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7 Healthy Diet Changes That Help You Sleep

We asked experts about the best food choices to help us sleep soundly.
FACT CHECKED BY Checkmark Kiersten Hickman
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From meditation and melatonin supplements to limiting your caffeine consumption and just plain counting sheep, you'll try just about anything to get a good night's sleep. But what you may not realize is that the secret to getting enough rest lies in what you eat—and in some cases, when you eat it. In fact, research has repeatedly shown that your diet and sleep quality are linked, meaning your diet changes can help you sleep. And vice versa—your sleep quality can impact your food choices.

"Sleep is incredibly important for helping to regulate hormones such as leptin and ghrelin—which influence appetite," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYOU.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. "We sometimes create a vicious cycle by not fueling our bodies properly, which makes us feel fatigued and leads to eating later in the day, which can then affect our sleep quality—and the cycle continues."

It's not just the foods you eat closer to bedtime that can affect your sleep—what you eat all day long can play a role in how long it takes you to drift off, how often you wake up during the night, and the overall quality of your sleep.

Fortunately, thanks to these healthy diet changes that help you sleep, you can easily catch those 40 winks. Here are some simple tweaks dietitians recommend making for better sleep, and for more healthy tips, be sure to check out our list of The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.

1

Eat breakfast.

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According to Jenna Gorham, RD, LN, skipping breakfast isn't an ideal move when it comes to sleep. A 2018 study actually found that perceived sleep quality and sleep onset tended to improve after participants ate breakfast compared with when they didn't eat anything in the morning.

"A balanced breakfast that is low in added sugar and offers fiber, healthy fat, or protein is best for managing energy and blood sugar throughout the day," says Gorham.

Gorham's top picks for a quick morning meal are Seven Sundays cereals and muesli mixes because they're low in sugar and use simple, quality ingredients. Or you could try one of these 13 Healthiest Breakfasts To Have, According to RDs.

2

Limit how much alcohol you drink at night.

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You already know that having an espresso or a cup of caffeinated tea isn't a good idea late in the day—but did you know that having a couple of after-dinner drinks can sabotage your sleep, too? Whereas caffeine is a stimulant that blocks the substance known for allowing you to feel sleepy, Gorham says alcohol may interfere with your sleep cycles—particularly REM sleep, which is a super important phase that stimulates parts of your brain involved in learning and retaining memories.

According to SleepFoundation.org, since alcohol is a sedative, it may help you to doze off faster. However, since you will likely fall into a deep sleep rather quickly, it can throw off your sleep cycles, creating an imbalance where you get less slow-wave sleep and more REM sleep, thereby decreasing the overall quality of your sleep. As a result, you're more likely to sleep for a shorter amount of time and experience more sleep disruptions.

Not only that, but alcohol is known to affect your body's natural production of melatonin—also known as the "sleep hormone."

That's not to say you need to swear off alcohol entirely, but needless to say, you might want to limit yourself to one drink in the evening, or swap it for a soothing cup of decaf tea. Here's What Happens To Your Body When You Give Up Alcohol.

3

Make sure you're getting enough calories.

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Experts agree that not eating enough—or not meeting your daily recommended values for certain nutrients—can definitely make it harder for you to get adequate rest.

"Our bodies often confuse hunger, thirst, and fatigue, so it's essential to consume well balanced, properly spaced meals and stay well hydrated to optimize our energy levels and sleep cycle," explains Harris-Pincus.

Gorham adds that your body is still working while you sleep, which is why it's important to ensure you're consistently supplying it with enough fuel all throughout the day.

"Depriving your body of adequate nutrition will make it work harder or make you feel hungry during the night and impact your sleep cycle," she adds.

Here's how to calculate How Many Calories A Week You Should Eat.

4

Be mindful of eating too close to bedtime.

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Studies have shown that eating late at night can sabotage your sleep—likely by inhibiting the natural release of melatonin, which plays a crucial role in regulating your natural sleep-wake cycle. Specifically, research suggests that eating within three hours of your bedtime increases the likelihood that you'll experience sleep disruptions—and this is especially important to keep in mind if you have acid reflux.

"If you are prone to experiencing heartburn, it's important to avoid eating within three to four hours of bedtime in order to minimize any sleep disruptions due to reflux symptoms," says Harris-Pincus. "You may also want to keep your evening meal lighter and limit fatty/fried foods and those [foods] known to be triggers like coffee, alcohol, carbonated beverages, chocolate, peppermint, spicy foods, and for some, acidic choices like tomatoes or citrus."

By the way—fatty foods don't just spell trouble for heartburn—they're also more difficult for your body to digest, and therefore may cause indigestion that makes it harder to drift off. Additionally, studies have found that a higher overall saturated fat intake is associated with less time in restorative slow-wave sleep.

Here are 7 Hacks For Curbing Your Late-Night Cravings.

5

Aim for a well-balanced diet with plenty of fiber.

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Experts say one of the best ways to make sure you get quality rest at night is to ensure you're getting all the nutrients your body needs—which means eating a diverse range of whole grains, protein sources, vegetables, and fruits.

"Many nutrients can support sleep, including calcium, magnesium, zinc, melatonin, and B vitamins," adds Gorham.

Colleen Christensen, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, says that fiber is an especially crucial component of a healthy diet when it comes to sleep.

"Diets low in fiber have been linked to shorter, less restful sleep," she explains. "An easy way to add more fiber to your day is to swap in whole-grain breads and pastas if you find them equally as satisfying."

One 2016 study found that diets low in fiber were linked to lighter, less restorative sleep with more frequent arousals. So, make sure you're getting your fill of fiber by reaching for foods like dark-colored vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and berries.

6

Snack smart.

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Ideally, you don't want to go to bed feeling stuffed—but you also don't want to feel any hunger pangs, either. If your stomach starts growling an hour or two before bed, experts say it's totally fine to have a snack so you feel comfortable enough to doze off. The important thing is to choose the right snacks that won't disrupt your sleep.

One of Harris-Pincus's top choices is prunes because they contain calcium, magnesium, and Vitamin B6—all of which are needed to produce melatonin and therefore can help promote sleep.

"Start with a couple of prunes about an hour before bedtime to make sure your tummy tolerates them," she advises. "Since prunes contain sorbitol, a sugar alcohol, they also help to regulate our digestive system and may lead you to use the bathroom which you don't want to have to do in the middle of the night."

Gorham, meanwhile, suggests a small bowl of warm muesli or cold cereal. However, she says it's worth checking the nutrition label to make sure you're opting for a low-sugar option, as the last thing you need is a boost of energy right before bed. Better yet, she recommends opting for a whole-grain cereal (such as an oat-based variety), because it's a rich source of both fiber and melatonin.

Another excellent option, according to Christensen, is a banana. Bananas contain serotonin, potassium, magnesium, and fiber—all of which can play a role in helping you to get a quality night's sleep. Christensen likes blending frozen bananas with lavender for a healthy treat that tastes like soft-serve ice cream. It's the ultimate sleepy time snack when you have a sweet tooth since lavender is known to promote feelings of calmness and relaxation. She also enjoys kiwis as an evening snack.

"They've been linked to improved sleep possibly for one reason due to their serotonin content," she explains. "They also provide folate which has been linked to improvements in insomnia."

7

Try drinking tart cherry juice.

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According to Christensen, tart cherries have a high melatonin content as well as anti-inflammatory properties that may have a beneficial effect on sleep.

In fact, you may just want to sip on it before bedtime: one 2010 study discovered that adults with insomnia fell asleep faster after drinking tart cherry juice.

Just be sure to opt for 100% tart cherry juice with no added sugar to reap the most snooze-promoting benefits.

Now you know the diet changes to make to help you sleep,  here are 26 Things to Do Before Sleep to Lose Weight.

Rebecca Strong
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health, nutrition, relationships, and a wide range of other lifestyle topics. Read more
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