Fueling Your Sleep: Explore the Connection Between Nutrition and Sleep Health

April 6, 2023

Valerie Cacho MD

Imagine knowing there’s this magical pill out there. It can improve memory, your ability to learn and receive information, mood, your ability to handle issues, metabolism, heart health, immunity, and so on — guess what, we all have free access to this magical pill! Can you guess what it’s called? It’s four letters. That’s right, it’s sleep! –Via New York Times 

Sleep is vital for our overall well-being and everyday life, but things like the foods we eat can positively and negatively affect our sleep. The wrong foods can result in snoring, more awakenings during the night, and even restless leg syndrome. The right foods can improve both the quality and duration of our sleep. 

What are we without our health, and what is our health without a good quality of sleep? Keep reading to learn more about the four stages of sleep and how the foods we eat can impact our sleep health.

Here are the four stages of sleep:

Depending on how long you sleep, you could cycle through these stages four to six times per night. 

Stage 1

This is one of two stages of light sleep. It happens towards the end of the day, when you’re on the couch or starting to lie down and begin to feel drowsy. You notice you’re starting to feel tired, your breathing slows down, and your muscles relax. 

Stage 2

Still considered light sleep and are characterized in the sleep lab by K complexes and sleep spindles on electroencephalography. People with insomnia may not perceive they are sleeping in this stage as it is a light stage of sleep.  

Stage 3

In stage 3 your body slips into a deep, restorative sleep. During this period, our brain toxins get cleaned out and restored. This is also when diet comes into play, a bad diet can disrupt your quality of sleep which in turn can affect your brain sleep. 

Stage 4

Now your brain transitions into REM sleep, also known as rapid eve moment sleep. This is an active form of sleep, where your brain waves are moving fast but the body is paralyzed, meaning you aren’t physically acting out your dreams. 

How does sleep change as we get older?

It’s normal for our sleep patterns to shift as we get older and experience life and take on more responsibilities. The gold standard is 7 to 9 hours of sleep for adults; however, you may find that you operate best at 6.5 hours. It’s important to figure out for yourself how much sleep you need for the level of activity you have the following day. 

As we age, we may experience less REM sleep. We also suffer from lower levels of melatonin. What is melatonin? It’s a natural hormone that releases in your brain when it’s dark and helps regulate your sleep stages. Certain foods can impact your melatonin levels.

What is the connection between sleep and food?

The food we eat during the day can affect our sleep performance. Meanwhile, last night’s sleep can also affect what you feel like eating during the day. It is almost a game of what came first, the chicken or the egg? When we don’t get an adequate amount of sleep (less than 6 hours) we tend to eat differently. When you don’t sleep as long, you have more time to graze. Additionally, food you may normally munch on during the day like chips can taste better at night (think of post-drinking snacks, you probably are craving a slice of pizza over a salad). 

Healthy food is fuel and energy, and can help you stay awake throughout the day. Cortisol can affect our stress levels, which in turn can affect our sleep and possibly increase our blood sugar levels. When you aren’t sleeping enough, your ghrelin hormones, aka hunger hormone, can spike causing your appetite to grow. On the flipside, the hormone leptin can make you feel full and decreases your appetite. 

The foods you eat can affect these hormones, which can have a direct result on your sleep health. Hence why, it’s so important to know what you should or shouldn’t eat during the day and especially before bedtime.

Foods TO eat before bed:

  • Pay attention to foods that come from the earth like berries, grains, and greens 
  • Kiwis have a high level of antioxidants (lots of vitamins!) and serotonin 
  • Tart cherries have high anti-inflammatory properties and can even alleviate symptoms of severe insomnia 
  • Milk may help with restless leg syndrome because of its high intake of vitamin D and B; it also boasts a high level of melatonin
  • Diets rich in fiber can lead to better sleep and slow wave sleep
  • Foods high in iron like spinach, nuts, lentils, and dark chocolate (can help decrease chances of restlessness) 
  • Herbs such as lavender, rosemary, and chamomile help the brain relax. You can find these in teas and even in aromatherapy 
  • Stick to low saturated oils when cooking
  • Foods that can uptick your tryptophan levels

Foods to AVOID before bed:

  • Diets high in sugar and saturated fat (think desserts and fast foods) can lead to more sleep interruptions and sleep awakenings 
  • Alcohol can disrupt the sleep stages, especially the REM cycle, can lead to a poor quality of sleep, and even result in snoring — stay away from night caps! 
  • Caffeine, the stimulant can be active in your system for anywhere from 1.5-9 hours+ depending on the person. It can reduce your overall sleep time and efficiently, worsen perceived sleep quality, result in less slow wave sleep and more awakenings at night. 
  • Be mindful of energy drinks, too
  • Decaf coffee and teas have less caffeine, but can still disrupt your sleep stages. Try cutting post-afternoon caffeine from your diet. Try switching to herbal teas instead.

Without good quality sleep it’s harder to do other things that are crucial to your overall wellbeing like exercise and eating healthy. When you’re tired, staying on the couch and ordering fast food sounds more appealing. Prioritizing a healthy amount of sleep (typically between 7-9 hours) will have a positive effect on other aspects of your life.

Want to learn more about the connection between food and sleep? Check out this article where nutritionist Tanya Stricek teaches us a mindful approach to nutrition and sleep.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *