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Eat, sleep, repeat: why food matters for sleep

1st February 2024 • 4 min read

The fact is, when you eat better, you sleep better.

Nutrition and sleep: two essential ingredients for any healthy lifestyle. But did you know that the food and drinks you have during the day can affect how well you sleep? Believe it or not, food and sleep go hand-in-hand – like fish and chips, coffee and cake, kale and quinoa… well, you get the picture.

Why a healthy diet matters for quality sleep

While the relationship between food and sleep is still being investigated, researchers have established a clear link between the two. 

For example, research led by the University of Queensland found that teens who consumed junk food more than four days per week were about 50 per cent more likely to report disturbed sleep than those who only ate it once per week. 

Similarly, an Australian study showed high-fat diets increased the risk of daytime sleepiness and sleep apnoea in men, while another study found that eating things like legumes, fruit and vegetables was associated with faster sleep onset. 

How does this work? Research is ongoing, but experts believe that the foods we eat can influence the production of hormones like melatonin and serotonin in the body. Diet is also a key part of maintaining a healthy weight, which can, in turn, reduce your risk of developing certain sleep disorders.

Foods to avoid 

So which foods can disrupt your slumber? Here are a few to avoid, especially near bedtime:

  • Sugary, fatty foods: sugary treats might taste good, but they don’t necessarily lead to sweet dreams. The same goes for foods that are high in saturated fat, including dairy products, meat, biscuits, pastries and fast food. One US study found that diets high in sugar and saturated fat were linked to greater night-time restlessness and lighter, less restorative sleep.

  • Caffeine: though it’s most often found in drinks like tea and coffee, caffeine is also present in chocolate. If you love a chocolatey treat (and who doesn’t, right?), it’s best to have it earlier in the day or right after dinner. The Australian Sleep Health Foundation recommends avoiding caffeine for at least four hours before heading to bed.

  • Spicy foods: some people experience indigestion and heartburn after eating rich or spicy foods, which can make it harder for them to sleep comfortably. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to cut out all sugary, fatty, caffeinated and spicy foods from your diet – but you should limit your intake, especially if you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep. 

Now let’s nut out which foods can help you drift off and enjoy a blissful night in slumberland.

Foods to help you sleep

There’s no one food that will help you sleep better. Simply aim for a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables. This will improve your overall health and wellbeing and promote quality sleep.

That being said, a recent review by a group of Australian researchers indicated that some foods may be more sleep-friendly than others:

  • Tryptophan-rich foods: tryptophan is an amino acid that contributes to the production of serotonin and melatonin – both of which play a role in your sleep-wake cycle. As a result, eating foods that contain tryptophan (such as fish, chicken, eggs and cheese) may improve your quality of sleep.

  • Carbohydrates: foods that are high in carbohydrates (such as lentils, beans and brown rice), have also been linked to better sleep. This may be because carbohydrates help increase the amount of tryptophan in the brain. 

  • Melatonin-rich foods: good dietary sources of melatonin include eggs, fish, nuts, grapes and cherries, as well as wheat, barley and oats. There is evidence to suggest that eating melatonin-rich foods can boost the quality and duration of your sleep. 

  • Dietary supplements: zinc, B vitamins and other compounds may be helpful for some people, however this is still being explored. Ask a healthcare professional (such as your GP or an Accredited Practicing Dietitian) if a supplement might be beneficial for you.

Healthy eating habits

Now that you know what you should – and shouldn’t – be eating before bed, it’s time to build healthy eating habits. 

Remember, timing is everything! It's best to eat your last main meal of the day no less than two to three hours before going to bed. It’s okay to have a small snack before you hit the sack, but moderation is key. Your digestive system needs time to process foods, so try and avoid large, heavy meals close to bedtime. Go for something light instead, like a glass of milk or a banana.

Finally, it’s important to be mindful of what is (and isn’t) working for you. Take notice of how different foods affect your sleep. If you experience discomfort or disrupted sleep after certain meals (like a super-spicy vindaloo or greasy doner kebab), consider adjusting your diet accordingly.

Wondering which beverages to avoid before bed, too? Find out more here.

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