Food for Sleep: The Best Food for Insomnia
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Understanding the nutrition and sleep connection


woman with short dark hair and bangs waking up in a sunny roomIf you’ve struggled with insomnia, difficulty sleeping during menopause, are a shift worker or are just curious about the connection between nutrition and sleep this article is for you.


Our sleep patterns can influence our eating behaviors and conversely what we eat can influence our ability to sleep. This relationship can be positive or can unfortunately be negative.  Read on to find out what you can do to understand the role of nutrition and food for sleep.


WATCH the segment on Global Morning TV:

Sleep 101


How much sleep do I need each day?


Before we can understand the connection of nutrition and sleep it is useful to first understand sleep in general.  Experiencing fatigue and not getting enough sleep or high quality sleep is a very common challenge many people struggle with at some point in their life or chronically over many years.   


According to the Canadian Sleep Society the vast majority of adults need 7-9 hours per night.  Only about 10% or less of adults truly need only 6 hours of sleep or less (or more than 9 hours of sleep).  


For more tips on sleep for all ages visit:  Age-specific advice on sleep.


The consequences of sleep deprivation


Not getting enough sleep or sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea is one of the most common causes of fatigue as suggested by Rebel Sleep Institute.


According to the Canadian Sleep Society sleep deprivation causes a range of both short term and long term effects:


Short term sleep loss after a few nights can cause:

  • Changes to appetite and hunger/fullness cues
  • Glucose deregulation and carbohydrate cravings
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Reduced immune function making it more likely to catch a cold or flu
  • Reduced cell regeneration of the hair and skin cells causing us to look tired
  • Lower sex drive, headaches
  • Reduced ability to focus and stay attentive
  • Reduced mood: irritability, stress and impatience
  • More likely to be in an accident at work, driving a motor vehicle or crossing the street

tired looking woman sitting in bed watching tv holding a pillow

Chronic sleep deprivation can:

  • Increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and colorectal/breast cancer
  • Premature aging of the hair, skin and reproductive system (less sperm count)
  • Increased risk of depression and anxiety
  • Attention deficit and memory loss
  • Headaches and severe fatigue
  • Significant safety issues eg. more likely to fall asleep driving


How stress and other factors influence sleep


It is no surprise that not getting enough sleep is a form of stress for the body and can influence our eating behaviors as I’ve discussed here: How Stress Influences Appetite.


  • Research has shown even short term stress or reduced sleep can trigger either overeating or cravings for highly palatable foods such as chips, chocolate or ice cream.  
  • For some people (especially those that are not prone to emotional eating), increased stress or sleep deprivation can lead to undereating. 
  • Some research also suggests chronic stress or reduced sleep increases our overall calorie intake.


man lying on his side in be with eyes wide open


Some other factors and health concerns can also influence sleep and food choices:


  • Menopause can make it very difficult to get a good night’s sleep.  While there are no easy quick fixes to help manage sleep disturbances at this phase of life check out this article here for more information: Menopause.
  • Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea can make it difficult to get the quality of sleep needed for health and productivity.  If you snore loudly (one of the signs of sleep apnea) or are struggling with sleep be sure to speak to your physician.
  • Our mental health status as well as overall mood, anxiety and depression influences our sleep patterns and eating patterns as I’ve written about in detail here:  Nutrition for Mental Health.
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and medications used for treatment can influence our eating patterns and also increase insomnia as I’ve written about in detail here: Nutrition for ADHD.  
  • Iron deficiency anemia can lead to fatigue and excessive sleepiness as discussed here: Iron Deficiency: A Big Productivity Issue.
  • An underactive thyroid can lead to fatigue and excessive sleepiness as discussed here: Hypothyroidism


Talk to your doctor and pharmacist about how your health concerns and medications that may be influencing your sleep.


Food to sleep better


Wondering what the best food to sleep may be?  Think about these do’s and don’ts when you are planning your eating for a good night’s rest.


Reduce large meals later in the day

Taking in lots of food and fluid before bed can cause indigestion and make it difficult to fall asleep, as well as cause you to wake up to urinate frequently at night.  If you are struggling with eating an excess amount of food in the evening read this previous article on our blog here:  Overeating at night? Solutions for curbing the habit of nighttime eating


woman wearing pajamas sitting at a kitchen counter eating a slice of pie


Eat sufficient carbs and don’t go to bed underfed


If you are dieting or simply not eating enough due to restrictive eating patterns or an eating disorder, your sleep will be disturbed. There is also research to support diets higher in carbohydrates tend to be better for improving sleep than low-carb, high-fat diets.  Your brain runs on carbohydrates and your body needs sufficient calories to run effectively.  When food and sufficient carbohydrate is not available it is common to be anxious, emotional and obsessive about food. It is also common find it hard to sleep peacefully (despite being tired). Seek help from an experienced Registered Dietitian to create a food plan that achieves a good balance of nourishment for health, mental health and achievement of your personal best weight.

Eat whole foods


The same food good for overall physical health and mental health are also good for helping you with sleep. Research shows a diet rich in whole foods improves sleep.    Aim for a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, high-fibre whole grains and liquid vegetable oils low in saturated fat.  A Mediterranean style diet appears to be good for sleep, especially for women.

While research on which foods are so called “sleep promoting” is limited, there are some studies that have shown some positive benefit for the specific role of milk, fatty fish, cherries and kiwi fruit for benefitting acute sleep improvement.  Give them a try!


Curb caffeine as the day goes on


Caffeine can stay in your system for as long as 8 hours.  Decrease coffee, tea and other caffeine sources from lunch onward (or if you are a shift worker 8 hours before your shift ends and you will be headed to bed).  For a detailed overview of caffeine check out this previous article here on our blog:  Caffeine 101: how much is too much?

Watch alcohol intake


Despite alcohol initially making you sleepy, it can hinder entering into the deep restorative stages of sleep.  Reduce your alcohol consumption and avoid it altogether during times of sleep difficulty.

Other factors that influence sleep


Outside of nutrition there are a wide range of sleep hygiene strategies that can help you get a good night’s sleep.  These include:

  • If possible go to bed and wake up at about the same time each day.
  • Turn off smartphones, computers and television at least 30 minutes before going to bed (preferably more). Take the television out of your bedroom.
  • Taking part in good physical activity (but note intense exercise right before bed can make it difficult to fall asleep).
  • Talk to your doctor and pharmacist for education about your medications, including herbs and dietary supplements that may be helpful or harmful.
  • Talk to your doctor to see if light therapy (a light box) or acupuncture could be helpful for you.
  • Give yourself enough time to truly unwind before bed. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, it can be difficult to get enough quality or quantity of sleep. Work with a Registered Psychologist and your Physician to get the help you need.

young woman lying in bed holding her alarm clock in one hand

Summing up the best food for sleep


As with many of the recommendations for good health and mental health, the best strategies for sleep are not found in a supplement bottle.   Afterall a supplement is just a supplement and can never make up for a poor diet.


Better sleep isn’t about eating one single sensationalized super-food (although there certainly is some positive research about milk, fatty fish, kiwi fruit and cherries)!  Nutrition for better sleep starts by purchasing and cooking whole foods you can buy at the grocery store.  


woman with short dark hair and bangs waking up in a sunny roomEmphasize high quality carbohydrate rich foods found in whole grains, fruits and veggies.  Enjoy legumes, lean meats, fish and vegetable oil low in saturated fat.   Skip excess caffeine and alcohol.  Do your body a favor and avoid going on restrictive diets.  Honour your body’s hunger.  While overeating at night won’t help you get a good nights sleep, going to be underfed or carb deprived will only worsen your ability to sleep effectively.  If you are struggling to find the balance, reach out to us for help for private nutrition counseling.


Did you find this article helpful? Have a question on food and sleep or the best foods for insomnia?  Drop us a note in the comments below!


Looking for more information on nutrition, meal planning eating for better health and mental health?


Find out more about the Virtual Dietitian services provided by my team of Online Nutritionists specializing in meal planning, weight concerns, emotional eating, eating disorders, digestive health, heart health, diabetes, sports nutrition and more here:  Dietitian Nutrition Counseling Programs.


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