A good night’s sleep is something most people take for granted — until it stops happening. Diet and lifestyle play a more prominent role in sleep than many people are aware. Often a few changes here and there can keep you from tossing and turning or asking for sleeping medication.
Adults require at least seven hours of sleep each night for good health and well-being. Unfortunately, at least one-third of adults have insomnia and regularly get less than that, notes the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (1). Insomnia is defined as:
Having trouble falling asleep
Waking frequently during the night
Waking too early and not being able to fall back asleep
Having restless, poor quality sleep
About 10% of adults have such severe insomnia that it affects their daytime activities. Middle-age women tend to have the most problems with sleep (1).
In addition to affecting your mood and ability to think clearly the next day, chronic insomnia affects one’s health too. It increases the risk of mood disorders, impacts food choices, disrupts hormones, weakens the immune system, and often contributes to elevated blood pressure, glucose levels, lipids, and abdominal weight gain (2).
If your patients have or are at risk for these health conditions, it’s essential to talk about the importance of sleep and review how diet can impact it.
Food and Sleep Problems: More Than Caffeine
Many are familiar with the effects of too much caffeine from coffee, tea, or a chocolate dessert close to bedtime. Still, they may not be aware that their macronutrient mix, and overall diet pattern can affect sleep. For example, late-night eating can keep you up as your body has to work to digest that food. Drinking alcohol may make you feel drowsy, but it tends to cause more disrupted sleep.
Eating a high glycemic diet may also keep you up. A study on more than 3,000 Japanese women found those who ate a high carbohydrate diet from sweets and noodles reported more sleep problems than those who ate more vegetables and fish (3). One explanation is that high levels of glucose promote insulin production. That, in turn, could release hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, glucagon, and growth hormone, which counteract sleep hormones.
Sleep-Promoting Nutrients and Foods
The sleep cycle is controlled largely by fluctuations in levels of certain metabolites, hormones, and neurotransmitters in your brain. Some of these include:
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
Specific nutrients are essential for producing and regulating these neurotransmitters. Supplements can be helpful sometimes, but research suggests that it’s better to obtain these nutrients from food instead. Here are some foods and nutrients that can promote better sleep:
L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid, is needed to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of calm and relaxation. Serotonin is a precursor to melatonin. Diets that are low tryptophan are linked to worse sleep patterns (4). Tryptophan is in a wide range of foods, but it’s especially high in:
Nuts and seeds
Several studies have found tart cherry juice helps increase sleep time and quality. That may be because tart cherries have some tryptophan, and they’re also rich in melatonin. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Therapeutics found a dose of 240 ml of tart cherry juice taken in the morning and at bedtime improved sleep quality in older adults (5). Keep in mind drinking that much juice could add significant calories, so eating tart cherries might be a better choice.
Other foods that have melatonin include:
Glutamine is another amino acid. It works with the help of vitamin B6 to synthesize GABA, a sleep-inducing neurotransmitter. There’s some debate about whether GABA from foods or supplements can cross the blood-brain barrier. Still, some choice foods provide an extra GABA boost along with glutamine and vitamin B6 to further support production of GABA in the brain. These include: (6)
Spinach, kale, broccoli
Buckwheat, oats, and other whole grains
Fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut)
Micronutrients, especially magnesium, zinc, and vitamin D, are also linked with sleep patterns. These and other vitamins and minerals are cofactors in the production of many sleep-related neurotransmitters. So, it makes sense that optimizing these can potentially help improve sleep quality and length of sleep. A 2019 NHANES study found men and women who reported shorter amounts of sleep had a lower intake (dietary and supplements) of magnesium, calcium, vitamins A, C, D, E, and K (7).
Another Reason to Go Mediterranean
If you’re looking for one diet pattern that can put you to sleep easier, look to the Mediterranean diet. It easily includes all of the dietary recommendations mentioned here — and there’s a large body of evidence to support its benefits for improving sleep. Better adherence to the Mediterranean diet improves sleep quality in every adult age group studied, including older adults, menopausal, and pregnant women (8,9,10,11)
Based on the research, those who can make any healthy diet pattern a permanent part of their lifestyle will likely have less insomnia. And chances are, they’ll also enjoy numerous other health benefits like a healthy weight and reduced risk of many chronic diseases — which might just help them to sleep a little more soundly.