How Nutrition Affects Sleep

How Nutrition Affects Sleep And What To Do About It

When was the last time you had a great night’s sleep?

Remember those glorious nights of hitting the sack and falling right asleep—No tossing about. No waking up in the middle of the night. No recollection of anything than perhaps a few sweet dreams.

Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve had a solid slumber. If so, you are not alone in your sleep troubles. According to the Center for Disease Control, 35% of adults get less than 7 hours of sleep.

If you are sleep deprived, you’re probably more than just tired. You are actually more susceptible to developing chronic health conditions like diabetes, depression, and arthritis.

Maybe you’ve followed traditional advice for improving your slumber — darken your room, lower the temp, have a regular bedtime, and minimize screens at night. But if this isn’t working for you, is time to look elsewhere. It’s possible your meals are the missing factor.

What you eat, how you eat it, and when you chow down can all affect your body’s rhythms and sleep quality. Here is what you need to know about how nutrition affects your sleep and how you can adjust your eating for better slumber.

How Nutrition Affects Sleep – The Importance of Eating Rhythm

We are rhythmic beings.  Our biology is synchronized to follow a regular sleep-wake cycle.  This means your eating and your sleep are intertwined. At the cellular level, one impacts the other and vice-versa.

All your organs follow a daily rhythm that is coordinated by a master clock—the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN)—located in your brain’s hypothalamus. The SCN controls your body’s daily rhythms including sleep, physical activity, attentiveness, hormone regulation, body temperature, immune function, and digestion.  

Daylight is the main cue that sets your master clock each day. This is why bright light exposure first thing in the morning is crucial for bringing your body into synchronization. But food acts as another time cue to set your body’s circadian clock.

That first bite in the morning triggers a cascade of cellular processes that regulate your digestion, enzyme secretion, and hunger hormones for the rest of the day. This is why when, what, and how you eat your first meal affects your sleep-wake cycle and your body’s natural ability to power-up and wind-down.

Unfortunately, a lot of people’s circadian rhythms are pretty out of whack. Artificial lighting, around-the-clock eating, working long hours, and late-night YouTube binges all disrupt your body’s innate sleep-wake rhythm.

Your body is not naturally wired to be awake at 2am, nor is it wired to metabolize and digest food all day and all night long. If this sounds like a normal day, join the crowd.

When the timing of your meals does not match with your natural sleep-wake cycle, you put the body under extra stress. From a biological standpoint, this mismatch creates a chaotic rhythm can wreak havoc on your digestion and sleep.

How nutrition affects your sleep largely depends on the alignment of your meals with your natural circadian rhythm.

Consider the Following Ways to Track And Optimize Your Sleeping & Eating Rhythm:

  • Establish a regular sleep-wake cycle by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. If possible, try to get some natural sunlight exposure in the morning to set your master clock.

  • Your digestive capacity usually peaks in the middle of the day. Strategies like intermittent fasting or restricting food mostly to the daylight hours is one way to honor this primal circadian rhythm.

  • Start tracking the relationship between meal timing and your sleep.
    • Is your sleep better when you eat earlier rather than later?
    • Do you sleep better with multiple small meals or a few larger meals during the day?
    • What level of fullness at night helps you get the best sleep? 

  • Establish a regular eating rhythm. Make your first and last meal of the day around the same time, preferably not too early or too late.

  • Do you crave a late-night snack? If so, consider if this snack is reinforcing an unhealthy pattern or disrupting your ability to fall asleep. Sometimes a bedtime snack can stabilize your blood sugar levels; other times, it can set you up for a digestive rollercoaster that interferes with your rest.

How Nutrition Affects Sleep – How You Eat Your Meals Matters

Eating when you are stressed is a bad idea for your sleep. I’m not just referring to stress eating comfort foods to cope with difficult emotions. I’m referring to eating while you are anxious, multi-tasking, or rushing about. All of these activities activate your sympathetic nervous system and shut down your digestion.

Eating while in a physiological stress response can cause a host of problems, from decreased immunity, to increased food sensitivities, to issues like heartburn, indigestion, and bloating.

Eating while stressed is like throwing fuel into a power plant when all the workers are gone. It creates a biological mess.

Unfortunately, chronic, low-level stress has become the hallmark of our society.

It’s easy to blast through the day in the endless pursuit of social and professional goals without thinking about slowing down for meals. You might not even notice the effects of this speed and stress on your body until you finally try to slow down and sleep at night.

When your mind is moving a million miles an hour and dragging your body along for a ride, it is difficult to properly digest and assimilate nutrients. Gas, constipation, or irritable bowels are some of the many issues that can arise from not allowing your body to fully relax during meals.

Impaired digestion combined with elevated levels of stress hormones from rushed eating can significantly impact your ability to fall sleep. You must consider that the food you ate for breakfast is still in the middle of its digestive journey by the time you get home at night.

Digestion is a 24-72 hour process. How nutrition affects sleep doesn’t stop just because you stopped eating a few hours ago.

Consider The Following Ways To Eat For A Better Night’s Sleep:

  • Avoid eating on the go. Slow down, sit down, and make time for your meals. Chew your food thoroughly.

  • Create a relaxing environment while eating.  Take a few deep breaths and let go of any tension in your body.

  • Practice aware, mindful eating that allows you body to fully register the smells, tastes, and sensations of your meal.

  • Practice gratitude when eating. If you didn’t grow your food, be thankful for those who did. If you didn’t cook it, acknowledge the labor and thought that went into your meal.

  • If you feel tense or anxious while eating, try to attend to the sensations with curiosity. Feel the power in your body and choose to own this feeling. Breathe into this place and recognize that it’s just sensation and it will pass.

How Nutrition Affects Sleep – What You Eat Makes A Difference

You probably don’t need someone telling you that caffeine or alcohol can disrupt your sleep. But are there certain foods that can enhance it?

Possibly, but more research is necessary to draw definitive conclusions.

There is some evidence to suggest that high carbohydrate intakes, especially sugars, are associated with lighter, less restorative sleep. People eating lots of sugar tended to experience more arousals in the middle of the night.

However, similar studies found that high carb intakes may also increase REM sleep (an important phase of sleep responsible for memory consolidation). Because macronutrients may predispose your body towards one type of sleep or another, the overall impact of dietary patterns on the quality of your sleep is unclear.

Specific foods such as milk products, fatty fish, and fruits like tart cherries and kiwis may have some sleep-promoting effects. But again, the science is thin.

These studies have been too diverse, short, and small to lead to firm conclusions. It seems likely that any sleep-enhancing effects of these foods stem from high concentrations of specific chemicals like melatonin or vitamin D that are known to promote sleep.

What is most important is figuring out which foods work do and don’t work for you. Food sensitivities and allergies (either known or unknown) can be a significant factor contributing to poor sleep.

Look out for foods that consistently make you feel crappy. This can be anything from fatigue, to “brain fog,” to digestive complaints.  Keep a journal to figure out what foods seem to bother you and any incidence of sleep problems such as insomnia, frequent awakenings, or excessive fatigue.

Because there are many causes of food symptoms—genetics, enzyme deficiencies, microbiome imbalances, immune reactions, etc.—food triggered sleep issues are difficult to tease out. This is especially true if you are used to eating out and have no idea how the food is prepared. Taking the time to cook and monitor what ingredients are going into your meal is an important step for improving your sleep quality.    

A Vicious Cycle of Poor Diet & Poor Sleep

If you don’t pay attention to how nutrition affects sleep, you may continue to suffer from restless nights, thinking it has to do with your mattress or racing mind, without ever addressing the underlying issue.

The less sleep you get, the more you’re likely to suffer from digestive troubles. This creates a vicious cycle where poor sleep impacts your eating and digestion, which in turn impact your sleep.

Remember that food is energy plus information. When you eat something, what information is it sending your body?  

Both the timing, the way you eat, and the food itself are sending important signals that are either helping balance your nervous system and synchronize your circadian rhythms or disrupting your body’s ability to sleep soundly.

Big Takeaways On How Nutrition Affects Your Sleep

  • Nutrition can either normalize your circadian rhythm or disrupt it depending on when you eat your meals. Try to establish regular eating times that maximize your digestion and give your system a chance to regenerate at night. If possible, have the majority of your food during the day rather than at night.

  • Eating in a stressed state shuts down digestion and can lead to symptoms like gas, bloating, and heartburn that can disrupt sleep. Practice slowing down and taking time for your meals.

  • Specific substances like alcohol and caffeine are known to cause sleep issues. Conversely, substances such as melatonin and vitamin D can benefit sleep. However, more research is necessary to draw definitive conclusions about the role of specific foods on sleep.

  • General dietary patterns that include substantial fruit and vegetables, whole grains (higher in fiber) over sugars, and low amounts of saturated fat seem to be beneficial for sleep.

  • Unidentified food issues can trigger a response in your body that promotes inflammation, creates digestive discomfort, or leads to racing thoughts that make it difficult to fall or stay asleep. If you notice yourself feeling a little wound up or unwell after eating certain foods, try eliminating these ingredients from your diet.

  • Working together with a holistic health coach or functional medicine practitioner can help you figure out how your diet, lifestyle, and unique biochemistry are impacting your sleep.

A good night’s sleep is well within your reach. You just need to pay attention to what you’re eating during the day and how it impacts you a night.

This requires a good deal of awareness, but thankfully, what you put into your body and where you rest your head is largely within your control.

Eating for energy during the day and for rest at night,

~ Jeff

I’m Jeff Siegel, a wellness coach and mindfulness teacher, helping people upgrade their habits and improve their health. For free bi-monthly wisdom on how to eat, move, and be healthier, sign-up for my newsletter. If you’d like to explore working together, you can schedule a private 30-min consultation call with me

Jeff Siegel
Jeff Siegel, M.Ed, is a health and wellness coach, Harvard University mindfulness instructor, and personal trainer.

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