Food and Sleep: How Food Promotes (or Interrupts) Great Sleep
by: Ingrid Prueher, Holistic Sleep Coach
Many things can interrupt a healthy sleep cycle — eating too late or too much food; consuming alcoholic beverages too close to bedtime; not having a consistent sleep schedule; and not getting enough exposure to natural light.
If you’re one of the millions of Americans suffering from sleep deprivation, don’t give up hope. You can get back to satisfying, restorative sleep. And it can be through making good food choices. By eating the right foods at the right times, and ensuring you have proper intake of sleep-enhancing vitamins and minerals, you can feel rested and raring to go each morning.
The Stages of Sleep
Before we get into what foods and vitamins support sleep, let’s look at the stages of sleep and how these stages — especially Stages 3 and 4 — rejuvenate the body and mind, and promote good health.
When we consistently sleep soundly, we go through four sleep stages, according to most sleep experts today. Stage 1 is the transition or calming phase when the body and brain relax and start to slow down. This is the briefest of the four stages. During Stage 2, we experience a drop in body temperature, our muscles relax, and our breathing and heart rate slow down.
Stage 3 is the deep sleep and restorative phase of sleep, which many sleep experts consider to be the most physiologically important phase. During Phase 3, our bodies release human growth hormone (HGH), which is vital to cellular renewal, and tissue is repaired. It’s when we, especially children and adults who work out during the day, experience bone and muscle growth. It’s also the phase in which the immune system is fortified. When we are experiencing good sleep, we spend the most time in deep sleep during the first half of the night. Without the deep sleep that occurs in Phase 3, we may gain weight.
During Stage 4, REM sleep, brain activity picks up. Our brains process emotions and memories. This phase is believed to be essential to supporting cognitive functions like memory and learning.
The good news is that you can improve your progression through each sleep stage. Food — what we eat not only before bedtime but also throughout the day — has a huge impact on sleep quality and this progression. It has the power to promote sleep that helps us recuperate and recharge.
Simple Rules to Sleep By
There are many foods and vitamins that support healthful sleep. Here are a few simple rules to consider:
- Eat foods rich in tryptophan, magnesium and B vitamins.
- Don’t eat a heavy meal closer than three hours before bed.
- Eat a light snack up to an hour before bed if you’re genuinely hungry.
- Don’t go to bed hungry.
- Avoid acidic foods, which can cause digestive interruption.
Tryptophan, Magnesium and B Vitamins
Look for foods high in tryptophan. It’s an amino acid that affects the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. We need serotonin to produce melatonin, which is a sleep-inducing hormone. Tryptophan is found in foods including eggs, dairy, meat, seafood and nuts like almonds and walnuts.
Most of us are deficient in vitamins B6 and B12, and magnesium, all of which are known to improve sleep, so eating foods rich in these vitamins and this mineral is essential to our well-being. Additionally, a magnesium supplement may be helpful. Both capsule and liquid forms are available. I recommend the liquid form. Take a dropper full in the morning and early evening a few hours before bed – not right before bed. Give it time to help the body relax.
Don’t Eat a Heavy Meal Closer Than Three Hours Before Bedtime
As we age, the production of digestive enzymes slows down. So, eating a heavy meal closer than three hours before bedtime can impact sleep because the digestive process can keep you awake. Other risks of eating large meals right before bed are acid reflux, indigestion and heartburn. Giving the body time to digest before bed can reduce the risk of developing these problems.
Sometimes, we may not be able to follow this rule – maybe you’re working late, for example. In this case, it’s good to have something like a sweet potato, which is filling and high in potassium, vitamins A and C, and fiber. Soup is another good, easily digestible choice, especially if you make it yourself from wholesome ingredients full of vitamins and fiber.
Avocados (a good source of fat, which you need to feel full), barley, brown rice and dark leafy greens, which have magnesium, are also tasty foods that are more easily digested than meat.
If You’re Genuinely Hungry, Eat a Proper Snack Up to An Hour Before Bedtime
It’s important to understand our relationship with food. We need to be aware of what we eat during the day and why. Are we genuinely hungry or is it coming from an emotional place? Are we eating to numb emotions or out of boredom?
If you’re not sure, start a food journal. If you’re eating to nourish the body and getting the sleep you need, you’ll crave less sugar and carbs, which can lead to weight gain. When we’re sleep-deprived, we feel hungry and often go for carbs like bread, which convert to sugar and, instead of feeling energized, we crash, which leads us to eat more carbs and impacts sleep. It can become a vicious cycle but, with time, thought and preparation, you can break that cycle.
Here are some good examples of healthy snacks to eat up to an hour before bedtime:
- A handful of almonds or pumpkin seeds, packed with magnesium
- Garbanzo beans, rich in magnesium and vitamin B6
- A half of a banana, rich in potassium, alone or with a spoonful of peanut butter
- Chamomile and other herbal teas
- Flax seed crackers and almond butter
- Whole grain toast with cashew or almond butter
- Granola and yogurt
- Cucumber and almond butter
- Kale chips
Kale chips are one of my family’s favorite snacks, and they are super easy to make. Here’s a quick and easy recipe I like. I get fresh, organic kale from my local grocer. First, I remove the leaves from the thick stems and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces. I wash and dry them thoroughly – I like to use a salad spinner. Then, I drizzle olive oil over the kale and sprinkle it with seasoning salt. I line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, spread the kale in one layer and bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes, until the edges are brown. Kale chips are easy to make, and delicious – and my kids love them, too.
Of course, kids can eat later and it won’t affect their sleep as much. They’re growing muscle and bone, and burn calories more quickly than adults do.
Preplanning Is Crucial
It’s important to have the right meals and snacks on hand. If you’re hungry, you’ll eat what’s around, so be sure good, healthy options are available. You may be on the go and forget about food until you’re famished. Then, you’ll probably grab the quickest, easiest to make food rather than something that will nourish the body and give you prolonged energy.
One mom I’m working with told me that she’d taken her children to the playground and forgotten to bring snacks. The kids were physically exhausted after playing, and they were hungry. There was a package of candy in the car, which the kids ate and, for a few minutes, they felt better but then — you guessed it — big meltdown. Fresh or dried fruit and nut butters come in handy in times like these.
It’s Not Just What You Eat But Where You Eat, Too …
No matter how enticing it is to eat in a comfy bed — don’t. For proper digestion, it’s better to be in a seated position, ideally at a table, and not in front of a TV or with other distractions. Eat mindfully. If you’re “present” when you eat, you’ll make better choices and stop eating when you’re full.
Eat to Sleep
With a few simple changes and being mindful of what and when you eat, you can experience the restful, restorative sleep you need to live a healthy, productive life.
For more information and some great recipes, check out two of my favorite resources: “Eat to Sleep: What to Eat and When to Eat It for a Good Night's Sleep -- Every Night” by Karman Meyer (Adams Media, 2019) and “Eat to Sleep: 80 Nourishing Recipes to Help You Sleep Well Every Night” by Heather Thomas (Ebury Digital, 2018).