Relationship Between Nutrition and SleepAlcohol is a tricky compound when it comes to sleep. At first glance, alcohol can be seen as a helpful tool to get sleep. It is a central nervous system depressant, helping to slow down brain activity and cause feelings of relaxation, and inducing drowsiness and sleepiness. As a result, it often helps people get to sleep. The benefits end there, however, and are outweighed by a more consolidated first-half sleep cycle and an increase in sleep disruption during the second half.
Nutrition for Optimal Sleep
By: Jeremy Partl, Registered Dietitian
“It’s hard to overstate the value of sleep for recovery (and health in general). Chronically poor sleep, such as in those with sleep apnea, comes with an increased risk of hypertension, heart attack, and stroke independent of obesity, age, and gender, as well as fatigue and sleepiness and the downstream effects they have on your daily life. Less extreme cases of poor sleep, such as the build-up of “sleep debt,” can result in impaired cognitive, immunological, metabolic, and hormonal functions. And, that is for people who aren’t trying to build new muscle and recovery from strenuous training at night. Perhaps most telling is the simple fact that the circadian cycle of sleep and wakefulness is as necessary to the survival and function or the human organism as food and water.”
This quote comes from an earlier Barbell Logic article on sleep for better recovery from training. It talks about how necessary sleep is for human function and hints at the detrimental impact of too little and poor quality sleep on body composition, performance, and health.
In addition to that article, check out this article, which covers a deeper dive into the science of sleep and provides some sleep best practices when it comes to lifestyle factors.
In this article, I would like to expand the sleep discussion by focusing on nutrition and exploring the impact of selection and timing of food intake on sleep and sleep quality.
Foods and Habits That Improve Sleep Quality
Lighter and Earlier Evening Meals
Chrononutrition is the intersection of circadian biology and diet. Thanks to the study of chrononutrition, we have an improved understanding of how various biological processes related to metabolism, digestion, and hormone secretion are impacted by the time that we eat:
- Rates of gastric emptying peak in the morning, meaning that it takes longer for food to leave the stomach and be digested. 
- Your body has an improved capacity to metabolize carbohydrates. 𝛃eta-cell function of the pancreas is 15% higher in the morning, and there are larger fluctuations in blood sugar after eating in the evening vs. the same meal eaten in the morning. 
- Diet-induced thermogenesis, the increase in energy expenditure above baseline fasting level, has been found to be 44% lower in the evening vs. morning, which may contribute to the understood effects of meal-timing on body weight regulation.
The above conclusions suggest that it may be beneficial to avoid eating at night and that biasing more calories to earlier in the day may be superior for metabolic health and body composition.
While that may be enough evidence to suggest that we all avoid large meals before bed and shift more of our calories to earlier in the day, let’s get practical and logistical about the matter as well.
How many times have you gone to bed after eating a massive dinner and felt very comfortable? Eating large meals close to bedtime interferes with the body’s process of winding down for sleep by ensuring that digestion is going at its max capacity throughout the night, leaving you with stomach pains and discomfort.
This is especially important for people who suffer from acid reflux, heartburn, and indigestion. Lying flat while going to sleep can allow the backflow of acid from the stomach into the esophagus, reaching as high as your throat and larynx, causing a coughing or choking sensation that often keeps people from getting through their full sleep cycles.
This is a hard battle to fight. Either people are so accustomed to the Western society’s massive dinner and dessert, or they find themselves hungriest at the end of the evening (due to things like restriction earlier in the day, boredom, etc.).
If possible, follow the old adage of “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” Eating a fair-sized dinner three to four hours prior to bedtime will probably be a good starting prescription for most people.
Honor Your Hunger
You may think I am contradicting myself when I talk about honoring your hunger and eating before bed.
Despite the entire section above, it is important that you do eat something. Why?
- You want to make sure that your blood sugar stays stable throughout the night. If your blood sugar drops during the overnight hours, this could leave you waking up sweating, shaking, and clamoring for a midnight snack. At a minimum, this could just wake you up throughout the night and impair full cycles of sleep. 
- Even though our body’s metabolic processes might slow down when we’re asleep, our bodies’ repair and restoration functions ramp up.
- Having hunger pangs throughout the night can wake you up (often unnoticeably) and prevent you from getting good quality sleep that leaves you rested and refreshed in the morning.
- It’s possible that going to bed starving could result in unmanageable hunger in the morning, leading you to make poor decisions as you start your day.
Instead of eating a full-sized meal right before bed, try a light snack in the hour or two before bed if you have slight hunger.
Pair Protein and Carbohydrates in the Evening
The above point might leave you questioning what foods are best before bed? The answer usually lies within the realm of two macronutrients—protein and carbohydrates.
These macronutrients help to produce important neurotransmitters like tryptophan, serotonin, and melatonin, all of which help to improve the quality of sleep. For instance, it is proposed that the production of serotonin with carbohydrates may help you to fall asleep faster and keep you in the deeper stages of sleep. 
Studies have suggested that foods such as milk, fatty fish, cherries, and kiwifruit provide benefits for immediate and acute sleep improvement without large changes in dietary patterns. 
Just because you want some carbohydrates doesn’t mean you should just slam a Gatorade or a pop tart. High-glycemic carbohydrates may help you to get to sleep, but they may also wake you up as your blood sugar rides the rollercoaster, then tanks.
So, what are some good pre-bed snack suggestions?
- Low-fat cottage cheese with fruit
- Small peanut butter sandwich with milk
- A protein shake with fruit and nut butter
- Cheese with whole-wheat crackers
Foods and Habits that Decrease Sleep Quality
Alcohol is a tricky compound when it comes to sleep. At first glance, and most readily, alcohol can be seen as a helpful tool to get sleep. It is a central nervous system depressant, helping to slow down brain activity and cause feelings of relaxation, and inducing drowsiness and sleepiness. As a result, it often helps people get to sleep.
However, the benefits end there and are outweighed by a more consolidated first-half sleep cycle and an increase in sleep disruption during the second half. As the night progresses, this can create an imbalance between slow-wave sleep (more) and REM sleep (less), decreasing overall sleep quality via shorter sleep duration and more sleep disruptions.  Furthermore, alcohol can also contribute to abnormalities of circadian rhythms and increase breathing-related sleep events such as snoring and oxygen desaturation, especially in those with pre-existing problems like sleep apnea. 
Because the effects of alcohol are different from person-to-person, even low amounts of alcohol can reduce sleep quality for some people. For instance, one study from 2018 found that
- Low amounts of alcohol (fewer than two servings per day for men or one serving per day for men) decreased sleep quality by 9.3%.
- Moderate amounts of alcohol (two servings per day for men or one serving per day for women) decreased sleep quality by 24%.
- High amounts of alcohol (more than two servings per day for men or one serving per day for women) decreased sleep quality by 39.2%.
Because the effects of alcohol are relatively long-lasting, it’s suggested to avoid alcohol in the 4-6 hours leading up to bed.
Knowing that 1) most people will not stop drinking alcohol and 2) most will likely drink in the evening, my best suggestion is to keep intake low and reduce the frequency of enjoying alcoholic beverages to 1-2x per week on nights prior to days where you don’t need to be as alert.
Consuming Caffeine and Other Stimulants
For most people, the day starts off with a jolt of alertness and focus via a brew of coffee, tea, or another vehicle of caffeine.
Caffeine stimulates your central nervous system by blocking the adenosine receptors, a neurotransmitter that helps to bring on drowsiness and to regulate your sleep-wake cycles. While you typically feel the effects of caffeine within fifteen minutes, the impact lasts much longer. The half-life of caffeine averages around six hours, meaning that six hours after you consumed 200mg of caffeine, you still have roughly 100mg floating around in your bloodstream. The consequences of caffeinated impacted sleep are prolonged sleep latency, reduced total sleep time and sleep efficiency, and worsened perceived sleep quality.
Because so many people have habitually consumed caffeine that they can manage moderate caffeine consumption (>400 mg, or about four cups of coffee) early in the day without compromising sleep. Regardless, there is a general guideline to curtail caffeine consumption by 2 PM at the latest.
So, it may not be the best idea to drink a big scoop of your pre-workout for a late-evening training session. The risk may be greater than the rewards. Otherwise, you could find a stimulant-free pre-workout that won’t leave you wired for hours.
In general, all stimulants (even things like nicotine and some medications) should be avoided in the afternoon and before bed.
This point adds a layer to the multiple points referenced earlier in the article. The most common foods that are acid-producing and/or hard to digest are spicy foods, very high-fat foods, citrus fruits, carbonated and caffeinated drinks, alcohol, and mint can also trigger indigestion.
It’s best to avoid these foods in the few hours leading up to bed if you can, but especially right before bed. If you do eat them, eat them early and in small portions.
Excess Fluid Intake
Drinking too much before bed can make you get up to use the bathroom, commonly called “nocturia.” These interruptions to sleep can disrupt your sleep cycle, making you feel less rested in the morning.
However, due to breathing, sweating, and other body functions, you may drop a pound or two just in fluid weight. More importantly, going to bed even mildly dehydrated can disrupt your sleep as a result of dry mouth and nasal passages, causing sleep-disruptive snoring and a parched throat and hoarseness in the morning. In addition, a lack of pre-bed hydration can also lead to nocturnal leg cramps that may keep you awake.
The best strategy? Wake up and start off on the right foot by guzzling a few glasses of water (even before you get to your cup of coffee). Then, make sure to drink fluid regularly throughout the day, tapering as bedtime approaches. It’s not the end of the world to have a glass of water or milk before bed, but do your best to front-load the majority of your fluid intake to earlier in the day. It’s not wise to completely stop drinking all afternoon and evening, nor would it be wise to drink a gallon in the hours before bed.
Maximizing Your Gains
When it comes to the strength training crowd, one of the highest priorities is building and protecting those gains that you are working for in the gym. That being said, it would not be right to neglect the impact of pre-sleep protein on performance and body composition.
Thanks to an increased focus on this topic over the last few years, there has been considerable forward movement in understanding the impact of pre-sleep protein ingestion on the muscle adaptive response to exercise.
The best synopsis of the evidence comes from a 2019 review:
“Protein ingestion prior to sleep can be applied in combination with resistance-type exercise training to further augment the gains in muscle mass and strength when compared to no protein supplementation. However, whether this beneficial effect on pre-sleep protein ingestion on muscle mass and strength gain during resistance-type exercise training are due to an increased total protein intake rather than by its specific timing remains elusive, and warrants further research.”
To make it simple: with our current level of understanding on the topic, pre-sleep protein ingestion can be considered as an additional opportunity to increase total daily protein intake and sustain overnight protein synthesis (and not breakdown). But, if your protein intake is adequate throughout the day, it may not make a big difference.
While the literature isn’t conclusive, I still encourage clients to include protein in their final meal/snack to help keep blood sugar stable, ensure adequate protein intake, and even keep hunger at bay.
Watch What You’re Eating Throughout the Day Too
While the main focus of this article was to think about what to eat and drink during the hours leading into bed, it’s also not the best thing to forget about the overall quality of your diet.
For instance, low fiber and high saturated fat and sugar intake are associated with lighter, less restorative sleep with more arousals. Furthermore, deficiencies in vitamin B1, folate, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, and selenium are associated with shorter sleep duration. 
Realistically, for your best night’s sleep, the best diet for sleep is also going to be a diet that is good for your health. Strive to eat a balanced diet that emphasizes an abundance of plants and produce, low-fat proteins, and high-quality sources of fat. Not only will this style of eating provide you a wide range of macronutrients and micronutrients that give you stable amounts of energy, but it also can help to maintain a proper weight that reduces the likelihood of struggling with sleep disorders like sleep apnea.
Just as eating the perfect amount of calories and macronutrients won’t necessarily give you your ideal body, tailoring your nutrition won’t necessarily mean that your sleep will be perfect. Yes, you can influence your sleep with proper dietary choices. However, if you neglect other key lifestyle components, your sleep could suffer.
Nutrition is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to a perfect night’s sleep.
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