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Food and sleep - change how you eat and get better quality Zzzz's

Quality sleep is essential to living well. We all know how vital a good night's sleep is and how debilitating chronically poor sleep can be. You're probably aware that late night stimulation such as phone activity or television can impair your ability to get off to sleep or relax enough to get the best restorative sleep; but how often do you think about how the way you eat might be impacting your sleep? Food and sleep are hugely interrelated.

A healthy diet will undoubtedly benefit the quality of your sleep. In turn, lack of sleep can promote a poor diet, so the two are very closely linked. Making good nutritional choices will optimise your body clock (circadian rhythms) between night and day, allowing you to switch off when you get into bed. Here are some facts and tips.

The most important physiological factor in sleep are hormones called melatonin and serotonin. Serotonin is produced by the brain to aid restful sleep, believed to influence when, how much, and how well we sleep. Melatonin is also a hormone which is important in regulating body clock and sleep cycle. Insufficient levels of melatonin mean we don't relax and fall asleep when we need to. Whilst serotonin can't be obtained directly from food (but see tryptophan below), it is possible to boost our levels of melatonin a little through diet. Here are some suggestions:

Melatonin rich foods

  • Cherries

  • Goji berries (great addition to homemade muesli)

  • Eggs

  • Milk

  • Bananas

  • Tomatoes

  • Sweetcorn

  • Fish (better source than meat)

  • Nuts

  • Other foods can boost melatonin production, like bananas, oatmeal and milk.

Melatonin and serotonin also have a precursor (chemicals which promote the manufacturer of another chemical) called tryptophan, so eating foods rich in this chemical will also help the quality of your sleep and well-being.

Tryptophan rich foods

  • Whole milk (when your granny used to suggest a glass of warm milk before bed, she knew what she was talking about)

  • Tinned tuna

  • Oats

  • Kiwi (great for producing serotonin)

  • Cheese

  • Tofu

  • Nuts & seeds

  • Turkey

  • Good quality carbohydrates make Tryptophan more available to the brain so in general it's important to eat a wide variety of whole grains to promote both sleep and feelings of happiness.

Some tips to change your day to improve your night

Don't eat immediately before sleeping (at least not the wrong stuff)

Unless you're really starving I would advocate not eating immediately before going to bed. Sleep is about rest and repair and if your body is busy digesting a large amount of food then it's going to prioritise this over rest. Ideally I'd say allow 2 hours between your last meal and sleeping. However, going to bed on a rumbling stomach isn't very comfortable and can stop your body producing those all important sleep-promoting hormones. So if you feel you need something to stop a rumbling stomach then you should eat but keep it small and choose one of the beneficial snacks below:

Beneficial late night snacks:

  • small bowl of cereal with milk

  • 2 oatcakes with peanut butter

  • handful of walnuts

  • glass of warm milk

  • slither of cheese

Late night snacks to avoid:

  • high fat foods (breaking down of fat requires stomach acid which can disrupt your sleep)

  • anything with caffeine in (coffee, chocolate) - a well-known stimulant

  • anything spicy

  • high sugar - this gives you a rush of energy

  • Cheese, ham or bacon (these contain tyramine which increases adrenaline levels)

  • Chocolate (dark contains more caffeine and all chocolate also contain tyramine)

Drinking and sleep

A regular alcohol habit will also have a negative impact on how you sleep. It disrupts your sleep cycle by reducing the amount of time spent in REM (Rapid Eye Movement) when all the restorative work is done. This can mean that we spend more time in very deep sleep which, paradoxically makes us feel tired in the morning. Alcohol is also both a diuretic (which means you'll need the loo in the night) and dehydrating, which may mean you wake up (at any time) with a raging thirst. I'd advise at least four alcohol free days a week, or maybe try to limit your drinking to the weekends (but don't make up for it by drinking twice as much on Friday and Saturday!). Hydration is key to sleeping well, so make sure you drink plenty of water during the day. The moment you feel thirsty, you're already dehydrated. Dehydration can make us irritable and fatigued and these factors can be damaging to quality to sleep. Oh and did you know that dehydration makes you snore more (I'll just leave that one there...)

Usual healthy diet rules apply

In addition, all the usual rules about eating healthily will help the quality of your sleep: plenty of fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy fats and less sugar. Sugar can cause energy dips and surges which may lead you towards extra caffeine or badly timed naps, neither of which may help your sleep. Additional minerals we need to aid sleep are calcium (leafy greens and dairy) and magnesium (seeds and nuts).

Establish a regular pattern of eating

How regularly you eat and how much at a given time of day will also have an impact on your sleep. For some people eating a hearty breakfast, medium sized lunch and a lighter supper helps sleeping so that's worth a try. Our natural body clocks like a regular rhythm so try to eat when you're hungry (stop when you're full) and with a regular pattern with ample digestion time (at least 2-3 hrs) in between.

Sleep well to eat well

Hopefully an improved diet will help your sleeping. However if you already sleep quite well but are complacent about how much sleep you need, over time that will impact on how and what you eat. We need at least 6 hrs and ideal for most people is 7-8. A tired body will crave foods to give it a fast energy kick and that's likely to be higher sugar foods (which are quickly converted into glucose). This creates a sugar cycle (see this article) and may result in you eating more than you need. There's also a chemical factor here. If you don't get enough sleep you may not produce sufficient of the 'fullness' hormone leptin but more of the 'hunger' hormone ghrelin - big factors in the natural management of appetite and weight.

So: diet - sleep, and sleep - diet, are interrelated. Zzzzz

If you're interested in looking more closely at the quality of your diet we can do a Nutritional Assessment to help you build optimum nutritional health.

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