Diet Hacks for a Better Night Sleep

Reviewed by: Erica An, APD, BNutr&Diet

Even Shakespeare seemed to understand the importance of a good night’s sleep when he famously wrote “ to sleep perchance to dream…ay, there is the rub”… and by rub he meant difficulty.

Poor sleep quality has been scientifically linked to all sorts of health problems including high blood pressure, depression and obesity (partly due to the propensity for making poorer decisions AND increasing hunger after a bad night’s sleep). But did you know that these resulting poor food choices can in fact be part of the cause of poor nights slumber in the first case?

Nutrition and sleep have been shown to be inextricably linked so instead of repeating the cycle of poor sleep-> poor food choices -> poor sleep. Here are some great diet hacks to consider for a better night’s sleep.

Sleep killers

1. Caffeine

For many of us our love affair with coffee is hard to break. Although the effects of caffeine can last 4-6 hours, it can take 24 hours to completely leave our system. Breaking caffeine down by an enzyme in the liver called CYP1A2 and our genetics, age and several other factors can play a part in our caffeine sensitivity and its effect on our systems.

Takeaway message: If you are having trouble sleeping consider ceasing caffeine after mid-day. This includes all caffeinated soft drinks, protein drinks and any caffeine stimulating sports supplements.

2. Alcohol

Often used to settle our nerves and seen as a calmative, alcohol may appear to help you nod off quickly… but… it means you often bypass the first stage of REM sleep and therefore the following sleep stages (and the quality of your shut-eye) is affected.

On average it takes an hour to process a single unit of alcohol. This means that if sharing a half bottle of wine at dinner or 8pm (five units), you won’t get decent REM sleep until the alcohol has left your system at about 1 am.

Takeaway message: If you are having trouble sleeping consider limiting all alcohol. If you do choose to drink, do so in moderation, as per the Australian alcohol guidelines and do so well before you head to bed.

3. Fermented Foods

Hold on the ‘gut health’ advice for now. I know, there are fermented foods which are definitely recommended for gut health (namely kimchi, sauerkraut etc). BUT…unfortunately if you are sensitive, there are certain aged cured and fermented foods like strong cheeses, salami and other cured meats which contain an amino acid called Tyramine.

Tyramine triggers the release of a brain neurotransmitter (noradrenaline). It arouses the brain and increases blood pressure and heart rate. Neither of which help when trying to go to sleep.

Takeaway message: If you are having trouble sleeping consider keeping these foods to a minimum in the evenings.

4. Heavy, fatty, spicy foods

Have you ever eaten out and tried to sleep on a full stomach?  Portion control is important here. Really Large portions (especially of slow digesting fatty foods) do no favour for getting to sleep quickly. You are left uncomfortable and at risk of acid reflux (acid in your oesophagus).

Takeaway message: If you are having trouble sleeping consider trying to eat at least 90 minutes to 2 hours before bed AND control your portions.

5. Too much carbohydrate

A little carbohydrate is good to help boost serotonin levels needed for a sound sleep. However, too much carbohydrate rich food at dinner time can lead to blood sugar changes overnight  (certain regulating hormones act as stimulants causing you to wake up).

High carbohydrate meals in the evening can also result in a significant rise in your body temperature as it digests making falling asleep difficult.

Takeaway message: If you are having trouble sleeping consider eating a small evening meal with non-starchy vegetables and a small amount of wholegrain or low GI carbohydrates along with protein. Foods like quinoa, sweet potato, buckwheat and legumes work wonders.

6. Food additives

Although there are hundreds of food additives on the market, the most common one to cause a poor night sleep is MSG (monosodium glutamate). MSG is a potent flavour enhancer and adding it to many Asian dishes as well as processed food enhances the flavour. There are many sensitive individuals who will get headaches, migraines, heart palpitations and insomnia in variable doses.

Takeaway message: If you are having trouble when it’s time to hit the hay consider reducing your exposure to MSG. Late night flavoured chips , chicken salt or Asian takeaway is often the culprit.

We’ve gone into depth with diet hacks, raising food awareness that may need avoiding or limiting and hindering our shut-eye. Nevertheless, there is something we can aim to have a little more of to assist us getting a good night’s sleep.

You may have been told that having a glass of milk before bed helps with sleep.  Well this definitely holds some truth. Dairy milk is high in an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is essential for the production of two sleep moderating hormones. Namely Serotonin, which regulates mood and sleep and Melatonin, which controls the sleep/wake cycle. You can read more about melatonin here:

Tryptophan is rich in many unrefined protein rich foods, namely: poultry, dairy, legumes, nuts, seeds, bananas and oats.  By ensuring a small amount with your evening meal, as well as limiting some of the sleep killers you are optimising your chances of a perfect night slumber.

We must remember that a balanced diet is essential to ensure our body works at its best during the day, so you can sleep optimally at night. Subsequently, there’s never any real substitute for a balanced diet full of a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, whole-grains,  nuts and seeds.

Balance and consistency truly are the keys.

For support and guidance in finding your own healthy habits, click here.

Also Read: Help! My partner’s eating habits are sabotaging my weightloss

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