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  • Nutritional guide to beat Insomnia: Sleep-enhancing foods

Nutritional guide to beat Insomnia: Sleep-enhancing foods

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that affects roughly a third Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source of the adult population. Over time, struggling with sleep can have harmful effects on your overall health and well-being.

While there are many different causes of insomnia, what you eat plays a key role in promoting healthy sleeping patterns.

Keep reading to discover how nutrition affects your sleep, as well as diet and lifestyle changes that can help support insomnia.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by Silvia Fonda Last reviewed 12-04-2024

The link between sleep and nutrition

According to scientific research, poor sleep causes poor nutrition and poor nutrition causes poor sleep.

When you’re underslept, you’re likelier to make bad diet choices and consume more calories during the day. This is due to changes in the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin. You might also find yourself relying on sugary snacks and fizzy drinks for extra energy.

A young girl eating a sweet treat in bed

When you eat a diet lacking minerals and nutrients, you’ll likely have a worse night’s sleep. Some foods can also disrupt your hormones and neurotransmitters, which contribute to sleep disorders like insomnia.

Foods that hinder your ability to sleep

It’s important to note that every individual reacts differently to food, so it’s worth keeping a food diary to note your body’s responses.

The following foods have the potential to disrupt your sleep and worsen insomnia symptoms.

1. Heavy, spicy foods:

Large or rich meals that are high in fats and spices can cause indigestion and discomfort, making it more difficult to sleep.

2. High-sugar foods:

Starchy, high-sugar foods cause blood sugar spikes which may result in your energy levels rising and crashing throughout the day. One study Trusted source National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) Government Source Biomedical Research and Literature Go to source linked high-sugar diets with worsened sleep due to an increase in inflammation.

A plate of freshly cut citrus fruits including grapefruit, oranges and lemons

3. Acidic foods:

Citrus fruits and other acidic foods may cause heartburn or acid reflux, especially if eaten right before bed. This can interfere with your sleep.

4. Foods containing tyramine:

Some people are sensitive to tyramine, a chemical compound in aged cheese, processed meats, and some fermented foods. For these individuals, eating tyramine-containing foods can trigger migraines or disturb sleep.

5. Artificial additives:

For some people, artificial additives, colourings, and preservatives can affect their sleeping habits. Please pay close attention to how your body reacts to ultra-processed foods and consider reducing them in your diet.

Foods that promote sleep

The following foods have been considered helpful for people with insomnia. Including sleep-promoting foods in your diet may result in a more restful night.

1. Tryptophan-rich foods:

Tryptophan is an amino acid that your body uses to make serotonin and melatonin. Foods naturally containing tryptophan include poultry meat, dairy products, nuts, and seeds.

2. Complex carbohydrates:

Foods that are rich in complex carbs (like whole grains, sweet potatoes, and legumes) can increase the availability of tryptophan in the brain, resulting in better sleep.

An array of healthy foods that naturally contain magnesium, including nuts, seeds, beans and fruit

3. Magnesium-rich foods:

Magnesium plays a role in muscle relaxation and regulating the sleep-wake cycle. Incorporate magnesium-rich foods like leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains into your diet.

4. Foods containing melatonin:

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Consuming foods that naturally contain melatonin (such as cherries, grapes, and tomatoes) may support better sleep.

A healthy, balanced diet also plays a role in better sleep. Getting the required nutrients from your food and ample fibre to aid digestion is important. The Mediterranean diet (which focuses on whole, high-fibre foods and lean meats) is a good example to follow. It also promotes heart health and sleep quality.

Drinks and hydration

What you drink throughout the day can also impact your sleep.

  1. Caffeine: Drinks containing caffeine (such as tea, coffee, and energy drinks) are likely to keep you up at night when they are consumed later in the day.
  2. Alcohol: Regular consumption of alcohol makes you feel tired and sluggish because it affects your sleep cycle. Although it might be easier to fall asleep after a drink, you will experience less high-quality sleep.
  3. Excessive fluids: Drinking too much before bed can lead to nighttime bathroom trips, disrupting your sleep. Try to drink most of your fluids earlier on in the day.
  4. Dehydration: Drinking too little can also cause interrupted sleep. Dehydration can cause the bladder to become inflamed due to the low concentration of urine, resulting in an urge to urinate at night.

You might consider drinking herbal tea as part of your nighttime routine. Chamomile, lemon balm, and valerian root tea have calming properties and may promote relaxation, resulting in a better night’s sleep.

Cherry juice can also be beneficial as it naturally contains melatonin, which is a type of sleep hormone.

An infographic showing drinks to choose and avoid for better sleep

Supplements for sleep

Certain supplements can help manage insomnia. Before implementing any of the following supplements into your diet, make sure to consult a healthcare professional.

  1. Magnesium: Good for muscle relaxation and regulating sleep, magnesium supplements can be taken in conjunction with a healthy diet. Magnesium glycinate and magnesium threonate are thought to be the most beneficial for improving sleep quality.
  2. L-theanine: Found in green tea, L-theanine is an amino acid that promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety. Supplementing with L-theanine may contribute to improved sleep quality.
  3. Lemon balm: Just like L-theanine, lemon balm (a type of herb) encourages relaxation and relieves anxiety. It can be drunk in tea form in the evening.
  4. Valerian root: Valerian root is a natural and traditional remedy for insomnia. It may help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and improve sleep quality.
  5. Melatonin: This is a naturally occurring hormone that helps with sleep. Melatonin tablets or supplements contain a synthetic version of this hormone and are available to treat short-term insomnia via prescription.

Probiotics and prebiotics (which contain live, beneficial gut bacteria) may also improve sleep quality and lower stress levels.

Diets and sleep

Scientific research has found some interesting links between different diets and how they affect sleep.

The DASH diet has been shown to result in a lower probability of insomnia in those who followed the diet strictly.

The keto diet has also been shown to positively affect sleep. According to one small study (on overweight and obese participants following a low-calorie keto diet plan), both sleep and BMI were dramatically improved after just 31 days.

There is also some evidence Trusted source Springer Peer-reviewed Journals Multidisciplinary Research Go to source to suggest that a plant-based diet can improve sleep quality. Eating plant-based enhances the diversity of our gut bacteria, which is important as the gut effectively controls everything in the body.

Lifestyle changes to improve sleep quality

Besides diet changes and supplements, certain lifestyle changes can improve sleep quality and insomnia symptoms. Recommendations include:

  • Avoiding heavy evening meals: By eating 2-3 hours before you go to bed, you’re less likely to face indigestion or other uncomfortable digestive issues.
  • Establishing a sleep schedule: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day helps regulate the body's internal clock, promoting a more consistent sleep-wake cycle.
  • Having a relaxing bedtime routine: Engaging in calming activities before bedtime can improve overall sleep quality. Options include reading, gentle stretching, deep breathing, self-massage, or meditation.
  • Limiting screen time before bed: Exposure to the blue light emitted by electronic devices can suppress melatonin production. Aim to reduce screen time at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Optimising your sleep environment: Ensure your bedroom is an optimal place to sleep. Keep it cool, dark, and quiet, and invest in comfortable bedding.
  • Exercising regularly: Doing more exercise is linked with better sleep quality. If you’re struggling with sleep, try to make time for 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day. Avoid intense exercise close to bedtime, which can have the opposite effect.
  • Managing stress levels: Consider adding stress-reducing techniques into your weekly routine. This could involve practising mindfulness or yoga.
An infographic showing lifestyle changes that can improve sleep quality

If you have insomnia, it’s worth exploring the link between your diet and sleep. While there are many possible causes for this condition, changing how you eat and incorporating sleep-supporting supplements may improve your symptoms.

Want to learn more about insomnia? Click here

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