What you eat and drink can affect how well you sleep – and how well you sleep affects what you choose to eat and drink. Creating a healthy eating-sleeping cycle can make a big difference to your health and wellbeing.
- When you are tired, you make poorer food choices than when you sleep well. For example, you may eat more often or choose foods that are high in sugar or fat.
- Your food choices may also affect how well you sleep. Less nutritious foods, such as high sugar or low fibre carbohydrates, may reduce your sleep quality.
- There are also foods that can help you get better sleep and may break the poor-diet poor-sleep cycle.
How poor sleep affects your food choices
When you are tired, you are more likely to eat more than you need to and make poor food choices, which can lead to weight gain.
Not getting enough sleep or having poor quality sleep is associated with increased snacking and irregular meals. You are also more likely to eat fewer vegetables and instead opt for high-fat, high-sugar foods. In fact, the higher the calorie the food is, the more appealing it is to a sleep-deprived brain! It’s not surprising then that there is a link between poor sleep and obesity.
Making good food choices can be a challenge for anyone with sleep problems, such as insomnia, obstructive sleep apnoea and restless legs syndrome, and also for shift workers and sleep-deprived parents. If you have one of these sleep conditions, see your doctor for advice.
How what you eat and drink affects your sleep
While the effect of what you eat and drink on your sleep isn’t as well understood as how sleep affects your food choices, there is some evidence to support a link between the two.
Researchers have found that eating and drinking poor quality and highly processed carbohydrates, such as noodles, sweets, energy or sugary drinks, are associated with poor sleep quality. Eating more high-quality carbohydrates (such as whole grains), fish, colourful vegetables and following a Mediterranean-style eating plan can improve sleep quality.
Other studies have found that foods containing tryptophan (an amino acid) can help synthesise serotonin and melatonin – and may help to promote sleep.
Caffeine is a stimulant and can have a negative effect on your sleep by making it harder for you to fall asleep. This delay in getting to sleep can shorten your overall sleep time. Read more about sleep and caffeine.
Alcohol may help you relax and fall asleep in the short term but, over the night, it inhibits the sleep process and can prevent you from getting deep, restful sleep.
What food and drink will help me to sleep well?
Based on current evidence, eating the following foods daily can improve your chances of a good night’s sleep:
- Follow a Mediterranean eating plan, which includes plenty of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, fish, olive oil and less red meat and processed foods.
- Include protein foods that contain tryptophan, such as chicken, eggs, cheese, fish, peanuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, milk, turkey, tofu and other soy products.
- Choose high-quality carbohydrate foods, such as wholegrain breads and cereals, brown rice and oats.
- Eat plenty of fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruit.
What should I eat or drink less to sleep well?
Reduce your intake of these foods and drinks to help improve the quality of your sleep:
- highly processed carbohydrates, such as refined noodles, sweets, energy or sugary drinks
- spicy foods, especially if you're prone to heartburn
- caffeine within 6–8 hours of your bedtime – this includes coffee, tea, energy drinks and chocolate (including hot chocolate drinks)
- too much liquid just before bedtime (it makes you wake often to go to the loo!).
What food and drink should I avoid before bedtime?
If you’re still having trouble getting to sleep, try these ideas:
- High protein foods may assist sleep when eaten about 1 hour before bedtime, for example:
- fortified and/or melatonin-rich milk drinks (eg, Horlicks)
- yoghurt with oats sprinkled on top
- crackers with peanut butter or a slice of cheese or turkey
- apple with a small slice of cheese.
- Tart cherries and kiwifruit have also been found to improve sleep quality and length in some small trials.
Note: there is no evidence that probiotic supplements or chamomile tea improve sleep.
Shift work, sleep and diet
If you are a shift worker, eat your main meal before you go to work and have a light snack when you get home. Take healthy snacks to work with you and drink plenty of water but limit how much caffeine you have. Read more: 10 nutrition tips for shift workers Dietitians of Canada, 2013
- Sleep patterns, diet quality and energy balance Physiology & Behavior. 2014 July; 134:86–91.
- The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain Nature Communications. 2013;4:2259
- Effects of diet on sleep quality Adv Nutr. 2016 Sep;7(5):938–949.
- Diet promotes sleep duration and quality Nutrition Research. 2012 May;32(5):309–319.
- Sleep and caffeine Sleep Education, US, 2013
- Alcohol and sleep – effects on normal sleep Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2013 Apr;37(4):539-49.
- What is tryptophan? HealthLine, 2018
|Julie Carter works as a liaison dietitian for the Auckland District Health Board. She has an interest in public health nutrition.|