Nutrition and Sleep

Nutrition and Sleep

Your diet is a significant part of your overall health. Poor nutrition is a factor in many conditions including excess body weight, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers, musculoskeletal problems, and poor quality sleep.  

The Western diet is very common in the U.S. and other developed countries. It lacks fruits and vegetables and contains large amounts of red meat, high-fat dairy products, refined grains, and high-sugar and highly processed foods.

Dietary Factors Affecting Sleep

Many people don’t realize that evening eating can affect sleep. Sleeping is important for rebuilding cells, muscle growth, tissue repair, and hormone synthesis…but not digestion! 

Food and drinks, and the timing of eating/drinking, may contribute to sleep problems.

Gastroesophageal Reflux/Acid Reflux

Heartburn, cough, and hoarseness are symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux (GERD/GORD). They can occur at any time, but when they occur at night (nighttime reflux), they often contribute to trouble sleeping.

The acid produced by the gastrointestinal (GI) system helps break down food. When lying down, undigested food moves upward, worsening acid reflux or heartburn. The pain that occurs may make it difficult to sleep.

Foods, drinks, and ingredients that are associated with acid reflux include:

  • Acidic/citrus fruits

  • Tomato-based foods (e.g. sauces, chili)

  • High-fat foods (e.g. fried food, bacon, sausage)

  • Spicy foods

  • Chocolate

  • Caffeine

  • Alcohol

  • Carbonated drinks

  • Peppermint

Insulin and Melatonin

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that lowers your blood sugar. It is released in response to eating all types of food, especially carbohydrates.

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. It is produced by the pineal gland, located deep within the brain. Melatonin levels increase at night.

Melatonin appears to play a role in blocking insulin secretion during the night. That means there is less insulin available to lower your blood sugar. Because of this, eating large meals near bedtime results in higher blood sugar levels. And, higher blood sugar levels can interfere with sleep.

It’s best to avoid eating large meals close to bedtime. This practice interferes with sleep,  results in prolonged high blood sugar, and increases the risk of developing diabetes. It’s much better to eat during the day when lower melatonin levels don’t interfere with insulin secretion.

Alcohol

Some people seem to fall asleep after 1 to 2 alcoholic drinks due to alcohol’s sedative effect. However, sedation isn’t the same thing as sleep. 

  • Studies have shown that alcohol can reduce deep REM sleep, which is replaced with light sleep

  • Alcohol also fragments sleep. You may wake up through the night, reducing continuous sleep  

Caffeine

Caffeine is one of many stimulants that interferes with sleep. It can block the sleepiness signal (adenosine) in the brain. 

One 16-ounce (448 mL) serving of brewed coffee has up to 500 mg of caffeine. Studies show that 400 mg of caffeine even 6 hours before bedtime can disrupt sleep

In order to prevent caffeine from disrupting sleep, you should avoid caffeine for at least 6 hours before bedtime. Along with coffee, watch for caffeine in other beverages, foods, and medicines. Other caffeine-containing products include some:

  • Teas, energy drinks

  • Energy bars

  • Chocolate

  • Over-the-counter pain relievers and weight-loss medicines

If sleep is a problem for you, you may find that food quality and timing of meals contribute to the issue.

Nutrition for Better Sleep

Foods For Sleep

Avoiding some foods, such as sugar and processed carbohydrates, can lessen sleep problems. Having foods and supplements with certain substances can also help lessen sleep problems:

  • Minerals (Calcium, Magnesium, and Potassium) - These are relaxation minerals that can be calming and help with falling & staying asleep

  • Melatonin - Regulates the body's sleep-wake cycle

  • Tryptophan - Helps produce melatonin as well as serotonin (a brain chemical that promotes sleep)

  • Vitamin B6 - Helps produce melatonin

  • Fiber - Linked to deeper, more restorative sleep

Foods With Sleep-inducing Substances

Having foods in your diet with sleep-inducing substances, like tryptophan and melatonin, can help improve sleep problems. Some of the foods include:

  • Vegetables, fruits

    • Dark, leafy greens (e.g. Romaine lettuce)

    • Cherries or tart cherry juice, unsweetened

    • Bananas

    • Kiwi

    • Carrots with hummus

  • High-fiber foods

    • Beans (e.g. navy, pinto, black)

    • Nuts and seeds

    • Popcorn (may add nutritional yeast for extra vitamin B6)

  • Proteins

    • Fish

    • Lean turkey breast

  • Dairy/non-dairy alternatives 

    • Warm milk 

    • Almond milk

  • Other

    • Chamomile tea

The Mediterranean Diet

There are various diets that can help you achieve good nutrition and maintain a healthy body weight. One of the most effective ones is the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet may also be associated with better sleep quality, duration, and fewer insomnia symptoms.

The Mediterranean diet is based on traditional eating patterns of countries surrounding the Mediterranean sea, like Greece, Spain, and Italy. 

It has a high proportion of fruits and vegetables (phytonutrients); a moderate amount of chicken, fish, eggs, and milk products; minimal red meat; and processed foods. It also includes healthy fats (e.g. omega-3 fatty acids), vitamins and minerals (micronutrients), and fiber. 

More Healthful Diet Information

If you can:

  • Eat organic, local, seasonal, fresh food 

  • Eat free-range, grass-fed meat; limit to 1-2 times per week

  • Select wild-caught seafood

  • Have grass-fed free-range eggs; limit to 4 or less per week

  • Have plant-based protein sources every day

  • Look for minimally processed foods

  • 100% whole grain breads are best

Foods to Include for Sleep

  • Seafood: Tuna, salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines, anchovies, shellfish

  • Healthy oils: Flax seed oil, avocado oil, and olive oil

  • Grains, breads, and cereals: Whole-grain bread, pasta, and cereal; bulgar, farro, quinoa, oats, and buckwheat; brown or wild rice

  • Fruit: Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, oranges, apples, cherries, bananas, grapes, kiwi (preferably organic)

  • Vegetables: Leafy greens, tomatoes, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, onions, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, avocados, sweet potatoes (preferably organic)

  • Legumes: Beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas

  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, cashews, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds

  • Herbs and spices: Ginger, turmeric, garlic, chili pepper, oregano, cinnamon, rosemary, cloves, cumin, paprika

  • Tea: Green and herbal teas

Foods to Limit for Sleep

  • Red meat: Beef, pork, lamb

  • Processed meats: Bacon, deli meats, sausage, hot dogs, ham, jerky

  • Unhealthy oils: Corn, soy, sunflower, safflower, canola, and peanut oils

  • Simple carbohydrates: Sugary breakfast cereals, white bread, rice, and flour

  • High-sugar foods: Desserts, sugary drinks, pastry

  • High-fat dairy: Milk, butter, cream, cheese, ice cream

  • Fried foods: French fries, fried chicken, fried fish, fast foods

  • Excessive alcohol and salt

Healthy Meal Ideas

When you prepare your own meals, you can include healthy foods and avoid unhealthy ones. Here are some examples to get you started.

Breakfast

  • Eggs

    • 2 hard-boiled eggs with ½ avocado on 1 slice of whole-grain rye, barley, or sourdough bread

    • 2 scrambled eggs with turmeric 

    • 2 poached eggs with smoked salmon and avocado

  • Oatmeal (rolled and steel-cut oats are higher in fiber than quick oats) with:

    • ½ cup (120 g) of berries and 2 tablespoons (20 g) of sunflower seeds

    • ½ cup (120 g) of unsweetened applesauce, 2 tablespoons (20 g) chopped almonds, and a dash of cinnamon, nutmeg, or pumpkin pie spice for extra flavor

    • ½ teaspoon (2.5 g) unsweetened cocoa powder and 1 teaspoon (5 g) of nut butter

  • Cocoa chia pudding (cocoa powder with chia seeds mixed together with any type of milk), and refrigerated overnight with 2 tablespoons (20 g) of chopped walnuts and ½ cup (120 g) raspberries

  • Energizing protein smoothie with 1 tablespoon (15 g) unsweetened cocoa powder, ½ cup (120 mL) almond milk, 2 tablespoons (20 g) peanut butter or almond butter, ¼ cup (60 g) oats, 1 to 2 tablespoons (15-20 g) flaxseed, and ½ to 1 cup (120-240 mL) water or almond milk to blend

Lunch or Dinner

You can prepare these meals or some of the ingredients ahead of time. You can store them for up to 3 days in the refrigerator or freeze them for later use.

  • Bean chili

  • Healthy soups

    • Mushroom and barley

    • Pumpkin

    • Lentil

  • Healthy protein, vegetable, and starch meal

    • Grilled or sautéed fish or chicken breast with roasted, grilled, sautéed, or stir-fried vegetables

    • Quinoa, sweet potato, or squash

  • Vegetable curry or stew with a side of quinoa

  • Vegetable ratatouille with a side of bulgur or barley

  • Build a salad

    • Start with a base: arugula, spinach, and/or kale

    • Pick a protein: tuna, hard-boiled eggs, chickpeas, black beans, edamame, cottage cheese, and/or grated cheese

    • Add some color: sweet potatoes, mixed bell peppers, mushrooms, beets, and/or celery

    • Add some crunch: chopped walnuts, sliced almonds, and/or roasted chickpeas 

    • Top with a dressing or healthy fat: avocado, olives, flaxseed, hemp seed, olive oil with dried herbs, and/or pesto 

Snacks

  • 1 serving of Greek yogurt

  • 1 serving of fruit

  • ¼ cup (60 g) of raw unsalted nuts

  • Carrots with 2 tablespoons (20 g) of  hummus or guacamole

  • ½ ounce (14 g) dark chocolate

  • 1 cup (240 g) cooked edamame 

  • ½ cup (120 g) cottage cheese with 1 serving of fruit

  • 1 cup (240 mL) goat milk yogurt with live cultures and 7 almonds

  • 1 baked pear or apple with cinnamon, nutmeg, and walnuts

  • 2 dates with ¼ cup (60 g) raw unsalted nuts

Eating Out

Even though restaurant food may be challenging, you can still maintain your healthy diet. It is easier when you plan ahead. You can call the restaurant to ask questions or review their menu online. 

Here are some ideas to consider, depending on the type of cuisine.

Italian

  • Cioppino, a fish or mixed seafood stew combined with fresh tomatoes in a wine sauce. Ask if the base contains heavy cream; if so, request the dish without it

  • Baked or grilled chicken or fish with a side of vegetables. Ask if it can be prepared without butter and cream

  • Whole wheat pasta dish. Ask for olive oil or vegetable (marinara) sauce and the addition of vegetables

Asian

  • Order sushi with vegetables and salmon or tuna

  • Request brown, instead of white rice

  • Try miso soup or seaweed salad

  • Ask for low-salt soy sauce

  • Avoid  tempura and sweet and mayonnaise-based sauces

Indian

  • Many spices used in Indian cooking are healthy (e.g. clove, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric)

  • Try curry or dal (lentil- or garbanzo-based dish)

  • Avoid dishes with added cream

  • Order chicken or fish tandoori - tandoori is an Indian cooking method using a traditional clay oven

  • A great side dish is palak paneer (Indian cottage cheese cooked with spinach and spices)

Fast Food And Quick-Service

  • Burgers, chicken, and sides

    • Choose grilled instead of fried chicken

    • Skip the cheese, sauce, and bacon

    • Instead of French fries, choose a side salad with low-fat dressing

    • Have the burger without a bun

    • Avoid soda and milkshakes

  • A taco salad with leafy greens, beans, guacamole, salsa, and a lean protein is a good option

  • Chicken or seafood fajitas are a healthy choice since they have grilled, lean protein and a variety of vegetables

Take-along Snacks

When you’re away from home, take a healthy snack with you. Make sure you check the portion size and ingredient list. Some excellent choices are:

  • Dark chocolate bars (2-3 squares of dark chocolate) *More cacao is better - aim for at least 70%

  • Protein/energy bars (choose those with only a few ingredients) 

  • Snack-size nut butters

  • Snack-size nuts or trail mix 

  • Seeds

  • Popcorn

Think about how you can make your own mixes. You can create combinations of dark chocolate pieces, almonds, sunflower seeds, popcorn, cashews, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and so on.

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