A full night of sleep isn’t just at the top of every adult’s wishlist— it’s also the key to optimal health. A recent study published in the Diabetes Care journal found that irregular sleep can increase the risk of obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension, high blood sugar, and “other metabolic disorders.” Even one hour of sleep difference from day to day can cause health problems!
This same study found that irregular sleep patterns led to higher caloric intake. It’s no secret that our food choices and sleep are inextricably linked— after all, your eating patterns are synced up with your circadian rhythm, which also dictates when you sleep and wake.
Certain foods can disrupt your sleep, leading to poor nutrition choices and perpetuating a cycle of unhealthy sleep. Conversely, choosing the best foods before bedtime can actually improve your sleep quality, helping you fall asleep faster and stay asleep all night.
Worst Foods for Sleep
Those with digestive issues like GERD or acid reflux should limit their snacks to at least 3 hours before bedtime to avoid inflammation. They should also stay away from acidic or spicy foods before bed since these can amplify reflux symptoms.
Even if you don’t have reflux or indigestion, there are some foods that anyone would do well to avoid before bed because of their effect on the body.
Consuming caffeinated beverages including coffee, tea, and chocolate close to bedtime can actually reverse the sleep process your body initiates as soon as the sun goes down. Caffeine is a stimulant— one study found that “consuming caffeine 6 hours before bedtime reduced total sleep time by 1 hour.”
High doses of caffeine can result in nausea, increased heart rate, increased breathing, and tremors— all things that can lead to sleeplessness and insomnia. Be wary of energy drinks or other foods with caffeine too close to bedtime, since they are almost guaranteed to keep you awake past bedtime.
Eating foods high in unhealthy fats can trigger overeating, and a too-full stomach is not only uncomfortable, but it can lead to acid reflux. Studies published in 2007 and 2012 found that those with diets rich in fat experienced more fragmented sleep. In short, eating fatty foods too close to bedtime disrupts the delicate circadian rhythm our bodies rely on.
Foods high in fat such as rich meats, ice cream, or potato chips, take much longer to digest. When your body digests sugary or fatty food, it prompts the release of insulin, which can signal your body it’s time to be awake.
Avoid full-fat dairy products, fried foods, fatty meats, and creamy sauces or dressings too close to bedtime.
Acidic and Spicy Foods
Certain foods are especially problematic for those with reflux or GERD, but they can also trigger insomnia in someone with no other health problems. Acidic foods like tomatoes, citrus, and pineapple can worsen reflux. Additionally, spicy foods, such as salsa, garlic, or peppers, can lead to digestive irritation.
Sitting or standing in an upright position a few hours before you lie down to sleep can help your digestive system. If you really struggle with reflux, you might consider a special acid reflux pillow or an adjustable bed to keep your esophagus at an incline during the night, so no stomach acid can “leak” into it.
The assumption that high-sugar foods make you more alert and hyper is not true— in fact, eating lots of sugar actually has the opposite effect. High levels of sugar in the blood inhibit orexin, a peptide that makes us feel alert. Eating too much sugar makes us lethargic, which sometimes prompts us to eat even more. Overeating disrupts sleep, and poor sleep can trigger even more consumption of sugar!
It’s a vicious cycle. The key is to choose snacks combining complex carbohydrates and protein, like an apple with peanut butter. The protein keeps you satiated and the complex carb provides the energy your body needs without making you feel lethargic and more hungry.
Best Foods for Sleep
The key when selecting the best foods for sleep is to look at the vitamins and minerals in those foods— snacks with tryptophan, complex carbohydrates, magnesium, calcium, and melatonin are optimal.
Foods with Tryptophan
The amino acid tryptophan helps the body produce serotonin, your body’s own natural sleep aid. Serotonin induces deep and restful sleep by creating melatonin. Luckily, there’s lots of foods rich in tryptophan and you probably already have them sitting in your fridge.
- Fish, especially fish high in omega-3s, like salmon and herring
- Low-fat cheese
- Low-fat milk
All of these foods are also rich in protein, which keeps you feeling full and satisfied.
Carbohydrates and Healthy Fats
Foods with a high-glycemic-index promote the production of tryptophan, but it’s best to pair these with a healthy fat as well for fullness. One study learned that consuming a meal rich in high GI foods four hours before bedtime actually helped participants fall asleep faster.
- Whole-grain rice
- Whole-grain bread
- Whole-grain pasta
- All-natural peanut butter
- Olive oil
- Low-fat cheese
- Fish high in omega-3s
- Chia seeds
If you’re used to drinking caffeine before bed, try switching it out for herbal teas like valerian, lemon balm, or chamomile.
Chamomile tea is a popular choice thanks to the antioxidant apigenin, which is found in chamomile tea. Apigenin binds to receptors in the brain that may initiate sleep. One study found that patients who received 400 mg of chamomile extract every day slept better than those who did not.
Valerian root tea was first used for sleep in the 1940s, and today it’s as popular as ever. While there is no definitive research yet on how valerian root helps sleep, one theory posits that it increases levels of GABA, or gamma-amniobutryic acid. There have been a few studies finding that participants who drank valerian root tea before bed reported improved sleep.
Lemon balm is a member of the mint family. Currently, it’s a popular supplement for stress and anxiety, probably because it increases GABA levels. Drinking lemon balm tea before bed can induce relaxation and help your body prepare for sleep.
Calcium and Magnesium-rich Foods
Calcium and magnesium are some of the most effective minerals for better sleep. A study published in the European Neurology Journal found that calcium levels are highest in the body during deep sleep (the REM phase)— thus, people with calcium deficiencies are more likely to experience lower-quality sleep, including less time spent in deep sleep.
Magnesium maintains GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. GABA encourages relaxation and rest in the body— some people even use magnesium supplements for anxiety or stress. In addition to being excellent for sleep, calcium and magnesium are great for bone, heart, and blood health.
- Low-fat cheese
- Low-fat milk
- Leafy greens
- Oranges (avoid these if you have acid reflux)
- Sweet potatoes
- Dark chocolate
- Whole grains
Foods with Melatonin and Serotonin
Most of us have heard of melatonin— some insomniacs even take melatonin supplements to get to sleep faster. However, eating foods rich in melatonin before bed is a much healthier approach to getting better sleep. Serotonin is not found in any foods, but certain snacks can boost serotonin levels.
- Tart cherry juice
- Pineapple (avoid if you have acid reflux)
Foods that boost serotonin:
You’ll notice the foods that boost serotonin also contain tryptophan— that’s because tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin.
Are midnight snacks a bad thing?
Eating before bed is a controversial topic— the old wives’ tale says to avoid eating anything before bed because your metabolism slows down before sleep, thus making you gain weight if you eat right before bed.
But recent studies have found only certain foods will lead to poor sleep and weight gain, and choosing the right foods can actually help you sleep better and choose more nutritious foods during the day. Furthermore, your metabolism does not actually slow down when you sleep— it stays about the same as when you are awake.
So why does some evidence point to people gaining weight when they eat before bed? Well, it’s more about what you eat, not when. And if you’re consistently hungry before bedtime, you might not be eating enough during your daytime meals.
Interestingly, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that adults who ate cereal and skim milk 90 minutes after their evening meal for four weeks reduced their caloric intake during the day, compared to adults who did not eat anything before bed.
The bottom line: eating before bed is not necessarily a bad thing— you just need to choose the right snacks to promote sleep and make healthy choices during the day.
What should kids eat for better sleep?
Infants and children need more sleep than adults, and their sleeping patterns are also a little bit more inconsistent. As a result, they need nutritious diets that line up with healthy sleep patterns.
When your baby is ready to graduate to solid foods, you can introduce them to many of the foods we’ve listed here, like whole grains, sweet potatoes, eggs, leafy greens, and avocados. Some kids’ favorite foods are naturally rich in magnesium, calcium, and tryptophan, like bananas, oats, and warm milk.
In addition to giving them the right foods, it’s key to time their meals so they aren’t going to bed hungry, which we know can lead to restlessness and poor food choices the next day. Snacking on healthy foods can improve children’s sleep cycles.
Most children and teens should eat every 3-4 hours. Younger children need three meals a day as well as two healthy snacks every day. It helps to offer smaller-portioned snacks so they aren’t too full for their main meals. If you have picky eaters, continue offering them the foods they don’t like. Normalizing healthy foods instead of using them as “punishment” can lead to your children developing a healthier relationship with food.
If you’re struggling with picky eaters, consider seeing a dietitian or nutritionist for more customized advice.
Eating for Better Sleep
When you eat before bed, your digestive system goes to work. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, foods that make your digestive system work extra hard can delay your sleep. Doctors recommend eating at least a few hours before bedtime for a good night’s sleep.
Sufferers of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), acid reflux, or heartburn are especially prone to their food choices interrupting sleep. If they go to bed with full stomachs, their stomach acid is more likely to creep back up into the throat, creating a burning sensation.
But what if you can’t sleep because you’re hungry? Try eating more fiber-rich foods during the day to keep you full, and try a light, nutritious snack before bed with complex carbs and protein.
Implementing these habits will improve the sleep hygiene of your whole family and lead to a happier, healthier lifestyle.
About the author:
Meg Riley is a Certified Sleep Science Coach and writer/editor for Sleep Junkie. After graduating from Penn State University, Meg began writing about the mattress industry and the science behind getting a good night’s sleep.