Top 10 Foods For Better Sleep

Photo of Daisy Whitbread Written by Daisy Whitbread
BSc (Hons) MSc DipION
Photo of Dr. Nicolette Natale Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Nicolette Natale
Evidence Based. References sourced from PubMed.
Top 10 Foods For Better Sleep

According to the National Sleep Foundation, one in three people suffer from sleep problems at some point in their lives.

Sleep is just as important as healthy eating and exercise for both physical and mental health. Lack of sleep can contribute to depression, anxiety, stress, weakened immune system (1), weight gain (2), skin aging (3), relationship problems, and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes (1).

Busy lifestyles, however, often mean that getting enough sleep falls down the list of priorities while trying to fit in everything else life demands of us. Furthermore, features of modern life including high stress levels, artificial lighting, and technology use can all disrupt sleep.

The good news is that everyone is born with the natural ability to sleep, so if you're not sleeping well, it means something is getting in the way of your body's natural ability. Identifying and removing the cause(s) should therefore restore good quality sleep. The benefits of doing so will include improved mood, reduced disease risk, improved brain function, memory and concentration, more energy, helping appetite and weight control, and slowing down the aging process.

The following foods may also help, as they have sleep promoting effects. If eaten regularly, as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, along with good sleep hygiene (see tips below) and genuinely making sleep a priority, they can help encourage a restful night's sleep.

Foods To Avoid For Better Sleep

  • Caffeine - can take 10-12 hours to be fully metabolised and can suppress melatonin production for up to 10 hours. If you are having severe sleep problems, it is advisable to cut caffeine out completely, otherwise limit yourself to one coffee or two teas, per day, before noon. Alternative hot drinks that promote sleep and relaxation are chamomile, valerian, and sleep formula teas.
  • Sugar - can be stimulating, so avoiding refined sugar in the evenings and limiting it in general, can be helpful (31,32). Chocolate contains small amounts of caffeine, another stimulating chemical called theobromine and sugar, so should be avoided in the evenings if you are sensitive. If you wish to indulge in a few squares of dark chocolate, have it as an afternoon snack with some nuts.
  • Alcohol - people often resort to a glass of wine to relax and alcohol does temporarily promote the brain-chemical GABA, which makes us feel relaxed. Unfortunately, the effect doesn't last and too much alcohol actually leads to GABA depletion. Furthermore, although alcohol can help you fall asleep, it reduces the quality of sleep, so overall is not helpful.
  • Eating Late - eating late or large, heavy evening meals, and difficult to digest foods such as red meat, fried foods, and spicy foods can all disrupt sleep. They can cause indigestion and discomfort that can interfere with sleep, plus eating late means that you won't have digested the food properly before you go to sleep. We should aim to eat dinner at least 3 hours before bed to allow time to fully digest it. If work or other commitments mean eating late, eat more during the day and have a lighter evening meal such as a vegetable soup.

General Tips to Sleep Better

  • Regular exercise helps to improve sleep quality. Morning exercise is best, but if you exercise in the evenings avoid high intensity exercise, which can be over-stimulating.
  • Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga and meditation are great for calming the nervous system and are scientifically proven to improve sleep and reduce stress levels (33,34,35).
  • Sleeping and waking at consistent times, helps establish good 'sleep-hygiene' and regulates your body clock. Early to bed and early to rise encourages the best quality sleep.
  • Making the bedroom restful and comfortable is the second aspect of 'sleep-hygiene' to consider. It should be dark, quiet, free from clutter, cool, and somewhere you feel relaxed. If you live in a noisy city, earplugs and eye-masks help.
  • The screens of laptops, tablets, and smart phones give off blue light that suppresses melatonin (sleep hormone) production. Avoiding screens and exposure to bright light for an hour before bed is therefore beneficial.
  • A warm bath before bed has been shown to help some people get to sleep more easily, as the change in body temperature helps induce sleep.
  • Avoid stimulating or stressful activities in the evenings such as watching the news, studying, high-intensity exercise, video games, difficult conversations, and any other stressful situations. These activities stimulate adrenalin production, which blocks sleep.
  • If you are anxious about anything or have a to-do list running through your mind, write it down so you can switch off from it for now, and deal with it the next day.
  • Going to bed very hungry can lead to low blood sugar levels at night, known as nocturnal hypoglycemia, which results in the release of stimulating hormones. A small snack about 30 minutes before bed will be enough to prevent this if it's a problem for you.

Data Sources and References

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