sleep hacks for the best nights sleep in the whole wide world: food edition

13 Sleep Hacks [Food Edition]: For the Best Night’s Sleep in the Whole Wide World

Sleep: a Love Hate Relationship

Sometimes you just need a sleep hack.

It’s been a long, cold day. All you’ve thinking about the entire day is getting under the covers and going to sleep tonight. You’ve barely kept your eyes open the last few hours. You’re finally crawling into bed..but for some reason, once its finally time–sleep seems IMPOSSIBLE.

Sleep sounds so simple, but so many people struggle falling asleep or staying asleep each night.

Not only that, but numerous people wake up still feeling exhausted.

In my opinion, sleep is the most overlooked necessity for health. AND it’s the easiest. Well, usually. Sleep, proper nutrition, and movement are the keys to a healthy lifestyle.

The recommendation for adults is 7-8 hours of sleep each night. Sleep is considered adequate when there is no daytime sleepiness or dysfunction.

Sometimes, we need a sleep hack to make this happen. Monitoring food intake may help!

Don’t forget to grab your copy of my FREE 12-item Sleep Well Grocery List. This list contains my top 12 foods to include in your diet for better sleep—the ultimate sleep hack.

Catching Zzzs

To begin, sleep is controlled by the circadian clock, sleep-wake homeostasis, and willed behavior.

Sleep plays an important role in metabolic control in the body. Adequate sleep is a basic requirement not just for a healthy lifestyle but for survival.

In fact, sleep quality and duration directly impact inflammation. Inflammation and oxidative stress can be harmful to the body.

Poor sleep may attribute to cognitive and memory deficits. As well as, depression, anxiety, stress, irritability, and immune system dysfunction. Plus, an association has been found between reduced sleep duration and both metabolic disorders and obesity.

Sometimes it’s just so difficult to shut down your brain and relax. EVEN when you’ve been tired ALL DAY. Believe me, I know how frustrating this can be.

Common Sleep Hacks

Common remedies to aid in improved sleep include limiting electronics prior to sleep, essential oils, & calming music. While this may be true, sometimes these just don’t do the trick. Suggested lifestyle adjustments include regular exercise, limiting caffeine intake, and cutting out cigarettes and alcohol. Check out what Cleveland Clinic has to say on the topic here.

Wouldn’t you love to feel like you’ve had the best night’s sleep in the whole wide world?

 Evidence shows improved sleep quality and decreased time falling asleep with altered eating patterns.

Certain food and nutrient intake throughout the day may be a beneficial sleep hack.

Now, it can be a little tricky in research to determine causation. Such as, if food intake caused sleep quality or if a sleep pattern determined meal choices. However, researchers found increased levels of ghrelin (an appetite stimulant) and decreased leptin (the satiety hormone) while restricting sleep from participants. In other words, less sleep may lead to increased hunger and intake.

meal and snack intake is correlated with sleep quality

Sleep Hormones

First, lets review what makes our body sleep.

Melatonin is a major hormone produced for sleep regulation. Melatonin is produced in the brain from the break down of serotonin. 

In other words, melatonin helps us sleep.

Both melatonin secretion and sleep efficiency tend to decline with age.

Serotonin is a precursor to melatonin. Therefore, to produce melatonin our bodies need serotonin.

You might’ve heard of serotonin before. There is a link between this hormone to mood and happiness. It also plays a role in eating and digestion.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. It plays a role in the production of melatonin and serotonin. This protein is not made in the body and must be consumed in the diet.

Of note, tryptophan intake has led to sleep improvement in those with sleep disorders.

Sleep Quality

Sleep quality is simply how well you sleep. Believe it or not, we should feel well rested waking up in the morning.

Hours slept is an aspect of sleep quality but it is not the only factor.

Per Sleep.org, the standards for high quality sleep include:

  • Latency
  • Continuity
  • Efficiency
  • Timing
  • Alertness
  • Sleep Satisfaction

Basically, how quickly it takes to fall asleep, staying asleep, time of day, and feeling when awake.

The Role of Food on Sleep Quality

The Mediterranean diet pattern is linked to improved sleep quality. The Mediterranean diet focuses on healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, fish, and avocados. As well as, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Studies have shown older adults who frequently consumed vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruits, olive oil, and seafood slept better than their counterparts who did not.

There is an association between daily high energy intake and poorer sleep. Skipping breakfast and irregular eating patterns have also been related to decreased sleep quality.

In addition, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found the timing of meals and snacks can affect sleep quality. Researchers believe eating meals or snacks closer to sleep time negatively influences quality of sleep. The association was more significant in women and with higher calorie, higher fat foods.

Therefore, the nutrients associated with a good nights sleep do not necessarily need to be consumed directly prior to sleep in order to be effective.

Actually, it’s recommended to eat these foods throughout the day. Additionally, it is recommended to eat more than one hour prior to trying to sleep.

It is possible that pre-bedtime food consumption in those who typically do not eat before bedtime contributes to poor sleep. However, in those who eat before bedtime regularly, choosing the right nighttime snack may be important in modifying sleep quality.

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz 

Sleep Duration

Simply, the time spent asleep. As stated above, adults should aim for at least 7 hours of sleep nightly.

Those who sleep less are more likely to consume energy rich foods. Similarly, eat higher proportions of calories from fats or refined carbohydrates. As well as, consume lower proportions of vegetables and fruits. Finally, have more irregular meal patterns and consume snacks more often than those sleeping more.

Additionally, low sleep duration is especially typical in subjects with nocturnal lifestyles. Specifically, those who replace meals with snacks and consume most of their food in the later evening or night.

Moreover, there is an association between daytime sleepiness and increased caloric intake.

A link has been established between an overall unhealthy diet and shorter sleep duration plus irregular sleeping patterns.

A study analyzing data from NHANES*, found an association between difficulty maintaining sleep and lower food variety, food restrictions, and being on a special diet.

Falling Asleep

In an ideal world, we’d fall asleep when our head hits the pillow. Unfortunately, this is hardly ever the case. It can be so difficult to shut down our brains and emotions.

A study in Norway found a correlation between an overall unhealthy eating pattern with problems falling asleep. This includes increased intake of potato chips, candy, and soda.

Equally important, there is an association between improved sleep patterns and increased intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and water.

Diet Sleep Hacks

Let’s review the key vitamins and minerals to focus on for better sleep. Plus, 5 specific food sleep hacks.

Macronutrients

Some research has been conducted to determine the affect of macronutrients on sleep patterns. Are carbohydrate, fat, or protein sources a potential sleep hack?

To begin, there is mixed research on low and high carbohydrate diets or bedtime snacks on sleep quality. However, one study noticed shortened time falling asleep after a carbohydrate dense meal with a high glycemic index. This was compared with a low-index meal. The difference was by about 10 minutes. Learn about glycemic index here.

A second study found a trend toward sleepiness after a high fat, low carbohydrate morning meal. This was compared with a low-fat, high-carbohydrate meal. Also, a low protein, high carbohydrate breakfast induced more drowsiness vs a high protein meal.

Individuals following low carbohydrate diets have reported problems sleeping.

Furthermore, a connection has been found in teens with poor sleeping habits and increased intake of sugar and carbohydrates. The carbohydrates were likely refined carbohydrates.

As far as protein, consuming <19% of energy intake from protein was associated with difficulty initiating sleep.

Fat intake also has conflicting evidence on sleep. Even though very long-chain fatty acids play an important role in the production of melatonin.

Photo by Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush

Food Sleep Hacks

Soo.. what do we add to our diet for the best night’s sleep?

Foods with Melatonin

First, some foods naturally contain melatonin aka the sleep hormone. Melatonin is essential for sleep and regulates the sleep wake cycle.

Of course, the amount of melatonin will vary based on food and portion size.

Some examples include: milk, pistachios, rice, eggs, fish, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, grapes, strawberries.

Foods with Tryptophan

As stated above, tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin. Increased levels of tryptophan increase production of serotonin. Serotonin controls the sleep cycle, directly and indirectly.

Some everyday foods contain tryptophan.

Tryptophan has been shown to improve sleep in individuals. Which makes sense considering the amino acid plays a role in sleep regulation.

Interestingly, naturally occurring tryptophan, like in food, has shown to increase sleep time when compared to pharmaceutical tryptophan.

One study suggests by eating food rich in tryptophan at breakfast and exposing oneself to light during the daytime, the onset of nighttime melatonin secretion could be accelerated.

Examples include: whole and 2% milk, turkey, canned tuna, chicken, and oats.

Photo by Charlotte May 

B Vitamins

There are 8 B vitamins which are found in a variety of foods.

A study shows, patients with good sleep quality consumed significantly higher amounts of B vitamins when compared to those with poor sleep quality.

In this study, patients with better sleep quality were found to eat adequate meals and snacks throughout the day. Particularly, they had significantly higher intakes of vitamins B1, B6, and folate.

Not only that, the same study found those with decreased appetite had poor sleep quality. This can possibly be related to a vitamin or mineral deficiency.

Sources: yogurt, fortified breakfast cereal, dark leafy greens, fish, beans & chickpeas

Magnesium

Next, magnesium has been shown to affect sleep time and sleep quality. In fact, this mineral has the ability to enhance the secretion of melatonin by stimulating serotonin.

Magnesium deficiency may induce a pro-inflammatory response.

Food sources: almonds, cashews, bran, wheat germ, dark chocolate, sardines, beans, spinach, avocados

Antioxidants

Oxidative stress and inflammation may contribute to poor sleep. The solution to prevent or reduce oxidative stress? Antioxidants.

There is a correlation between decreased sleep duration and decreased antioxidants.

The major ingredients of the Mediterranean diet are rich in antioxidants. They also contain anti-inflammatory properties which helps to reduce inflammation in the body. As stated above, there is an association between the Mediterranean diet and improved sleep.

Antioxidant sources: berries, cherries, citrus, plums, beans, spinach, artichokes, oats, herbs

Calcium, Selenium, and Vitamin D

NHANES* revealed an association between low calcium intake and difficulty falling asleep. Plus, an increase in non-restorative sleep.

The same survey determined a correlation between low selenium intake and greater difficulty falling asleep.

Finally, this survey revealed an association between low vitamin D and difficulty maintaining sleep. In a different study, an association was found between sleep bruxism (teeth grinding)  and vitamin D deficiency.

Some sources: cottage cheese, eggs, oatmeal w/ milk, yogurt, canned tuna, sardines

Brazil Nuts are the highest source of selenium.

nuts--may be a beneficial sleep hack
Photo by Karolina Grabowska 

Five Specific Food Sleep Hacks

Equally important, some studies show specific foods leading to better sleep. One single food can be the sleep hack you need.

Milk

It’s an old remedy but milk consumption has been proven to increase time asleep of older adults. Milk provides calcium, vitamin D, selenium, protein, and naturally contains melatonin.

Interestingly, melatonin concentration increases significantly if cows are milked in darkness at nighttime.

Additionally, one study compared milk fortified with vitamin D to regular milk. Participants who drank fortified vitamin D milk showed improved insomnia symptoms. 

Various Studies have shown that malted drinks (such as Horlicks) and fermented milk can improve sleep.

Something else to note, studies have shown improved sleep duration when whole grain cereal and milk was consumed prior to sleep.

Fish

Fatty fish contains omega-3s and vitamin D which are important for regulation of serotonin. As stated above, serotonin aids in sleep regulation.

Studies have found the unique composition of fatty fish can lead to sleep efficiency and sleep quality.

A clinical trial studied the effect of salmon intake 3 times a week on sleep latency and efficiency. The results show sleep latency significant improved in those consuming fish. Fish consumption seemed to have a positive impact on sleep in general and also on daily functioning.

Yogurt

Yogurt provides similar vitamins as milk but with added probiotics.

A study showed improved sleep when students consumed yogurt one hour prior to bed. Sleep quality, sleep duration, and sleep efficiency improved in the group consuming yogurt. There was a decrease in sleep disturbances and sleep latency.

Kiwi

A study found consuming 2 kiwis 1 hour before bedtime can enhance sleep efficiency and time.

Kiwis are rich in serotonin. Not only that, this fruit contain a high level of antioxidants and folate which may promote sleep.

There is a link between folate deficiency and insomnia and restless leg syndrome. Therefore, the composition of a single food that contains antioxidants, serotonin, and folate may promote sleep quality and duration.

Tart Cherries/Tart Cherry Juice

Finally, tart cherries and tart cherry juice have been correlated with improved sleep. This is likely due to the melatonin and phytonutrient profile of tart cherries.

We also cant overlook the high antioxidant content of tart cherries.

A double-blinded study showed that fresh tart cherry juice, consumed twice daily, produced reductions in insomnia and reduction in time it took to fall asleep.

Another study found daily cherry intake resulting in increased sleep time and reduced awakening during the night.

Foods to Avoid for Better Sleep

As stated many times throughout this website, I am not a fan of limiting certain foods but rather adding foods to achieve goals. However, some evidence suggests certain foods can hinder ability to sleep.

Energy drinks, candy, sugar sweetened beverages, and refined carbohydrates are a few possible causes of poor sleep.

On top of that, some evidence suggests high intake of saturated fat can be a factor of poor sleeping habits. Foods include: butter, bacon, sausage, coconut oil, convenience foods.

Caffeine and alcohol intake can also negatively affect sleep.

foods to include to improve sleep: berries, nuts, spinach, yogurt, dark chocolate, grapes, milk
foods to avoids to improve sleep: sugar sweetened beverages, potato chips, sweets, caffeine

Conclusion

Well, it seems like mom was right. Research has shown milk to be the ultimate food sleep hack. It can improve sleep by increasing serotonin, better than many other food options.

As stated above, serotonin can regulate sleep through changes in melatonin concentration.

A few specific vitamin and minerals found in different foods may improve sleep quality. Not only that, a few specific foods may lead to better sleep.

Nutrient dense foods may lead to improved sleep. Such as, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plus adequate protein.

Similarly, foods that contain melatonin or tryptophan may improve sleep quality and duration.

A few nutrients to focus on: B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, vitamin D, selenium, plus, antioxidants.

On the other hand, there is an association between poor sleep quality and duration and unhealthy dietary habits. This includes increased intake of sugar and processed foods. There may be an association with increased calorie intake and poor sleep quality.

As always, more research needs to be done on the subject of sleep and diet. Still, some remedies are worth trying to see what is best for your own body.

Many other variables contribute to poor and good sleep. Food intake is only a portion of the contributions to sleep.

If you haven’t already, be sure to snag a copy of my 12-item grocery list of sleep enhancing foods.

Happy Sleeping!

Do you have a food sleep hack to share? Email me! MindMemoryNutrition@gmail.com

*NHANES: 2007–2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey

This information is research based but may not work for all individuals. Speak to your doctor before any significant changes in daily routine. Information on this website is not a substitute for personalized, medical advice.

coffee on a bed
Photo by: Taisiia Shestopal
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