What we eat and drink during the day can influence the time it takes to fall asleep, the duration of sleep, the duration of deep sleep phases and ultimately the quality of sleep. There are foods that have a stimulating effect and foods that help you to rest. The composition of your diet can also play a role. In this article, you will learn how you can adapt your diet to sleep faster and better and be more refreshed in the morning.
How can our diet influence our sleep?
We can influence our sleep both directly and indirectly through diet. Food components such as caffeine have a direct effect on our sleep, while diet has an indirect effect through the regulation of other sleep-related factors. In terms of sleep regulation, a number of neurotransmitters have been identified that are linked to the sleep-wake cycle. Therefore, dietary interventions that impact these neurotransmitters in the brain may also influence sleep.
Let’s start with the general composition of our diet and its influence on sleep. A large epidemiological study in the USA showed that people who sleep short periods (<7 h) have a more one-sided diet and consume less protein, carbohydrates and dietary fibre, while consuming more fat than people who sleep >7 h (Grandner et al., 2013).
These findings are supported by intervention studies that observed a higher intake of snacks when sleep duration was reduced (Nedeltcheva et al., 2009). It should be noted that epidemiological studies cannot examine causality or the direction of the relationship between variables.
Although these studies found a relationship between sleep and diet, it is not known whether sleep influences dietary intake or dietary intake influences sleep. Other studies in which daily nutrient intake was intentionally altered suggest that a high-carbohydrate diet leads to shorter sleep times, a high-protein diet leads to fewer wake-up episodes, and a high-fat diet can negatively affect total sleep time (Afaghi, Connor & Chow, 2008; Grandner et al., 2010; Lindseth & Murray, 2016; Lindseth, Lindseth & Thompson, 2013; St-Onge et al., 2016).
However, as the results of many studies also contradict each other, it is currently not possible to make a definitive statement about the influence of individual macronutrients and the composition of the meal on sleep.
Caffeine is one of the best-known stimulants and is consumed daily by many people in coffee, tea, cola or in energy drinks. Various studies have shown that caffeine negatively affects various aspects of sleep quality, such as the time it takes to fall asleep, the time it takes to wake up after sleep onset, sleep efficiency and sleep duration. Studies on athletes have also shown adverse effects on sleep quality and recovery ability after various doses of caffeine (Clark & Landolt, 2017; Dunican et al., 2018; Nédelec et al., 2015).
However, how strongly a person reacts to caffeine varies from individual to individual. While some people can no longer sleep after a cup of coffee, others fall asleep without a problem. Individual differences in performance and adverse effects on sleep after caffeine intake can be attributed to genetic variations related to caffeine metabolism. Other factors, such as daily caffeine intake, may also play a role in differences in response between individuals (Guest et al., 2021).
Since caffeine has a half-life (time until half of the caffeine is broken down in the body) of 4-6 hours on average, it is recommended to stop caffeine consumption in the afternoon. If you have problems falling asleep, it is better to avoid stimulating drinks such as coffee and cola or energy drinks relatively early in the day.
Alcohol is a commonly used “prescription free” sleep aid. In healthy individuals without alcohol dependence, acute alcohol consumption reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the quality and quantity of REM sleep in the first half of the night. However, sleep is severely disrupted in the second half. Although alcohol-related sleep problems have significant economic and clinical consequences, very little is known about how and where alcohol affects sleep (Thakkar, Sharma & Sahota, 2015). The fact that sleep is severely disturbed, especially in the second half, means that it is not recommended to consume alcohol to support sleep.
Melatonin is a hormone that can influence the sleep-wake cycle because it provides the body with information about the daily cycle of light and darkness. As a result, it has a sleep-promoting effect (Halson, 2014). A meta-analysis reported a 7.2 minute reduction in sleep onset latency with melatonin supplementation and concluded that while melatonin appears to be safe for short-term use, there is no evidence of efficacy for most primary sleep disorders (Buscemi et al., 2005).
Melatonin is found in foods including sour cherries. For this reason, there are some studies that have investigated the effect of sour cherry juice. Howatson et al. (2011), for example, investigated the effect of concentrated sour cherry juice on sleep quality. The data collected suggest that consumption of a sour cherry juice concentrate causes an increase in exogenous melatonin, which improves sleep duration and quality in healthy men and women and could be useful in the treatment of sleep disorders.
While the studies conducted so far are promising, no studies have yet been conducted to determine if there are any negative side effects of introducing high amounts of sour cherry juice into the daily diet. For example, about 2 dl of sour cherry juice also contains 25 grams of sugar.
Micronutrients can be important for sleep as they may be involved in the way the brain regulates sleep. Although scientific research in this area is minimal, a recent review suggests that there is a link between sleep duration and micronutrients, with sleep duration positively associated with iron, zinc and magnesium (Ji, Grandner & Liu, 2017). Since supplementation of individual vitamins and minerals is only recommended in cases of deficiency, it is more important to eat a varied diet with lots of different fruits and vegetables as well as grains. This way, many vitamins and minerals can also be supplied.
Despite intensive study searches and reading, I could not find any studies that confirm that a larger meal before sleep can significantly influence sleep. Only the reverse reaction could be shown, namely that larger meals are consumed during sleep deprivation (Hogenkamp et al., 2013). Possibly in order to supply the body with more energy. There are also hardly any results on the time between the last meal and sleeping.
How can you eat to sleep better?
Although the research is minimal and inconclusive, some practical recommendations can be made regarding diet and sleep:
- Eat regular balanced meals that contain carbohydrates as well as protein and vegetables/fruits.
- Consume a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains, as each type contains different vitamins and minerals.
- Consume fat within the recommendations (30% of energy intake)
- Stop consuming caffeine from early afternoon onwards
- Sour cherry juice can possibly improve sleep, but the high sugar content should also be taken into account
How eating behaviour affects sleep can be very different. Something that is good for one person can prevent another from sleeping. It helps to observe your body’s reactions to certain foods or eating habits, especially in the case of sleep disorders. People who want to improve their sleep should focus first and foremost on optimal sleep hygiene. Eating a balanced and healthy diet can further increase the chances of a good night’s sleep.
Would you like to learn more about mental coaching, nutrition and performance? Make sure to check out our mYindset articles!
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