Dieting and Sleep
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That nutrition plays a central role in our health is no secret. After all, the old adage “you are what you eat” acknowledges how important nutrition is for our well-being. This concept is taking on an added dimension as research demonstrates the impact of diet on sleep.
It is estimated that nearly one-third of Americans suffer from insomnia and related sleeping problems. Dietary problems are also abundant with an obesity rate in America hovering near 40%.
Researchers studying both of these public health problems have noted a strong link between sleep and obesity, and there is strong reason to believe that improving diet can improve sleep and vice versa.
In this guide, you can find more information about this relationship between dieting and sleep. We’ll discuss specific diets, review foods that can help and hinder sleep, and answer many frequently asked questions about nutrition and sleep.
Does Food and Nutrition Affect Sleep?
Food and nutrition can have a profound impact on sleep. A healthy diet and eating habits can promote both higher quality sleep and more total sleep time.
Studies have long recognized that there are connections between poor sleep and poor diet. People with various type of sleep disturbances have a tendency to also have inconsistent or unhealthy diets. However, in many of these studies, it can be hard to tell the direction of causality. As it turns out, it is likely that sleep affects nutrition and that nutrition affects sleep.
How your body processes food and nutrients depends on what, when, and how much you eat. Eating instigates a series of reactions in the body, and the nature of those reactions can influence your ability to fall asleep as well as your sleep architecture. At the same time, getting poor sleep has been associated with obesity and can be associated with poor dietary choices.
The way that individuals respond to food is extremely variable and can depend on a person’s genetics, environment, stress, activity, gut microbiome, and other factors. Researchers are just beginning to deepen their understanding of these complex and interrelated systems. As a result, it can be challenging to state exactly how a diet or food will impact a specific individual, but at a general level, it is clear that how we eat can directly influence how we sleep.
How Do Diets Affect Sleep?
Everyone has a diet; diet simply refers to what you eat. But when people are “on a diet” or follow a specific diet, it means that they adhere to a certain set of rules about what foods to eat.
Our food intake and how our body processes it can impact our sleep, so different types of diets that restrict particular foods or nutrients can have varying effects on sleep.
In this section, we’ll describe some common diets and their potential effects on sleep. However, keep in mind that many bodily systems are involved in regulating metabolism and processing food. Every person is unique, and the same food or diet can affect people in markedly different ways. A doctor or nutritionist is in the best position to offer personalized advice about the optimal diet for any individual.
A vegan diet avoids any product derived from animals including meats but also dairy products like cheese, milk, and eggs. Because of the considerable restriction involved in a vegan diet, it is common for vegans to carefully plan their meals, and this can help avoid some of the negative impacts to sleep that can come from overeating or splurging on extremely fatty or sugary dishes.
No detailed study has documented the effects of a vegan diet on sleep, but many vegan diets include complex carbohydrates, nuts, and fruits that contain tryptophan and melatonin that can promote good sleep. A vegan diet frequently avoids some foods that can disrupt sleep such as heavy meat-based dishes.
Transitioning to a vegan diet is sometimes reported to cause sleep problems. This may be part of an adjustment period or can reflect a change in nutrient intake, such as a drop in protein or overall calories, that may make it harder to initiate sleep.
Vegetarians do not eat meat products of any kind but still consume other products, like eggs and dairy, that are derived from animals. Like with vegans, the extra planning that may be required to eat a vegetarian diet can help add consistency to a person’s diet that can make it easier for the body to process food without disruption.
Vegetarian diets frequently feature similar foods to those of the vegan diet that can promote sleep including almonds, fruits, and whole grains. The addition of milk and yogurt can add melatonin as well. Like vegans, vegetarians may avoid sleep problems that can come from excess meat consumption.
A pescatarian diet excludes all meat products except for fish and seafood. Pescatarians can still eat other animal products like eggs and dairy but frequently rely on fish for the bulk of their protein.
Many types of fish have omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D that may help in regulating serotonin and promoting sleep.
Though the research is still limited, there is some indication that eating fish has positive benefits overall for sleep.
In avoiding red meats, many pescatarians, like vegetarians, include items like yogurt, nuts, and fruits that can offer useful nutrients for getting quality sleep.
Keto refers to the ketogenic diet that is based around dramatically reducing the body’s net carbohydrate intake in order to put the body into ketosis. Ketosis is the state in which the body uses stored fat, rather than carbohydrates, for its energy needs.
Ketogenic diets have recently grown in popularity but still require considerable research to fully understand their benefits and risks. Some people describe “keto insomnia” or having difficulty sleeping when first beginning this diet.
This may be related to the body’s overall process of adjusting to being in ketosis. Keto diets are frequently heavy in meat consumption, which, as mentioned above, may have negative impacts on sleep. However, one study of the ketogenic diet in obese patients found no impact on sleep quality.
Keto is not the only type of low-carb diet. Other diets, such as the Atkins diet, are also based on restricting carbohydrates. Research about low carbohydrate diets and sleep have had mixed results. High carbohydrate diets promote falling asleep more quickly, but these diets may reduce sleep quality or alter sleep architecture. This may also depend on the type of carbohydrate and the time it is consumed.
The Paleo diet, also known sometimes as the caveman diet, is restricted to the types of foods that would have been available to early humans whose food was obtained through hunting and gathering. This diet excludes refined sugars, dairy, agricultural products like wheat, and other processed foods.
Some people on the Paleo diet say their sleep improves while others have insomnia, especially at the beginning. One small study found that people reported sleeping problems on the Paleo diet. The diet includes nuts and fruits that include melatonin but commonly involves lots of meat that may have detrimental effects on sleep.
Raw Food Diet
The raw food diet involves eating only or predominantly uncooked foods, typically fruits, vegetables, and nuts. There is no concrete data from controlled research studies about raw food diets and sleep, and individual experience vary considerably from those with difficulty sleeping to those who find their sleep improved.
The significant amount of fruits and vegetables may help increase sleep-promoting nutrients, but at the same time, other important nutrients can be difficult to get on a raw food diet. Avoiding fatty meats and other heavy dishes may reduce sleep disruptions.
As with other highly restrictive diets, the raw food diet requires significant planning and attention-to-detail, and this can add consistency and avoid dietary peaks and valleys that may interfere with sleep.
Foods That Will Help You Sleep
Our diet is made up of many individual foods, and that overall diet is what’s most important for promoting overall health. That said, certain specific foods may be able to help you sleep well throughout the night.