Sleep Well, Eat Well: How Nutrition Impacts Your Slumber

Sleep is an essential part of life, comprising one-third of our day. It is crucial for the optimum functioning of the body, including development, cognition and memory, immune function, psychological state, and overall well-being. However, sleep complaints are common in our fast-paced society. Many factors influence sleep, with nutrition being a key element that affects different aspects of sleep. This article examines the scientific research suggesting that certain foods and eating habits may impact sleep quality.

The Relationship Between Nutrition and Sleep

Poor nutrition has been shown to contribute to insomnia. Studies indicate that how and what a person eats can impact sleep duration and quality. Diets low in fiber, high in saturated fat, or high in sugar have been linked to less restorative sleep (Frank et al., 2017). Insufficient intake of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins has also been associated with poorer sleep quality. Additionally, caffeine and alcohol consumption can worsen sleep, while foods containing tryptophan, an amino acid, have been shown to improve sleep quality.

However, more research is needed to fully understand the impact of food choices on sleep. Recent analyses (Netzer, Strohl & Pramsohler, 2024) suggest that obesity, rather than specific foods, may significantly affect sleep. Obesity increases the risk of developing obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a sleep-breathing disorder associated with a lack of restorative sleep. Mealtimes can also affect a person’s body clock and sleep-wake cycle. The circadian rhythm, which determines the timing of food digestion and metabolism, is influenced by poor digestion, which in turn interferes with sleep.

Foods That Promote Sleep

While more research is necessary, some studies suggest that foods containing sleep-promoting components such as tryptophan, essential vitamins, melatonin, or serotonin may help improve sleep quality. These foods include:

  • Certain varieties of grapes and cherries, tart cherry juice
  • Kiwifruit
  • Fatty fish and seafood such as herring, mackerel, salmon, tuna, sardines, and trout
  • Milk and cheese
  • Eggs
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Diets high in vegetables

Foods That Disturb Sleep

  • Caffeine-Containing Foods and Drinks: Caffeine increases arousal, wakefulness, and counters fatigue and sleep. Consistent high caffeine use can chronically affect sleep patterns. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests a limit of 400mg of caffeine per day (equivalent to four cups of coffee), studies show that this amount significantly disrupts sleep.
  • Alcohol-Containing Foods and Drinks: Alcohol consumption leads to increased nighttime awakenings, poor sleep quality, and reduced sleep time. Chronic alcohol use is associated with chronic sleep disturbances. Alcohol consumption should be curtailed at least four hours before bedtime.
  • High-Fat and High-Sugar Foods: These foods can negatively impact sleep quality.
things to avoid for great sleep

Eating Better for Sleep

Consider the following evidence-based tips to see if changing your diet or eating habits can improve your sleep:

  • Regular Mealtimes: Mealtimes are social zeitgebers, environmental factors that affect your circadian body clock. Having consistent mealtimes can help stabilize your body clock, resulting in better sleep quality. Irregular mealtimes also contribute to obesity, which increases the risk of developing sleep disorders such as OSA.
  • Avoid Eating Too Close to Bedtime: Eating late at night or within two hours of sleep can result in less restful sleep due to poor digestion. Eating close to bedtime also increases the risk of acid reflux, which disrupts sleep.
  • Avoid Sleep Disruptors: Caffeine and alcohol disrupt sleep. Caffeine, found in tea, coffee, chocolate, and energy drinks, disrupts sleep even when consumed six hours before bedtime. While alcohol may help some individuals fall asleep faster, it affects sleep quality and causes more nighttime awakenings when consumed four hours before bedtime.
  • Balanced Diet: A balanced diet includes adequate amounts of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fruits, and vegetables. Whole grains improve sleep compared to simple carbohydrates or highly processed grains, such as choosing brown rice over white rice. Consuming too little or too much protein can negatively affect sleep. Finally, eating fruits and vegetables high in fiber and vitamins has been linked to better sleep.

Start making changes now

Understanding the relationship between nutrition and sleep can guide healthier eating habits to promote better sleep quality. By incorporating sleep-promoting foods, avoiding sleep disruptors, and maintaining regular mealtimes, individuals can improve their sleep patterns and overall well-being.

Sometimes, there may be other causes that affect our sleep. If you continue to experience persistent sleep difficulties, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. 

About The Author

Velda Chen is an experienced clinical psychologist in Singapore, with a particular interest in sleep disorders. She further trained to obtain a Master of Science in Sleep Medicine with Merit from the University of Oxford, Sleep & Circadian Neuroscience Institute.Velda practices at Mind Care Therapy Suites, working closely with our psychiatrists to provide comprehensive and personable care.

References & further reading

Frank, S., Gonzalez, K., Lee-Ang, L., Young, M. C., Tamez, M., & Mattei, J. (2017). Diet and Sleep Physiology: Public Health and Clinical Implications. Frontiers in neurology, 8, 393.

Netzer, N. C., Strohl, K. P., & Pramsohler, S. (2024). Influence of nutrition and food on sleep-is there evidence?. Sleep & breathing, 28(1), 61–68.

Pattnaik H, Mir M, Boike S, Kashyap R, Khan SA, Surani S (2022). Nutritional Elements in Sleep. Cureus. 2022 Dec 21;14(12): e32803