeing.

In this article, you’ll find out what researchers say about the way your diet affects your sleep. There are some surprising ideas which could make a big difference to the quality of your sleep.

Research showing how food affects sleep

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the diets of people with different sleep patterns. They analyzed data from a large survey in the United States to see what differences they could find.

They split the data into four groups, based on the length of time the individuals reported sleeping for. Below is a summary of some of their key findings about the eating habits of each group.

The very short sleep group:  less than 5 hours per night

  • Ate the most carbohydrates.
  • Drank the least tap water.
  • Ate the least amount of Lycopene (found in red and orange colored foods).

The short sleep group: 5-6 hours per night

  • Didn’t eat as many calories as the very short group, but still significantly more than the standard group.
  • Less vitamin C in their diet.
  • Less tap water than the standard group.
  • Less Selenium (found in nuts, meat and shellfish).
  • More Lutein (found in leafy green vegetables).

Standard group: 7-8 hours per night

  • Less calories than the short sleep groups.
  • More tap water than the short sleep groups.

Long sleep group: 9 or more hours per night

  • Consumed the least amount of calories in their diets.
  • Consumed the least amount of carbohydrates.
  • Less Theobromine (found in chocolate and tea).
  • Less Dodecanoic acid (a saturated fat).
  • Less Choline (found in eggs and meats).
  • Consumed more alcohol (see the article on alcohol’s effects on sleep for more about this).

photo of burger and chipsThe researchers found many dietary differences when comparing the different groups to the standard group of 7-8 hours, which is the recommended amount of sleep for adults.

However, the main differences were around these key areas above, such as water and carbohydrate intake.

They also found that people in the very short sleep and long sleep groups had less food variety in their diets. This would back up the standard advice that having a balanced, healthy diet is best for good sleep.

How different dietary elements affect your sleep

In addition to the above, the study also tried to identify how the different dietary elements impact on:

  • How quickly people fall asleep.
  • How well people sleep based on awakenings.
  • How restorative their sleep was.
  • How sleepy they felt the next day.

The table below shows the main results of their research. Many of the nutrients also play an important part in your general health, and again it comes down to ensuring you have a balanced diet.

I’ve deliberately used the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in the table, rather than good and bad, as in most cases you still need a certain amount of each element or nutrient.

Thus for each aspect, for example falling asleep, the positive nutrients appeared to help, whilst too much of the negative nutrients made things worse.

Dietary nutrients which effect sleep


Helps falling asleep

PositiveNegative
alpha carotenehexadecanoic acid
selenium
dodecanoic acid
calcium

Helps staying asleep

PositiveNegative
butanoic acidsalt
carbohydrateshexanoic acid
dodecanoic acidtoo much liquid
vitamin D
lycopene

Helps better restorative sleep

PositiveNegative
calciumbutanoic acid
vitamin Ctoo much liquid
plain watercholesterol

Reduces daytime sleepiness

PositiveNegative
potassiumtoo much liquid
plain watertheobromine

Does diet affect sleep, or sleep affect diet?

examples of healthy foodThe researchers recommended that future research attempts to unravel the chicken and egg question their results present. Does your diet affect your quality of sleep, or does sleep affect your choice of food?

It’s important to work out the link between a healthy diet and sleep; short sleep duration and sleep disorders are associated with negative health outcomes, such as weight gain and obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

For example, a 2003 poll by the American National Sleep Foundation showed that 77% of older adults with obesity experience some kind of sleep problem. Many of which are sleep related breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea.

Sleep affects your choice of food

Some studies have shown that short sleep can impact your dietary choices the next day. A French study in 2010 found that men who had 4 hours sleep consumed the next day 22% more calories than men who had 8 hours sleep.

There have been a number of studies looking into the reasons why diet affects sleep and dietary choice. A german study in 2008 found that the hormones Leptin and Ghrelin were affected by short sleep, resulting in increased feelings of hunger.

And an american study uncovered what happens at a genetic level when people are sleep deprived. They found that there are a large number of genes directly affected by sleep deprivation, which affects the immune system, stress response and metabolism.

So it would appear that your diet can affect your quality of sleep. But your quality of sleep can also affect your diet.

It’s therefore especially important to try and stick to a healthy diet, even when you feel especially tired. And to continue making other efforts to improve your quality of sleep.

For further advice, have a look at the article discussing food that can help you sleep, and also the section on sleep hygiene advice for ideas of ways to improve your sleep naturally.

And the next time you sleep badly and have to decide what to eat the next day, try to remember that drinking water and making healthy food choices is the best way to ensure you don’t have another bad night’s sleep.

Your thoughts

Have you noticed how particular food and drink affects your sleep? Do you find that when you sleep badly, you tend to drink more caffeine and eat less healthily?

Leave a comment below with your thoughts!

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I definitely eat more the day after a disturbed or bad-sleep night. I find myself craving all the “wrong” foods, and often giving into these cravings. This involves a trip to the store to get these “wrong” foods as we don’t really keep them at home. I’m not overweight but I was once – decades ago – so I’m conscious of what I eat daily.

    • Hi Celia
      Thanks for your comment. I can understand completely, and often find myself with the same urges! It’s good that your conscious of this though. Perhaps you could try keeping a bowl of healthy food available in the house, such as nuts, seeds and dry fruit.
      Regards
      Ethan

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