The Connection Between Nutrition and Sleep Health

By Ashley Little

Expert Insights from Tracy Owens, Registered Dietitian and founder of Triangle Nutrition Therapy and several other health expert contributors.


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, along with several other experts in the nutrition space 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 

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.


Alcohol

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.


Tea

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. 


Sugar 

“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 from the Experts

We called on several experts in the nutrition space to leave us with a few final tips on important diet considerations relating to your sleep health. Here’s what they had to say.

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 (and Other Minerals)

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. 

Dr. Jessica Nouhavandi, lead pharmacist, co-founder, and co-CEO of the accredited online pharmacy Honeybee Health, also emphasizes the importance of magnesium among other minerals.

“Among the mineral supplements, magnesium is the most commonly used as a sleep aid,” says Dr. Nouhavandi. “Additionally, phosphorus, iron, zinc, and selenium may play a role in sleep; deficiencies of these have been associated with higher rates of inadequate sleep.”

Dr. Nouhavandi recommends the following as a list of the best foods for getting more of these minerals include:

  • Phosphorus: dairy products, fish, meat, and poultry
  • Magnesium: dark, leafy greens, nuts, whole grains, soy, and bananas
  • Iron: meat, poultry, eggs, and whole grains
  • Zinc: oysters, shellfish, meat, and poultry
  • Selenium: nuts, fish, poultry, and dairy products

4. Take a Specialized Approach

“Other, more general and targeted individualized advice can also help,” says Mark Windle, qualified nutritionist from Edinburgh with a BSc Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Those who suffer heartburn / reflux easily should limit alcohol and caffeine intake as these stimulate gastric acid secretion. Symptoms can become worse at night-time due to increased secretion and for postural reasons (the anatomical position of the stomach when lying flat),” Windle says. 

“Fried and fatty food intakes, especially if taken near bed-time can also delay the time it takes for the stomach to empty, contributing to reflux symptoms whilst lying in bed, again affecting sleep. As well as making sensible food choices / avoidances as mentioned, reflux sufferers may benefit from pillows (or even bricks under the head of the mattress) so that the head and upper body is supported at a slight angle (even at 45 degrees),” says Windle.

5. Power Up with Protein

“After you get a good night’s sleep, it is important to maintain that rested and high energy feeling throughout the day,” says Triple board-certified, prominent Emory University-trained physician and Amazon #1 Best Selling Author of Keto-Green 16, Dr. Anna Cabeca.

“High protein foods boost levels of an amino acid called tyrosine, which activates the production of two brain chemicals – norepinephrine and dopamine. They elevate your energy levels, promoting alertness and activity. Eat a diet that is rich in protein, like nuts, seeds, chicken, lean meat, and fish,” says Dr. Cabeca. 

6. Optimize Your Vitamin D Levels

Dr. Cabeca also adds: “Make a point of eating a diet that is high in Vitamin D. Some foods with a high Vitamin D presence are as followed – tuna, salmon, egg, cheese, orange juice. One should also check your Vitamin D levels regularly and make sure they are in the desired range.”

7. Be Careful with Liquids Before Bed

“[I] suggest limiting your liquid consumption before bed so that you don’t have to wake up for the bathroom in the middle of the night,” says Dr. Jessica Nouhavandi.

“While a glass of wine before bed may help you relax and fall asleep faster, it could also disrupt your sleep quality later on during the night. Not only does drinking more make this effect worse, but alcohol consumption can also suppress your body’s melatonin production, throwing off your sleep cycle,” says Dr. Nouhavandi. 

8. Avoid Spicy Foods Before Bed

“Spicy foods have several health benefits including the ability to increase your metabolism,” says Leah Evert, a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and Exercise Physiologist that serves as the nutrition and fitness advisor to Parenting Pod.

“However, eating spicy foods close to bedtime can have a disruptive effect on your sleep. Spicy foods can cause indigestion and acid reflux that are made worse when lying down. It’s best to avoid these more than 4 hours before bedtime to avoid the potential side effects,” says Evert.


Expert Bios

Special thanks to the expert contributors who helped shape our expertise on the connections between sleep and nutrition.

Tracy Owens, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN

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.

Dr. Jessica Nouhavandi

Dr. Jessica Nouhavandi is the lead pharmacist, co-founder, and co-CEO of the accredited online pharmacy Honeybee Health (recently featured in the Wall Street Journal)

Mark Windle, BSc Nutrition and Dietetics

Mark Windle qualified from Edinburgh with a BSc Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics in 1993. He is a nutritionist with a twenty-seven year career in the NHS, in a range of clinical settings including general dietetics, health promotion, surgery, gastroenterology, and oncology. With a special interest in nutrition support and critical care research, he is the sole or primary author of a number of clinical research papers and commentaries in peer-reviewed nutrition and medical press including the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics (the journal of the British Dietetic Association) and Burn Care Research, Dietetics Today and Complete Nutrition. He was also commissioned to write the nutrition care in burns chapter for the fourth edition of the Manual of Dietetic Practice. Mark currently consults and writes for Fitness Savvy.

Leah Evert, RD

Leah Evert is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and Exercise Physiologist with over 15 years of experience. She currently works as the Director of Global Associate Wellbeing at Marriott International and serves as nutrition and fitness advisor to Parenting Pod.

Dr. Anna Cabeca

Dr. Anna Cabeca is a triple board-certified, prominent Emory University-trained physician and Amazon #1 Best Selling Author of Keto-Green 16.


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