Sleep and Diet

Obtaining a good night’s sleep is vital to maintaining good health. Without adequate quality sleep, an individual will begin to suffer both mental and physical deficits. In this situation, many individuals complain to their doctors and receive with a prescription for hypnotics or other sleeping pills.

While this might be a helpful for people with certain sleep disorders such as insomnia, it is not an ideal approach.  Some call it a ‘band aid approach’. In fact, many sleep issues can be improved with simple dietary changes.

How can my diet affect my sleep?

When our bodies are in a state of homeostasis, this means that all of our biological systems are functioning in equilibrium with each other. Homeostasis is the optimal state for anyone to live in, and when your body isn’t functioning at its best, it can be hard to get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately it’s quite difficult to maintain homeostasis in the world we live in.

Poor diet, pollution, inactivity, and many other factors contribute to an imbalance of our body’s natural enzymes and neurotransmitters (those little chemicals that activate the receptors in our brain cells to modulate our body’s systems) and our ability to metabolize and process nutrients.

The best way to maintain homeostasis to eat a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate good quality sleep. However, if you’re experiencing sleeping difficulties, it’s quite possible that you’re deficient in a select few nutrients.

Which sleep disorders can be improved with good nutrition?

There are many sleep disorders, many nutrients, and a substantial amount of variance among individuals.  This means that these suggestions can’t guarantee that your sleep problem will be improved – but very likely, you’ll be much healthier!

  • If you suffer from non-restorative sleep, you may be deficient in calcium, vitamin C, or simply dehydrated. You may also have a diet that contains too much fat or cholesterol, or an excess of butyric acid.
    • Citrus fruits contain high amounts of vitamin C
    • Dark leafy green vegetables contain significant amounts of readily-absorbed calcium
    • Rancid butter is a source of butyric acid – make sure your butter’s not expired!
  • If you suffer from somnolence (excessive tiredness) you may be consuming excessive calories or fat – or not enough. Don’t start dropping calories from your diet, unless they come from non-nutritional sources like junk food, before consulting your doctor.
  • If you have sleep apnea, and are not overweight (the condition is often present in those who are obese) then you might need to seek medical help. If you are overweight, try to implement a regular exercise routine.  Untreated sleep apnea, particularly when moderate or severe, is associated with an increase in drug resistant hypertension, stroke, irregular heart rhythms and motor vehicle accidents.
    • Sleep apnea disturbs the quality of your sleep and can make it difficult for you to find the energy to exercise. Changing your diet to include more fruit and vegetables should help provide more energy..
  • If you simply sleep too long or too little, quite a few nutrients could be the culprit.
    • People who sleep less than five hours a night have been shown to be low in folic acid, phosphorous, zinc, and selenium, as well as being dehydrated.
    • Long sleepers are indicated to be low in choline, selenium, lycopene and phosphorous, and typically consume more alcohol than shorter sleepers.


Dietary tips to improve your quality of sleep

These tips and tricks may not eliminate a sleep disorder, but they can help improve your night’s rest.

  • Spicy foods and dairy: can cause indigestion, which can make it difficult to fall asleep at night. Indigestion also negatively impacts the quality of the sleep that you do get.
  • Eating a big meal at night, a common approach in the west, is not ideal for your sleep schedule.  Your body will be busy trying to digest your large evening meal which can impact the quality of your sleep.
  • Consuming carbs, sugar, or caffeine within a couple hours of going to bed can keep you up tossing and turning. They stimulate neurotransmitters that are responsible for promoting wakefulness.
  • Drinking alcohol might knock you out, but a drunk sleep (passing out) is not a good sleep. Alcohol commonly changes the sleep architecture so that the ideal restorative benefits of a good night’s sleep are not realized.  More specifically, on nights when alcohol is consumed, individuals commonly wake up after the alcohol has been metabolized and will have difficulty returning to sleep.

The best nutrients for people with sleeping issues

The following nutrients and antioxidants have been shown to help promote healthy sleep:

  • Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant typically found in fruits or vegetables that are red, like watermelons, guavas and papayas.
  • Folate is found in leafy greens as well as avocados and legumes.
  • Phosphorous can be found in tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes.
  • Selenium is best found in whole grains
  • Vitamin D is best found outside your window! If you don’t live in a sunny area, whole grains, mushrooms and fish are other good sources.
  • Vitamin C is found in many of fruits and vegetables from leafy greens to sweet apples and oranges.
  • Choline is an important neurotransmitters that’s best obtained from lean meat, fish and dark leafy green veggies.

The bottom line:

A diet rich in plant based whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes can help restore homeostasis and decrease bodily inflammation and disease.  Along with regular exercise and good sleep, one can better achieve optimal health.  The pillars of good health are diet, exercise and sleep.

Personal note:

For years, I have followed a plant based whole foods diet, also known as a vegan diet.  There is substantial evidence this decreases the likelihood of cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

However, one should be aware that a vegan diet can be very unhealthy particularly if one consumes simple sugars and processed foods.  For me, being a vegan feels right for health, environmental and ethical reasons.