We know that diet is a pillar of health. Our diet is also an important foundation of healthy sleep. But cultivating eating habits that support your nightly rest is not a one-size-fits- all endeavor. There is no one “diet” that is right for sleep, and there is a broad range of foods that fit well in a sleep-promoting diet.
The Mediterranean Diet, with its abundance of unprocessed whole foods, vegetables and fruits, moderate whole grain consumption and healthy fat and protein sources, has been associated with higher sleep quality. The short- and long-term impact of foods on sleep and sleep-quality is actually an underresearched area of sleep and nutrition science. There’s a lot more to learn about how macronutrients—proteins, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, amino acids—as well as vitamins and minerals affect sleep patterns and the quality of our nightly rest. That said, there is a growing body of scientific data that points to foods that can protect and enhance sleep.
Protein is a natural sleep aid, and protein- rich foods can be a source of tryptophan, an amino acid that the body uses to make the sleep-facilitating hormone melatonin. Consuming a larger share of calories from protein may help with nighttime satiety, keeping hunger hormones suppressed and allowing for more sustained rest overnight.
A 2020 review of recent sleep-nutrition research found that higher sleep quality is associated with consuming a greater share of daily calories from protein and a lower share of calories from carbohydrates and fat. A 2016 study from Columbia University found that participants who ate meals high in protein and fiber, and low in saturated fats, sugar and carbohydrates, experienced higher sleep quality and more time in deep sleep.
Try: eggs, fish, chicken breast, broccoli, spinach, quinoa and almonds
Fiber-rich diets have been associated with less time spent in light sleep and more time spent in slow-wave sleep, the deep, highly restorative sleep stage during which the body undertakes significant cellular rejuvenation and repair. A 2016 study from Columbia University found that a single day of low-fiber dietary consumption can have a negative impact on sleep that night.
Try: Avocadoes, pears, chickpeas, lentils, oats and dark chocolate
Magnesium calms the nervous system and relaxes muscles. It’s involved in regulating the “sleep hormone” melatonin, and in helping the body maintain healthy levels of vitamin D, which facilitates restful, high-quality sleep. Magnesium also maintains healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. Many people lack sufficient magnesium, and low magnesium is linked to insomnia. Since magnesium isn’t produced inside the body, it’s critical we add foods to our diet that provide it.
Try: bananas, spinach, avocados, brown rice, tofu and cashews
Potassium promotes healthy circulation and digestion, while also helping to relax muscles, factors that contribute to better sleep. Research has shown that elevating potassium levels is linked to fewer nighttime awakenings.
Try: leafy greens, potatoes, bananas, mushrooms and legumes
Vitamin D helps to regulate the circadian clock that controls daily sleep-wake cycles and may promote longer and more restful sleep. Lack of sufficient vitamin D has been linked to short sleep duration and to more restless sleep. Research also suggests that vitamin D deficiency may elevate the risk for obstructive sleep apnea. Sunlight is the very best source of vitamin D, as our bodies produce vitamin D in response to sun exposure.
Try: fatty fish, fish oil, egg yolks, dairy and vitamin D-fortified
Omega-3 fatty acids
These polyunsaturated fatty acids are what are known as essential fats. Our bodies do not produce omega-3s, we must get them from dietary sources, which can include supplements. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids are linked to higher sleep quality, and may help us fall asleep more quickly. Some research in animals has found that a deficiency of DHA, one of the three main types of omega-3 fatty acids, may interfere with the production of nighttime melatonin.
Try: Anchovies, bluefish, mackerel, wild-caught salmon, and tuna are rich sources of omega-3s DHA and EPA. Walnuts, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, canola oil and soybean oil are potent sources of the omega-3 ALA.
It’s important not to overlook hydration when it comes to fueling healthy sleep. Water is a macronutrient and staying hydrated throughout the day is important to sleeping well at night. There’s a two-way street at work here: Dehydration can have a negative impact on sleep—and sleeping poorly can make us more dehydrated.
Even sleeping well, we lose about a liter of water overnight. I recommend drinking 12 to 16 ounces of room-temperature water first thing upon waking, to help replenish overnight water loss. Hold off on caffeine for 90 minutes in the morning. Caffeine is a diuretic and drinking it immediately after waking is counterproductive to morning hydration.
Michael Breus, PhD, is a double board-certified sleep specialist, founder of TheSleepDoctor. com, author of three books on sleep, and has been in practice for 23 years.