But there’s one solution that often gets overlooked and may be right there in your kitchen: the right foods.
Just as diet can have an effect on the brain and body systems that control blood pressure, blood cholesterol, weight and other aspects of health, it can affect the processes that regulate sleep.
We’re finding more evidence that improving your diet can lead to better sleep, says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, director of the Center of Excellence for Sleep and Circadian Research at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. All research points to similar findings: Foods and dietary patterns associated with better sleep tend to have a lower glycemic index [meaning they have less effect on blood sugar levels]low in saturated fat, low in added sugar and high in fiber.
The opposite is equally true. Foods with the opposite attributes can get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
When you build your diet around foods that meet these criteria, you’ll end up with something resembling the Mediterranean diet, a way of eating that emphasizes plant-based foods, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and healthy sources of fats (such as olive oil, nuts and avocados), limiting red meat, sweets and refined carbohydrates (such as white flour foods). Studies looking at the relationship between this eating pattern and better sleep have shown promising results.
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For example, a 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients followed more than 400 US women for a year to see if following the Mediterranean diet affected their sleep quality. Those with the greatest adherence to this pattern of eating had 30% lower sleep disturbance scores (meaning they got more solid rest) than those with the lowest adherence.
Some categories of foods, fruits, vegetables and legumes, have stood out for their positive effects on various measures of sleep quality. Consumption of legumes was associated with better sleep overall, says Brooke Aggarwal, assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University Medical Center in New York and one of the study authors. And the effects were dose-dependent, the more servings of legumes they ate, the more significant was the improvement in sleep efficiency. (Sleep efficiency is the ratio of how many hours you sleep to how many hours you spend in bed.)
But it’s not like the Mediterranean diet necessarily has magical abilities to improve sleep. The healthy components of that way of eating more fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and healthy fats are, says St-Onge. You can focus on consuming those foods in any mostly plant-based diet.
The benefits of eating better
There are several possible explanations for how a healthy plant-based diet improves sleep.
All of the hearty foods in the Mediterranean diet are rich sources of fiber, which has beneficial effects on the gut microbiome, says Aggarwal. A healthier gut and better sleep are linked by various mechanisms. The gut and brain communicate through the gut-brain axis, he says. Specific to sleep, the gut microbiome is thought to send signals that help regulate circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms, part of the body’s internal clock, are controlled by daylight and darkness and influence many processes in the body, including hormonal activity and the sleep-wake cycle. Furthermore, the intestine is involved in the synthesis of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes a better mood and is an important component for regulating sleep.
Higher consumption of fruits and vegetables as part of a plant-based diet also means higher intakes of beneficial antioxidant compounds called polyphenols. Emerging research indicates an association between these compounds and improvements in sleep. Polyphenols have effects on the autonomic nervous system and may increase heart rate variability [the fluctuation in time between heartbeats], says St-Onge. Greater heart rate variability is a sign that you’re in a relaxed state and is associated with better quality sleep, she says. Some polyphenols also act on receptors in the brain that promote sleep.
Plant foods can increase the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. Legumes, soybeans, green leafy vegetables, and seeds are all rich sources of tryptophan, an amino acid (a building block of protein) that the body uses to make melatonin. Turkey and dairy products are often cited as the best sources of tryptophan. But the tryptophan in those high-protein foods isn’t actually synthesized in the brain as efficiently as the tryptophan in plant foods. This may be in part because you also need B vitamins and carbohydrates to process tryptophan, both of which you get when you eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
Eating habits that can ruin your sleep
In addition to making you feel tired, not getting enough sleep affects various processes in the brain and body that can lead to unhealthy food choices. Getting too few hours of sleep can increase hormones that stimulate appetite and suppress those that signal satiety. At the same time, short sleep durations appear to activate reward centers in the brain, increasing cravings for snacks high in sugar and fat.
If you sleep well, you tend to make better choices in all aspects of your life by eating healthier foods, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, says St-Onge. And when you don’t sleep well, you tend to choose easier and less healthy foods, more processed foods, more snacks, more sugar, less exercise. And this vicious circle continues.
A habitually unhealthy eating pattern (which can be exacerbated by not sleeping well) can in turn lead to more sleepless nights.
Along with obvious sleep-destroyers like alcohol and caffeine, foods high in fat, sugar, and saturated fat have been shown to harm sleep quality. For example, a small study by St-Onge, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2016, found that when participants ate more sugar, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fat, they took longer to fall asleep and spent less time at sleep. of deep and restorative shortwave sleep.
Over the years, there have been various studies on how eating single foods might put you to sleep. These studies were usually small (and often funded by the food industry), but usually resulted in many flashy headlines touting the miraculous effect of certain foods such as black cherries or kiwis. But experts warn against considering any single food as a natural sleeping pill.
I like to advocate overall better dietary patterns for better health and better sleep, says St-Onge. Including those foods can’t hurt, but you can’t negate the effect of a day of poor nutrition with just one kiwi before bed.
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