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Updated November 6, 2020

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Dr. Kimberly Truong

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Written by

Eric Suni

It’s no secret that both nutrition and sleep play a fundamental role in our health, but the complex and important relationships between them are frequently overlooked.

Diet and nutrition can influence the quality of your sleep, and certain foods and drinks can make it easier or harder to get the sleep that you need. At the same time, getting enough sleep is associated with maintaining a healthier body weight and can be beneficial for people who are trying to lose weight.

Recognizing the connections between sleep and nutrition creates opportunities to optimize both in order to eat smarter, sleep better, and live a healthier life.

What is Nutrition?

Nutrition is made up of the food and other substances that allow the body to have energy and function properly. Human nutrition is composed of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

  • Macronutrients include carbohydrates, protein and amino acids, fats, fiber, and water.
  • Vitamins play specific roles in a multitude of bodily processes, and there are 13 essential vitamins.
  • Numerous minerals are needed to power different systems of the body. Minerals are classified as either macrominerals or trace minerals depending on how much of them we need.

Proper nutrition requires obtaining a healthy balance of macronutrients and the necessary intake of vitamins and minerals. Most nutrition comes from food, but other sources, like drinks and dietary supplements, are contributors as well.

How Does Nutrition Affect Sleep?

“You are what you eat” may be a cliche, but it reflects the fact that nutrition serves as a backbone for health, providing the energy we need and other inputs that make the body function properly. The links between nutrition and obesity, diabetes, and heart health are well-known, but many people are unaware that their diet can also affect sleep.

What is the Best Diet for Sleep?

As a general rule, a balanced diet made up largely of a variety of vegetables and fruits is able to provide the recommended daily intake of vitamins and nutrients, contributing to better sleep while promoting a healthy weight.

Because both sleep and nutrition are extremely complex and involve multiple interconnected systems of the body, it is challenging to conduct research studies that conclusively demonstrate a single diet that is best for sleep. Instead, what appears most important is that a person gets adequate nutrition without overconsuming unhealthy foods.

A central role of nutrition is having a high enough intake of a broad range of vitamins and minerals that enable almost all types of bodily systems and processes.

Growing evidence indicates that sufficient nutrient consumption is important for sleep. One large study found a lack of key nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, and K to be associated with sleep problems. While this research does not prove cause-and-effect, it supports the likelihood that diet affects hormonal pathways involved in sleep.

High-carbohydrate meals with high glycemic indexes can also affect one’s energy level and sleep quality. It has been well established that high-carbohydrate meals often can make you feel drowsy. High-carbohydrate meals can also impair your sleep quality. In fact, high carbohydrate intake has been shown to increase the number of awakenings at night and reduce the amount of deep sleep you get. It is not a surprise that frequent consumption of energy drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with poor sleep quality.

Many different types of diets can offer this kind of nutritional balance, and some have been evaluated more closely for how they affect sleep. For example, the Mediterranean Diet, which is plant-based while incorporating lean meats and high-fiber foods, has been found to improve heart health and sleep quality.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet, or DASH diet, involves reduced salt and saturated fats along with a focus on whole foods with high levels of fiber, potassium, and magnesium. The DASH diet was designed to reduce blood pressure, but research has found that people who closely follow it tend to report better sleep.

While the Mediterranean and DASH diets have shown benefits for sleep, other dietary approaches that balance macronutrients and ensure adequate vitamins and minerals may have similar effects. Further research will be necessary to identify the sleep benefits of different diets and to test the comparative effects of those diets on sleep.

Because of the effects of dietary changes on numerous systems of the body, it’s important for anyone who is considering starting a new diet to talk with a doctor or nutritionist who can review their nutrition plan and its benefits and downsides in their specific situation.

Does an Unhealthy Diet Affect Sleep Disorders?

Some sleeping problems are directly due to sleep disorders. One of the most serious sleep disorders is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which causes impaired breathing and numerous nighttime awakenings. Obesity is a key risk factor for OSA, which means that an unhealthy diet that contributes to excess body weight may cause or worsen this sleep disorder.

Alcohol is known to worsen obstructive sleep apnea as it further impairs airway muscle tone throughout the night. This leads to increased blockage of the upper airway during sleep.

How Does Sleep Affect Nutrition?

Sleep is essential for the body to function properly. It allows the brain and body to rest and recover, and an increasing amount of evidence points to its role in maintaining proper nutrition and a healthy body weight.

Insufficient sleep has been associated in multiple studies with an elevated risk of obesity. Lack of sleep has also been connected to greater waist circumference, which is considered to be a worrisome indicator of numerous cardiovascular problems.

The effect of sleep on weight and body composition may be tied to how it affects appetite and nutrition.

Multiple studies have found that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to increase their food consumption without an equivalent increase in energy expenditure. Making this worse is that sleep deprivation also appears to provoke a tendency to select high-calorie foods that offer less nutritional benefit and create a greater risk of weight gain.

Certain hormones are considered to be driving factors behind these poor nutritional choices associated with sleep deprivation. The normal production of leptin and ghrelin, hormones that help control appetite and hunger, is thrown off even after short periods of inadequate sleep.

Other chemicals in the brain that help guide food choices may also be impacted by a lack of sleep. In addition, sleep is known to affect concentration, decision-making, and mood, all of which can play into the types of foods we incorporate into our daily diet.

Can Sleep Help You Lose Weight?

Getting enough hours of quality sleep can improve dietary decision-making and contribute to a well-rounded weight loss plan. Studies have shown that people who are trying to lose weight have better results when they get good sleep. Sleeping well can reduce overeating, and may facilitate more physical activity by helping you wake up more energetic and refreshed.

How to Improve Sleep and Nutrition

If you want to improve your sleep and nutrition, talking with your doctor is a good starting point. Your doctor can help identify your barriers to sleep, including potential sleep disorders, and recommend a nutrition plan that best suits your needs.

Most people can get better sleep by improving their bedroom environment and their sleep-related habits. Collectively, this is known as sleep hygiene, and it’s an important factor in making consistent sleep part of your everyday routine.

Keeping a regular sleep schedule is a major component of sleep hygiene, and many people find that it can keep them from pushing their bedtime later and later. Research has found that a late sleep schedule is correlated with a higher risk of weight gain, which makes this step a potential benefit for both sleep and nutrition.

Giving yourself plenty of time to relax and get ready for bed is another element of sleep hygiene. This includes avoiding foods and drinks, like caffeinated beverages or spicy foods, that can make it harder to get to sleep. Eating too late at night, which can throw off sleep, has also been found to be worse for people trying to lose weight.

Other sleep hygiene improvements include making sure that your bedroom is dark and quiet, avoiding screen time for an hour or more before bed, having a comfortable mattress and bedding, and trying to get daylight exposure and moderate exercise every day.

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