For me, food and sleep are inextricably linked. The content of most of my dreams is culinary in nature: a lemon custard lake across which I amble in a gondola, a theater performance where audience members congratulate me with bouquets of almond croissants, a chase sequence down a hallway lined with whole wheat crackers. If any psychoanalysts are reading this, please, my dreams are ripe for a Freudian analysis. You know where to find me.
But seriously, is there actually something bigger at play between what we eat and how we sleep? My strange midnight fantasies aside, I wondered if our diets could have some effect on the quality, quantity and consistency of our slumbers. My hunch is that they do. I mean, the way and what we eat have such bearing on so many facets of our waking hours; why shouldn’t they also affect our less conscious ones?
I’m no expert. When it comes to sleep, all I really understand is that I do it and sometimes around 3 p.m. in the office, I wish it were happening to me. On top of that, I know even less about the relation between food and sleep—other than an article I read a few weeks ago that claimed eating cheese before bed could alter your dreams (no more night cheese for me!). Also, I overheard my coworker Ella talking about cinnamon and its ability to keep your temperature down while you're sleeping—which, obviously, I needed to know more about. So, I reached out to some people who actually do know what they’re talking about to indulge my curiosities.
Valerio Farris: Are food and sleep related? If so, how?
Georgia Rounder: There is a relationship between the food we eat and the quality of our sleep. In general, eating a nutrient-rich, balanced diet helps build the amino acids that play a key role in a solid night’s sleep. In regards to the specific nutrients that promote quality sleep, foods high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fat promote satiety and stable blood sugar levels—both of which prevent us from feeling hungry and restless throughout the night. On the flip side, foods that tend to spike blood sugar, such as refined grains and sugary snacks, can often lead to late-night cravings and sleeping less restfully.
Rachel Stahl: Yes, there is a clear connection between food and sleep. Nutrients in food can modify the chemical reactions in the body that control sleep. This can have effects on sleep quality, duration, time it takes to fall asleep, and even how you feel the next day.
VF: What are the best foods to eat before bed? What are the worst?
GR: The ideal food combination to have before bed is complex carbohydrates and protein as these two macronutrients are a satiating pair that help prevent a dip in blood sugar that can cause a lighter sleep. Some of the best foods include a slice of whole grain bread with a tablespoon of nut butter, a serving of Greek yogurt with berries, and a cup of high-fiber cereal with almond milk.
The worst foods to eat before bed are those that have potential stimulants such as caffeine and added sugars, as well as spicy or fried foods that can cause indigestion prior to bedtime. This includes foods like coffee, chocolate, chips, and anything prepared with chili peppers or another spicy seasoning.
RS: The Best:
Foods with fiber: Whole grains like quinoa, bran cereal, beans, legumes.
Cherries: Cherries are one of the few foods that naturally contain melatonin, the sleep hormone.
Pumpkin seeds: They contain magnesium which helps muscles relax, and tryptophan to promote a restful night’s sleep.
Hummus: It's one of my favorite foods to eat before bed is hummus, which is high in tryptophan. I recommend a 2 tablespoon portion, pair with fresh cut veggies or a few whole grain crackers.
Kiwi: It's high in fiber, and packed with Vitamins C, E, serotonin, and folate which may help you sleep.
Banana: May help promote sleep because it contains magnesium and potassium.
Combo of a protein and fiber-rich snack, such as nonfat Greek yogurt or oatmeal with fresh fruit or nuts/seeds; banana and peanut or nut butter; edamame.
Refined carbohydrates: This includes white bread and white rice.
Sugary foods: Things like cookies, cakes, donuts, sugar-sweetened beverages.
High fat (particularly, unhealthy saturated fat): This can trigger inflammation which can affect sleep; it also taxes your digestive system leading to poorer sleep.
Caffeine & energy drinks: While coffee and energy drinks are obvious culprits of sleep disruption, be aware of less obvious choices like chocolate and certain teas.
For when you wake up
VF: Is timing important?
RS: Yes, it’s not just what you eat, but when you eat that matters. If you plan to eat a snack before bed, I recommend eating a snack about two to four hours before bed, but keep the snack small.
VF: When is the best time to eat dinner in relation to your bed time?
GR: There is no one "perfect" time to eat dinner in relation to your bedtime as this really depends on your personal schedule and eating pattern throughout the rest of the day. But in order to prevent going to sleep on a full stomach, eating dinner about three hours before bed provides more of a window for your body to digest the food you consumed at this meal. Eating at this time can also help prevent a spike in blood sugar levels prior to or during sleep which can lead to restlessness and an overall lighter sleep.
VF: Can cheese really influence the content of your dreams?
GR: According to a study conducted by the British Cheese Board, eating different types of cheese may cause us to have certain types of dreams throughout the night. However, this is one isolated study of a mere 200 participants so it is hard to determine how dramatically cheese consumption affects our dreams at this point.
VF: I have heard that eating/drinking cinnamon before bed is good if you get hot while you sleep because it stabilizes your blood sugar. Is this true?
GR: Some research has shown that cinnamon may be helpful in managing normal blood sugar levels for individuals with diabetes. In regards to its effects on body temperature specifically, one animal study did find that cinnamon lowered the body temperature of the animals being studied; however, this relationship has not yet been found in humans. Thus, there is not yet conclusive evidence as to whether ingesting cinnamon significantly affects our body temperature while sleeping.
RS: Eating or drinking cinnamon may lead to better blood sugar levels by lowering insulin resistance, but to my knowledge, there is no definitive research is available to support this claim as yet.
Looks like cheese, me and late night snacks won't be parting ways anytime soon, after all.
What are your before bed tips to wind down? Tell us about them in the comments.