An estimated 14.5 percent of adults in the U.S. consistently have trouble sleeping, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you can relate, you've likely already been told or read that it’s best to minimize caffeine and alcohol. But the truth is, there’s way more to what factors into how well (or not) we sleep other than these two oft-discussed culprits.
As it can with other areas of health, food can work for or against you in terms of sleep. Here, a sleep doctor explains what to keep in mind and reveals her own go-to bedtime snack.
General Food Rules To Keep In Mind if You Have Trouble Sleeping
If getting good, high-quality sleep every night was as easy as noshing on a particular food before bedtime, no one would have sleep problems. “I haven't found any miracle foods that improve sleep,” says Dr. Janet Kennedy, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the founder of NYC Sleep Doctor. That said, there are foods that are bound to make your sleep issues worse and ones that scientific research says could help.
In terms of what to minimize if you’re having trouble sleeping, Dr. Kennedy says that high-sugar foods are at the top of the list. “Overloading on sweets at bedtime can have a negative effect on sleep,” she explains. The reason why sugar gets in the way of sleep is that when the body breaks down sugar, it turns it into energy—not exactly something you need when you’re trying to power it down. In a scientific study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, one group was fed a diet high in fats and fiber but low in sugar. The other group could eat whatever they wanted. Researchers found that the people who consumed more sugar spent less time in deep, slow-wave sleep.
Okay, so sugar and sleep don’t mix. What will work in your favor? Dr. Kennedy says to prioritize protein and fats. Many protein-rich foods contain tryptophan, an amino acid used to make melatonin, a hormone that facilitates sleep. Meat, dairy, nuts and fruit all contain tryptophan. As for foods with fats, while all fats are linked to supporting sleep, scientific studies show that omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, can support sleep. Fish and nuts are especially high in these healthy fats.
A Sleep Doctor’s Go-To Bedtime Snack
With this in mind, what does a sleep doctor like Dr. Kennedy eat when she wants a little something to nibble on after dinner? “If I need a snack after dinnertime, I try to choose something with protein and fat to balance out whatever carbohydrate I'm having. I might have peanut butter on toast or with an apple, Greek yogurt with berries, or, if I really need something sweet: dark chocolate-covered almonds,” she says. “I try to avoid very sugary snacks because they can cause blood sugar dysregulation which can cause night waking or diminish sleep quality.”
As Dr. Kennedy’s bedtime snack favorites show, it’s okay to have a little something sweet in the evening; peanut butter, berries, and dark chocolate all help satisfy that craving (although if you know you're very sensitive to caffeine, you may want to skip the dark chocolate!).
The key is to make sure protein and fats are incorporated too. That’s where both the Greek yogurt paired with the berries and the almonds that the chocolate coats come in. As for peanut butter, that’s a food that’s both sweet and has fats as well as protein—a balanced bedtime snack. Slathering it on whole-grain toast instead of white bread will also help keep blood sugar levels steady, which will work in your favor when it comes to sleep.
Dr. Kennedy says that it’s also important not to go to bed too hungry or too full—that can mess with your sleep too. “Being overly full or hungry can trigger insomnia and night waking due to reflux or blood sugar fluctuations,” she says. So if you are hungry in the evening, don’t be afraid to have a little snack before you head to bed.
When it comes to eating for sleep, it’s clear that what you want to avoid the most is spiking blood sugar levels, which is why filling up on high-sugar foods in the evening isn’t a great idea. You can still have something sweet, just make sure your snack is balanced with protein and fats to avoid that spike. With this in mind, you’ll be eating like a sleep doctor—and hopefully snoozing like one too.
Sleep Difficulties in Adults: United States, 2020. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Relationship Between Added Sugar Intake and Sleep Quality Among University Students: A Cross-sectional Study. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine
Fiber and Saturated Fat Are Associated With Sleep Arousals and Slow Wave Sleep. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine
Fish Consumption, Sleep, Daily Functioning, and Heart Rate Variability. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.