photo of some healthy foods with the words "how a healthy diet can help you sleep better" written on top

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

If you’re not the best of sleepers, it can be 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 difference to the quality of your sleep.

Research showing how food affects sleep

In 2013, 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.
photo of burger and chips

The researchers found many dietary differences when comparing the different groups to the standard group of 7-8 hours, which is a recommended amount of sleep for many 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.

Below you’ll see 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’, rather than good and bad, as in most cases you still need a certain amount of each element or nutrient.

1. Helps falling asleep

Positive

  • Alpha-carotenee
  • Selenium
  • Dodecanoic acid
  • Calcium

Negative

  • Hexadecanoic acid

2. Helps staying asleep

Positive

  • Butanoic acid
  • Carbohydrates
  • Dodecanoic acid
  • Vitamin D
  • Lycopene

Negative

  • Salt
  • Hexanoic acid
  • Too much liquid

3. Helps better restorative sleep

Positive

  • Calcium
  • Vitamin C
  • Plain water

Negative

  • Butanoic acid
  • Too much liquid
  • Cholesterol

4. Reduces daytime sleepiness

Positive

  • Potassium
  • Plain water

Negative

  • Too much liquid
  • Theobromine

Does diet affect sleep, or sleep affect diet?

The 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 obesity and heart disease.

The problem is that despite numerous studies over the years demonstrating the association between sleep and diet, sleep experts are still trying to work out the causal effect.

As researchers in New York in 2016 noted when they reviewed a number of studies involving diet and sleep, more research is needed to clarify some of the positive results emerging:

Some foods, such as milk products, fish, fruit, and vegetables, also show sleep-promoting effects, but studies have been too diverse, short, and small to lead to firm conclusions.

However, they do make one final conclusion which perhaps makes life a little easier for those of us trying to understand what we should or shouldn’t eat if we want to do everything possible to sleep better – just eat healthily.

It is comforting to note that the findings reported herein are in line with other dietary recommendations for health in the general population: increasing fruit and vegetable intakes, choosing whole grains (higher in fiber), and favoring vegetable oils (low in saturated fat)

So the next time you sleep badly, try to remember that making healthy food choices might be a simple and practical way to reduce the risk of another bad night’s sleep.

Your thoughts

Have you noticed how 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 thoughts on “What Researchers Say About Healthy Diets And Sleep”

  1. 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.

    1. 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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