Nutrition and Sleep

By Ashley Little

People may be surprised to learn about the close connection between nutrition and sleep. What we eat and when we eat can have a strong impact on our sleep health. 

Mattress Advisor called on the expertise of Tracy Owens, Registered Dietitian and founder of Triangle Nutrition Therapy, to answer all of our questions about how what we put into our bodies can lead to good (or bad) sleep.

In this guide you will find all our resources relating to how foods and drinks can impact your sleep. 

Foods and Drinks that Impact Your Sleep

They don’t say you are what you eat for nothing! The foods you consume can impact your physical health, mood, and even how well you sleep at night. 

Some foods that are known to harm your sleep are fats, carbs, and spicy foods. Fat takes the longest to digest. That’s why Tracy recommends avoiding high-fat, high-carb, greasy foods before bed — they often make you the most uncomfortable and take longer to break down.

Spicy foods may cause sensations of burning. If that’s the case, you may want to avoid these foods before bed so you can get comfortable.

Learn more about foods and drinks that can help or harm your sleep and why in our resources below. 


Caffeine is the most common culprit for interrupted sleep when it comes to diet. Caffeine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant that affects everyone differently. 

In fact, just as you can develop a tolerance to alcohol, you can also become tolerant to caffeine the more you drink it (which is no reason to increase your intake). That’s why a person who doesn’t consume caffeine every day might be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed at 11 pm even if they had a cup of coffee at lunchtime.

However, the effects of caffeine go much further than exposure to the drug. Genetics can also affect how the body responds (or does not respond) to caffeine intake.

“With DNA testing, we can see people’s gene markers for caffeine. Some people are slow metabolizers of caffeine, meaning it stays in their system longer. Others are fast metabolizers,” Tracy informs us.

Because caffeine causes different reactions in different people, nutritionists can’t give hard and fast advice on consumption parameters. Tracy’s recommendation, regardless of your tolerance, is to avoid drinking caffeine after 3 pm. This is in part because caffeine has a half-life of six hours.

The half-life of caffeine explains how long the drug stays in your body. This means that if you drink 100 mg of caffeine at 3 pm, then at 9 pm (six hours later) 50 mg will still remain in your system. At 3 am (another six hours later) 25 mg will remain, and so on.

If you are having trouble sleeping, you should definitely look into caffeine consumption as a factor.


If you have had a glass of wine or a couple of beers recently, you probably noticed that the alcohol made you sleepy. 

In fact, you may even argue on nights you consumed alcohol it was easier to fall asleep. That’s because alcohol is a depressant that slows the central nervous system. But this is all a facade because alcohol keeps us from getting the deep sleep we need.

“All the research we have on alcohol definitely shows it can make it harder for you to go into a deeper sleep. Although it can make us sleepy, the rest we get isn’t as deep — it’s not REM sleep,” Tracy shares with us.


People have been drinking herbal teas for centuries to relax and relieve stress. Teas with specific ingredients can help promote sleep not only by helping you relax, but even by increasing the amount of time you spend in REM sleep. 

The best ingredients for nighttime teas include chamomile, valerian root, lemon balm, and lavender. Just be sure you pick teas with no caffeine, otherwise that defeats the point. 

Learn more about how tea helps you sleep and find the best teas for sleep below. 

Keto Diet Foods

The ketogenic diet, also known as the keto diet, is a popular trend that requires eating foods that are low in carbohydrates and high in fat. Many people choose to adhere to the keto diet for weight loss purposes, but it can have some harmful effects. 

You may have heard of the keto flu, but did you know the keto diet can also affect your sleep? Many have trouble sleeping after starting the keto diet. The reason for this has to do with how your body adjusts from burning glucose to burning ketones and leaves you with new levels of energy during the day. 

Learn more about how the keto diet could make you lose sleep and what to do about it below.

Fast Food

Fast foods have a long list of harmful effects, but for some reason we just can’t stop pulling up to our favorite drive-thrus. Let’s face it, it’s tasty, addicting, and too convenient to give up. But fast foods, especially when consumed late at night, can rob you of a good night’s sleep. 

Learn more about the impact of fast food on your sleep below. 


“All people react to sugar differently. The main thing with sugar is that it doesn’t do us any good at all,” Tracy says.

Sugar is known for causing a spike in energy that’s followed by a crash. That’s because it momentarily boosts blood sugar. Depending on when consumed, sugar can have you wired before bed or ready to flop face down on your pillow.

However, the biggest impact sugar has on sleep is that it increases inflammation, which is the exact opposite of what sleep does—restoration.

Here’s Tracy’s point of view: “[Sugar] is a contributor to inflammation which is the culprit behind all sorts of diseases — autoimmune disorders, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes. Anything that increases that inflammatory process, making us sicker, is not restorative and sleep is all about restoration.”

Why Eating Before Bed Could Disrupt Your Sleep

At some point or another, you’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t eat too close to bedtime. We wanted to see if there was any truth to that statement, so we asked our expert. According to Tracy, the answer is yes and no, for a couple of reasons.

  • Your body is too busy digesting to wind down: “If you eat a large amount of food too close to bedtime, then your body is busy digesting. This makes it harder to rest and get good sleep,” Tracy says.
  • It makes you uncomfortable: “Physically being full can make you uncomfortable, which can also make it hard to get to sleep,” she explains. If you suffer from heartburn or acid reflux, eating too close to bed can trigger these problems. This makes it difficult for you to get comfortable and relax so that you can fall asleep.

While it’s important to be aware of possible discomfort from eating too close to bedtime, there is no hard and fast rule that says you shouldn’t eat after a certain time.

“Your body is working 24/7. It doesn’t clock in and clock out when it comes to digesting food. But it is important to be aware of what your body is doing after you eat,” Tracy tells us. If you are hungry before bed, it’s fine to have a snack. Just choose something easy and light or opt for a glass of warm milk.

Nutrition Tips for Better Sleep 

1. Eat a Well-Rounded Diet

“Don’t get into the habit of eating the same food every night, even if it’s healthy. Expose yourself to all the different types of fruits, vegetables, and proteins because each one is so full of nutrients. One nutrient can do so many important things, so we need to get all of them,” Tracy explains.

Picture it like this: “Our body and nutrients work together like a symphony. When everything is working together in the right order, at the right time, it’s beautiful. But when things start to get out of tune, then the whole thing can go down,” Tracy tells us.

Although nutrients come from a variety of sources, they all work together. When we miss out on even a few, things can get out of whack.

2. Incorporate a Source of Melatonin to Your Diet

“Melatonin is key,” Tracy says. “It is the hormone whose function is to calm and relax you.”

Although our body produces melatonin, there are certain foods we can eat to increase production of the hormone or are a source of the hormone itself.

Our bodies need calcium, B6 and magnesium to make melatonin. “It’s important to not only eat foods that have melatonin in them directly, but to eat foods that supply our bodies the ingredients needed to make it.”

If you want to consume something that contains it directly, “tart cherry juice has the highest concentration of melatonin out there,” Tracy says. Research shows if you drink 8 oz. in the morning and 8 oz. in the evening, it can greatly improve your sleep. 

What about melatonin supplements? Tracy comments that while a melatonin supplement can help, it doesn’t work for everyone. It’s much better to get it naturally from the food you eat.

3. Make Sure to Eat Magnesium

Magnesium’s function is to deactivate adrenaline; thus, calming you. “People with restless leg syndrome are often times magnesium deficient,” Tracy tells us.

Try incorporating a good source of magnesium into your diet. It can be found in green, leafy vegetables (spinach in particular), fish, nuts, dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and more. 

Tracy Owens MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, founder of Triangle Nutrition Therapy, is a Registered Dietitian that received her Masters of Public Health in Nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is one of approximately 750 Board Certified Specialists in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). Tracy is passionate about providing personalized nutrition strategies that help prevent, improve and sometimes reverse many common medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, diabetes, heart disease and many more. She also loves working with athletes to provide accurate and beneficial sports nutrition strategies so they can compete at their very best.

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