In addition to creating a nighttime routine, moving during the day, and investing in a few key products, one of the best ways we can prime ourselves for a good night’s sleep is with an intentional diet. That means eating food that will leave us feeling balanced without taxing our digestive system, or leaving us too amped up to drift off. We’ve compiled a simple guide, backed by science, to a sleep-friendly diet.
Avoid sugary, carb-loaded breakfasts
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Liana Waybright notes that one of the best ways to avoid big crashes or energy spikes before bedtime is to be well-nourished and keep your blood sugar balanced—yes, even as early as the first meal of the day. You can do this by eating regularly (not skipping meals), and ensuring that your meals and snacks have a good mix of fiber-rich carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats.
Starting with breakfast, Waybright notes: “When we think of the traditional American breakfast of cereal and orange juice, that’s where the balance can be a bit off. There’s not a significant amount of protein or fat in a meal like that.” She recommends making sure to have all three macronutrients — fiber-rich carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats — in your morning meal. So for instance, you might swap in a fresh orange versus the juice to get more fiber, and throw the cereal over Greek yogurt with a scoop of nut butter on the side for healthy fat. (Muesli is also a great choice!)
A good test for seeing how well-balanced your breakfast line-up is? See how hungry you feel an hour later. If you’re very hungry, look at the content of that meal to see if you can add more protein, more fat or perhaps a veggie for more fiber. It’s also worth cutting back on refined carbohydrates and swapping in for whole grains throughout the day. If you do have a delicious croissant, try to pair it with an egg or almond butter as opposed to jam to achieve better blood sugar balance.
Not only will these steps help you be attuned to your hunger signals, they will also prevent you from unwanted energy dips that leave you sluggish and unfocused, and perhaps more likely to need to catch up on work after-hours. That way, the time you have allocated for rest can stay focused on rest.
Cut off the caffeine just after lunchtime
After lunch—which would ideally be another balanced, protein- and fiber-rich meal—enjoy your last bit of caffeine for the day (if you must) and then switch to decaffeinated beverages only.
Why? One study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine showed that consuming 400 mg of caffeine (roughly two to four cups of brewed coffee, depending on how it’s brewed) within zero to six hours of bedtime resulted in sleep reduction. Even at six hours, caffeine reduced sleep by more than an hour. A good rule of thumb is to cut off caffeine entirely by 2 p.m. If that feels impossible, try weaning off with half-decaf cups and slowly transition over time.
If you must have alcohol, drink before dinner — and limit consumption
Giving up alcohol entirely or cutting back on it is the best route if you’re serious about your sleep, but if you’re not ready to go there you should still be mindful about how late in the day you’re consuming it.
As far as drinking alcohol goes, it’s important to understand the distinction between sleep quality and ease of falling asleep. It’s a common misconception that drinking wine before bed will help you pass out—which it does considering alcohol is a depressant that acts on the central nervous system. However, research suggests that alcohol can add to the suppression of REM sleep during the first two cycles, making you fall into a deep sleep rather quickly. According to the Sleep Foundation, “As the night progresses, this can create an imbalance between slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, resulting in less of the latter and more of the former. This decreases overall sleep quality, which can result in shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions.” Not to mention, alcohol is a diuretic, which means frequent interruptions when nature calls during the night.
The rule of thumb if you do decide to drink alcohol is to avoid it within three hours of bedtime. So if you hope to be asleep by 10 p.m., it’s last call at 7 p.m. (Oh, the joys of adulting!)
Use an evening snack to your advantage
“There is such demonization of eating in the evening hours and a lot of misinformation that it will lead to fat gain or weight gain,” said Waybright. “Allowing yourself to have an evening snack that is satisfying and nourishing is going to set you up for success the next morning.”
If you aren’t hungry, feel free to skip a late-evening snack. But if you feel some hunger pangs setting in before bed, you’re much better off having a snack than going to bed hungry—and there are even a few options that may help you sleep more soundly. If it’s within an hour or two of bedtime, try to keep your snack in the 200-calorie range. That caloric supply would roughly burn off naturally within a couple of hours, and therefore not disturb your sleep too much while being digested.
Here are a few ideas all inspired by foods that have been shown to promote sleep:
- A serving of goji berries and an ounce of cheese
- A handful of dried Montmorency tart cherries with a handful of pistachios
- A banana dipped in a tablespoon of almond butter
- A fresh kiwi sliced over a half-cup of Greek yogurt
- A plate of some vegan “cheesy” kale chips (recipe)
Seek out foods high in melatonin (a more natural and healthy route than taking a melatonin supplement, which can be habit-forming) or ones that have been found to naturally boost serotonin, as well as foods with calcium and magnesium (such as dairy products or leafy greens). All of these nutrients have been found to promote better sleep.
On the flip side, anything that’s high in sugar, buttery or fried will be more calorically dense, and better to avoid before bedtime. Why? When you sleep, there are restorative neurological processes that occur, and if you’re also digesting food at the same time, this can diminish some of the restorative effects, in addition to potentially causing acid reflux. Sugar before bed should be avoided as it can cause a blood sugar spike, and then an inevitable fall, activating the adrenals that there is an emergency and waking the body. Lastly, if you must have chocolate, go light: it contains some caffeine.