Something they don’t tell you about getting older: one day, you’ll lay down just a little too soon after eating and—WHAM—heartburn. This is just one of many little eating habits that can make getting quality sleep (something so many of us are already so bad at) even more difficult. The food we eat, as well as the time we eat it, can impact our sleep at every stage. To help make this make sense, we turned to Shaina Painter, MS, CNS, a health coach at Parsley Health.
Look, at this point we’re all pretty aware that alcohol, fried foods, processed sugar, simple carbs, spicy foods, and caffeine negatively affect our circadian rhythm and quality of sleep. But as we said, meal timing and amount are also important. Having a larger dinner versus smaller meals throughout the day, or going to bed hungry versus consuming a snack before bed, are all eating habits that can have an effect—for better or for worse—on sleep.
To fall asleep faster
Eat high-quality carbs like sweet potatoes …
“A high-quality carbohydrate with dinner may improve sleep latency, or the time it takes you to fall asleep, and reduce sleep disruptions due to higher tryptophan content (and therefore higher melatonin levels),” Dr. Painter says. She recommends eating a balanced dinner at least two to three hours before bed, ideally at the same time nightly, to support digestion and quality sleep.
… And avoid caffeine
Caffeine is obvs not conducive to restful sleep, which is why Dr. Painter says to avoid it after 1pm. Caffeine blocks a chemical called adenosine, she explains. This chemical helps improve our readiness for sleep; blocking it makes it more difficult to both fall and stay asleep.
To stay asleep
Don’t go to sleep hungry …
While Dr. Painter recommends trying to finish eating two to three hours before bed, she also says that if we’re hungry, we should eat something even if it falls within that window. “To support blood sugar levels while sleeping and honor hunger if it pings before heading to bed, opt to consume a light snack around 30-60 minutes before bed,” Dr. Painter says. Ideally this looks like a combo of protein, healthy fat, and a non-starchy carb—try veggie sticks with hummus, or half a banana with nut butter.
… And avoid alcohol
OK, yes, a couple glasses of sauvy b may help us fall asleep more quickly, but alcohol is “highly disruptive” to sleep, Dr. Painter says. Consuming alcohol before bed increases not only wakefulness during the night but also the amount of time we spend in the lightest stage of sleep. Meaning: it doesn’t allow us to get the amount of deep sleep we truly need.
To get more deep sleep
Eat protein and fiber …
Slow-wave sleep—aka deep sleep—is a stage that helps us feel rested in the morning, Dr. Painter says. “This study found a diet with higher fiber intake predicted a longer duration in deep sleep,” she says, while diets lower in fiber and higher in saturated fats can negatively affect deep sleep.
She adds that a diet that’s moderate in protein may help increase how much time we spend in the REM cycle—the deepest stage of sleep—whereas a diet low in protein may actually reduce our sleep efficiency (the percentage of time asleep).
While these tips can help us improve our sleep, Dr. Painter reminds us that food is not the only factor to consider. “Remember: lifestyle factors, such as sleep hygiene and mental health, play a role in the above tips/recommendations and should be also assessed in consideration when analyzing how to improve sleep.”
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