The Connection Between Sleep and Nutrition: Making the Right Food Choices for a Better Night’s Rest

Young woman sleeping in a comfortable bed

Americans have a long history of being concerned about their weight, prompting a tremendous and continuous interest in healthy eating. But how many Americans understand the relationship between diet and sleep? While eating healthier and exercising more continue to top the resolutions lists at the start of each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of US adults report that they usually get less than the recommended amount of sleep. Insufficient sleep – sleeping less than seven hours per day – is linked to many chronic conditions – including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and depression – that threaten our nation’s health. 

Lack of sleep can have a significant impact on appetite and weight. Your brain regenerates its energy every night as you sleep and as you cycle through the various sleep stages.  The deepest stage is called rapid eye movement or REM sleep. According to research, spending around 90 minutes in REM sleep each night is considered optimal for most adults, since a lack of REM sleep can lead to difficulty concentrating during the day, excessive daytime sleepiness, and forgetfulness or poor memory. When inadequate sleep is obtained, the 24-hour cycle is disturbed, which can lead to shifts in the levels of two of the body’s hunger hormones – leptin, and ghrelin. As a result, lack of sleep can lead to increased appetite coupled with fatigue which, in turn, may increase the risk for overweight or obesity, as well as the health risks that are associated with excess body weight.  

Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells, and one of its jobs is to signal your brain to tell you that you’re full. When you don’t get enough sleep, your leptin levels plummet, so lack of sleep can increase hunger. If that weren’t enough, sleep deprivation also boosts an appetite-stimulating hormone called ghrelin. This explains why sleep-deprived people tend to snack more, seeking out midnight snacks and highly palatable foods – like those high in fat and sugar – to keep energy levels up. Unfortunately, these food choices could interfere with the ability to get a good night’s rest, resulting in a vicious cycle. For example, unless your snack is small, light, and easy to digest, lying down soon after you eat a sizable snack is a recipe for heartburn – and possibly a disrupted night’s sleep.

What you eat and when you eat can significantly impact the quality and length of your sleep. Here are several simple tips to help you get a good night’s sleep:

  • Be mindful of dinner portions. Going to bed with a full stomach can be uncomfortable and even lead to indigestion, disrupting sleep. On the other hand, if your dinner meal is too skimpy, you might be awakened by hunger pangs. 
  • Don’t overdo the fats and proteins at dinner. Fatty meals take a long time to digest, and protein foods stimulate the production of chemicals in your brain that helps you feel more alert. But low-fat meals are digested more quickly, and healthy carbohydrates help stimulate the production of the brain chemicals that help you relax and get to sleep. So rather than centering your evening meal around a large portion of protein, focus on healthy carbs like veggies, fruits, whole grains, and beans and pair them with a small serving of protein.
  • Omega-3s may help you sleep. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish, nuts, and seeds, assist in regulating the body’s internal clock, partly through effects on the release of melatonin. This hormone regulates the sleep cycle.
  • Watch your intake of caffeine and alcohol. If you’re a regular caffeine drinker, you may be able to fall asleep just fine – even if you have a cup of coffee after dinner. But caffeine and alcohol can disrupt normal sleep patterns. So, you may be able to fall asleep, but you may not stay asleep.  And that makes it harder to reach the deepest and most restful stage of sleep.
  • Don’t overdo the fluids in the evening. If a full bladder interferes with a good night’s sleep, try to curb your fluid intake after dinner. Aim to drink more of your liquids during the day rather than trying to “catch up” at night.

While there are many lifestyle changes that you can make to get a better night’s sleep, those related to the food choices you make throughout your day can quickly put you on track and, in turn, create a lasting impact on your health.

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Author Profile
Susan Bowerman
Susan Bowerman

Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND, is Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training for Herbalife.