By Courtney Leiva
Expert review by Christine Stevens, Sleep Coach and Owner of Sleep Solutions by Christine

Illustration of a woman and man jogging

While limiting your screen time, investing in comfortable bedding, and exercising regularly are all key parts of healthy sleep hygiene, tweaking your diet can also make a major difference in how much shut-eye you get.

After all, food and sleep are more interconnected than you think. Wayne Leslie Ross, a researcher in sleep and sleep disorder studies with more than 15 years of experience, tells SleepMoment that what you eat impacts sleep quality in several ways.

“The link between food and sleep is quite intricate,” Ross explains. “Sleeping on an empty stomach is known to result in poor sleep quality and disturbed sleep. Sleeping after a heavy, fatty, or spicy meal can also interfere with digestion and cause heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, and disturbed sleep. Eating healthy (and just the right amount) can be practiced to get proper sleep and wake up refreshed.”

If you want to fine-tune your sleeping habits for the better, your diet is a great place to start. This guide will explore the many foods that help improve sleep quality and others to avoid if you find yourself tossing and turning at night.

Better Health for Better Sleep

Food is often likened to fuel. The food we eat powers every cellular function in the body, including sleep, says nutritional therapy practitioner Shannon Dolan, FNTP.

With that being said, Dolan explains that healthy dietary choices are key in guaranteeing adequate sleep quality, as a diet full of sugary foods only leads to disturbances in the body’s natural circadian rhythm.

“Foods high in sugar can lead to energy fluctuations that throw off the circadian rhythm, which regulates the body’s wake-and-sleep cycle, she tells SleepMoment. “Often, individuals are unable to go to bed, wake up at two or three in the morning, and are completely exhausted in the morning.”

Similarly, you’ll want to be mindful of how your food choices impact the gut microbiome, as the microbiome houses trillions of bacteria that can alter the way humans feel, Dolan explains.

And since the gut also produces more melatonin (a hormone that plays a role in sleep) than the brain does, she warns that an unbalanced gut can negatively impact sleep quality.

“A 2011 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology revealed that 400 times more melatonin is produced in the gut than in the brain,” she adds. “This means when food consumed is healthy, balanced, and nourishing to the microbiome, the gut is able to produce the essential neurotransmitter that allows for enhanced sleep.”

1. What Does Diet Have to Do with Sleep?

Additional dietary factors play an essential role in sleep quality.

A 2020 review article published in Sleep and Biological Rhythms, for example, suggests that short sleep duration (sleeping less than seven to nine hours) can be linked to unbalanced diets. However, more research is needed on the subject to draw definitive conclusions.

At the same time, nutrient inadequacy also impacts sleep habits. A 2019 study published in the Nutrients journal found that participants with low intakes of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D reported shorter sleep quality.

It’s also worth mentioning that how well you sleep can also affect your ability to maintain a healthy body weight. According to an article published by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, those who sleep less often end up eating more, which only increases your risk of weight gain.

2. Is it Bad to Eat Before Bed?

The time you eat can also impact how you sleep. Martin Nixon, national board-certified health and wellness coach, MS, NBC-HWC, tells SleepMoment that eating before bed can make it harder for some individuals to fall asleep:

“For some people, eating right before going to bed will make it harder to fall asleep,” he says. “However, others will have no problem with it. If you are one of the people who have an issue falling asleep right after eating, give yourself two or three hours between your last feeding opportunity and bedtime.”

Eating before bed can also lead to digestive issues in some people; Nixon explains that because the contents of the stomach shift based on our sleep position, it can lead to heartburn in individuals experiencing gastrointestinal issues.

Nixon suggests that there are individuals who can actually benefit from eating before bed.

“When we sleep, we actually need calories from healthful food choices to help our body regenerate during sleep, which is when our body takes on its most productive recovery,” he adds. “For avid exercisers, some protein before bed can provide the building blocks needed to help muscles recover.”

3. Why Does Overeating Make You Tired?

If you have ever felt tired after indulging in a large, fulfilling meal, your post-meal exhaustion can be attributed to several factors, Dolan says.

“This can be caused by the consumption of a food that a person is sensitive to, a meal high in carbohydrates, and individuals who have an imbalance in blood sugar,” she says.

In addition to tiredness, it’s worth mentioning that overeating close to bedtime can affect sleep quality, as it puts stress on digestion, Dolan adds.

With this in mind, she advises eating dinner about two to three hours prior to bedtime and only consuming a small snack before bed, should the craving strike.

You’ll also want to be mindful that a lack of sleep can also lead to overeating, as Nixon says it weakens the brain’s willpower to make smart food choices.

“The brain is smart (pun intended), as it knows that sweets and refined carbohydrates can get it the energy it needs the fastest,” he explains.

“The prefrontal cortex controls our cravings and sends out the call for us to eat more refined carbohydrates, which will get it the energy it needs to overcome the lack of sleep. Understanding this can help choose a piece of fruit over a candy bar, especially if you do not have the opportunity to catch some rest.”

4. Are There Foods That Help You Sleep?

There are sleep-inducing foods that can help you get some well-deserved shut-eye, according to Dolan.

These include foods rich in magnesium, melatonin, tryptophan, and omega-3 fatty acids.

“Magnesium is a mineral that is vital for hundreds of metabolic processes in the body,” she says. “Magnesium enhances sleep by helping maintain adequate levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter necessary for sleep. Melatonin is a hormone produced in the brain and gut that helps control the circadian rhythm. Tryptophan is an amino acid that aids in the production of melatonin and serotonin. Without adequate levels of tryptophan, there may not be adequate levels of melatonin.”

To sleep better at night, try adding some magnesium, melatonin and tryptophan-containing foods, like the options described below, to your grocery list:

  • Tart Cherry Juice– Because tart Montgomery cherries contain high levels of phytochemicals such as melatonin, consuming juice from this fruit can help regulate the sleep-wake cycle. A 2012 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition confirmed this theory.
  • Eggs, Fresh Cheese, and Meat– These foods are rich in tryptophan, which helps produce melatonin and serotonin in the body. Turkey is known for containing tryptophan, and can be enjoyed throughout the year, even when it’s not Thanksgiving, says a 2012 article published in the Core Psychology journal.
  • Other Foods with Melatonin, Omega-3, or Tryptophan– Examples include grains, nuts and seeds, fish, and various foods and vegetables such as asparagus, tomatoes, grapes, kiwi, and pomegranate.
Chart showing foods that are good and bad for sleep

5. Can Certain Foods Keep You Awake?

Yes, several types of food can keep you awake at night. These include items rich in caffeine, alcohol, tyramine, and spicy foods.

Caffeine

While an energy drink or a jolt of java can help you wake up in the morning, too much caffeine throughout the day can make it difficult to sleep at night.

A study published in the Behavioral Research and Therapy journal found that caffeine caused an increase in nocturnal worry and sleeplessness.

Similarly, caffeine consumed just hours before bedtime has harmful impacts on sleep quality. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine revealed that just a moderate dose of caffeine at bedtime, three hours prior to bedtime, or six hours prior to bedtime, had significant effects on sleep disturbance.

If you’re sensitive to caffeine, it’s important to limit your caffeine consumption to the morning hours and only drink the amount recommended by your physician, dietitian, or nutritionist.

Alcohol

While some dark chocolate and a glass of wine before bedtime sound relaxing, alcohol consumption can also inhibit sleep quality.

A 2018 study published in the Handbook of Clinical Neurology found that while alcohol does have an initial sedating effect, the sensation disappears after a few hours, resulting in a fragmented and disturbed sleep in the second half of the night.

To avoid disjointed sleep in the future, men should only consume two drinks a day, while women should only drink one drink a day, says the American Heart Association.

Tyramine

While aged cheeses (Swiss, brie, and cheddar) can add some delicious flavor to any meal, this food item is rich in tyramine, an amino acid. According to a 2017 article published in the Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Letter, this stimulant can make you feel more alert.

However, before you cut cheese from your diet completely, a simple swap can make all the difference if cheese is your go-to nighttime snack. As previously mentioned, fresh cheeses (non-aged options like mozzarella, ricotta, and American cheese) contain tryptophan, which can be helpful to lull you off to sleep.

Spicy Foods

Meals that contain spicy ingredients can also disturb sleep, and not just because they can disrupt digestion. Research indicates that the increase in body temperature caused by spicy food consumption can also make sleep more difficult. Moreover, many people believe that the digestive disruption of spicy foods can lead to nightmares.

Making Mindful Choices

Diet and sleep often go hand-in-hand, making it essential to stay mindful of the food choices you make throughout the day—especially in the evening hours.

If you are unsure as to how to change your diet, you may want to seek the expertise of a registered dietitian or nutritionist. These individuals have years worth of experience and training under their belt and can help you develop a diet plan best suited for your needs.