How Does My Diet Affect My Sleep? And How Can I Fix It?

We’ll forever be on a quest for better sleep, but could food be playing a part in why we’re not getting any?

How Does My Diet Affect My Sleep? And How Can I Fix It?

by Jazmin Kopotsha |
Published on

If there are two things we seem to unknowingly obsess over, it’s food and sleep. If we’re not being told that eating one thing is suddenly awful for us, we’re being shamed into feeling like our sleeping habits aren’t normal. But I don’t think many of us have ever stopped to think about how the two might be connected.

Speaking from almost too much experience of having tried every method under the sun to kick the vicious cycle of insomnia, I don’t think my diet has been given a second thought. And I’d imagine many other insomnia sufferers may be the same. That is, beyond those people who swear by a mug of camomile tea before nodding off and those myths around cheese giving us weird dreams.

But it turns out there’s a whole heap of food related things that might impact how well you sleep, says Lily Soutter, nutritionist and in-house ‘Eat Well, Sleep Well’ ambassador for SIMBA Sleep. So, we picked her brain to sort the fact from the fiction and try to work out how we can adjust our mid-week dinner ritual of half a bag of pasta and a block of cheddar cheese, in order to catch some decent Z’s. Here’s what we learned.

Waking up in the middle of the night might be down to low blood sugar

Do you ever find yourself awake at around 3 am, confused and disorientated by why TF your eyes are open and your stomach’s rumbling? That could be a dip in your blood sugar, my friend.

‘As soon as you have a blood sugar high, which can come from too many white refined carbs - if you have a big bowl of white pasta and a sugary cocktail and a sugary dessert afterwards, you then get a blood sugar crash’, Lily explained. ‘And when you have low blood sugar it actually induces a stress response within the body, which stimulates the stress hormone Cortisol’.

This particular hormone is what could be behind your 3 am wakefulness. It could also be the reason why you struggle to get back to sleep afterwards, too. ‘If your blood sugar is low just before bed as well it can be very difficult to drift off at night and it’s just because it’s inducing that stress response within the body’. Thinking of it in terms of a stress response makes it a little easier to relate to sleep. It’s widely understood that it’s harder to fall asleep when you’re stressed or anxious, and it would make sense for a stress or strain on your body would have the same effect as it would on your mind, right?

‘It’s the same with skipping meals’, Lily said. ‘If you don’t eat supper or dinner that can be just as detrimental to sleep because your blood sugar drops before you even get into bed’.

It’s totally okay to have a snack in the middle of the night

Lily explained that if you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night and unable to drift off again, having a small snack could actually help. But you need to make sure it’s something that’s easy to digest.

‘Something with carbohydrates I would say, but slow release carbs’, she explained. ‘So, nothing which is white, like white bread, white pasta, white rice, white flour, which is too sugary. But an oatcake with some cottage cheese on it would be amazing. Or a slice of toast with nut butter. Or even a small bowl of porridge. Or a banana dipped in almond butter, which is easy to digest’.

Protein’s not just for the gym gains

The moment someone mentions any intention, reason or rhyme around keeping an eye on their protein intake, you’d be forgiven for assuming they’re talking about the gym. I’m guilty of it too. But it turns out that protein plays an important part in our sleep too. Who’d have thunk?

Chicken is a really rich source of Tryptophan, which is an amino acid - flashbacks to GCSE biology, anyone? ‘It’s part of a protein molecule, so it’s basically part of that structure for protein. And it’s the precursor to our sleep hormone, Melatonin’, Lily explained.

‘So, when you consume that protein with 30 grams of carbohydrate, studies show, you need those carbs alongside the tryptophan because it drastically increases the absorption and the conversion to the sleep hormone Melatonin’. All starting to add up, isn’t it! You’re probably pretty familiar with the term melatonin, especially if you’ve got a history of crappy sleep. But knowing how we produce/help the production along could be the tip you had no idea you needed.

We’ve covered chicken, which is a ‘very, very rich source’, but you can also find this magic amino acid it in dairy products – cottage cheese, for example – and then take your carbs from an unrefined wholemeal element like oatcakes or a slice of bread, Lily suggests. ‘But the combination is really important’. If you're stuck for ideas, Lily has a few recipes that might help you out too.

There’s method to the ‘warm glass of milk before bed’ madness

Just putting it out there: I hate warm milk. H-a-t-e it. I don’t know why but it really doesn’t sit right in my head and is really sad for my mouth. So it pains me deeply to confirm that the ‘have a glass of warm milk before bed’ mantra that our parents taught and I rebelled against, is actually good advice. Really.

Apparently, milk has Tryptophan too. And it’s also a source of carbs in itself so you’ve already got your winning melatonin combo right there. I’m not happy about it, but I’ll certainly be giving it a go.

You don’t have to eat at a specific time

No, there isn’t a specific, optimum time to have your dinner because it really depends on how stringently you stick to your bedtime. ‘I usually say around 3 hours before - give your body a chance to digest’, Lily said, though. ‘If you’re one of those people who get really hungry, (some people just do), then have that snack just before bed if you need it’.

The trouble with eating too close to your bedtime is that you’ll find yourself still digesting while you’re trying to nod off, and that’ll have a huge impact on how well you snooze. ‘Your sleep quality massively reduces because it takes energy to digest that food, so people can wake up feeling quite sluggish. But I generally say around 3 hours although there isn’t really much research on a set number of hours, to be completely honest’.

Work out your own caffeine cut off

You’ve probably got a mixture of colleagues who swear by their 4 pm Americano to get them through the rest of the working day. But, equally, I bet you know someone who wouldn’t dare have anything stronger than a green tea after midday because, well, sleep. Lily explained that’s because we all have completely different thresholds for what we can take, so don’t necessarily expect to be able to slip into asleep as easily as the espresso after dinner crew might.

‘Some people can drink caffeine right before they go to sleep and sleep fine, which is very rare’, Lily said. ‘It takes several hours to get caffeine out of the system so if you’re going to have coffee, stick to earlier on in the day. I wouldn’t go past 11 o’clock drinking caffeine if you have issues with sleeping, and just switch to more calming teas’. Yes, that means chamomile, guys. Lily confirmed that it’s known to be a great anti-anxiety herb and is shown to help promote sleep. One that you might not have tried yet is, though, is c. ‘A valerian route has again been shown to massively help with sleep disorders, a valerian tea an hour before bed may help induce sleep’. Worth a shot.

**Like this? You might also be interested in… **

Is My InsomniaCausedBy Anxiety Or Is It The Other Way Around?

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Why Do We Sleep Badly On A Sunday Night?

Follow Jazmin on Instagram @JazKopotsha

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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