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Can foods improve our sleep?

Market stall with fruits & vegetables

Why do we need sleep?

Sleep is essential for healing and repair. As a result, not having enough sleep both in terms of time and quality can have important impacts on mental and physical health as well as our quality of life. Chronic sleep issues can lead to many health problems and can alter how we think, work, learn, react, deal with what life throws at us, and our interactions with others. It also affects our attention span, our ability to make or take decisions and our emotions. Studies have shown a link between sleep deficiency, anxiety, depression, suicide and behavioural problems.

Because sleep allows healing and repair, deficiency can also result in increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and stroke.

Sleep deficiency, obesity and diseases

The link with obesity is an interesting one. As sleep maintains the proper functioning of our hormones, deficiency can lead to dysfunction of the hormones regulating our appetite:  the levels of ghrelin (the hormone that makes us feel hungry) increases and those of leptin (the hormone that makes us feel full) decrease. Thus, we feel hungrier and less able to detect when we feel full and this can lead to weight gain. Sleep deficiency also impacts insulin (the hormone that regulates our blood sugar levels):  disruptions in insulin lead to high blood sugar levels, which have been linked to increased risk of obesity and diabetes.

Sleep deficiency affects our growth hormones: ensuring good sleep is therefore crucial in children development.

Sleep deficiency also alters our ability to fight infections as it reduces the strength of our immune system.

Lastly, sleep deficiency has important repercussions on safety as increased fatigue can lead to accidents (road, flight, factories…).

Foods and sleep – what foods encourage sleep?

As mentioned before, sleep allows healing & repair to take place. Thus sleep issues equate to stress on the body, commonly called oxidative stress and foods that have antioxidant properties can counteract this. The types of foods we eat can also affect not only daytime alertness but also nighttime sleep.

Here are a few ways we can encourage sleep through foods:

  • Avoid high intake of simple carbohydrates & refined sugars such as white pasta/rice/bread, cakes, cookies, ice creams, takeaways, processed/refined foods, confectionary; energy drinks; sugar-sweetened beverages; saturated fat and low fibre foods. These are all associated with poor sleep quality. Meat consumption may worsen sleep quality as well so eat meat in moderation.
  • Skipping breakfast and eating irregularly is associated with poor sleep quality.
  • Eat real foods that are balanced, where each meal has:
  • 75% colourful vegetables
  • some healthy fats such as oily fish (sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon, herring), nuts & seeds, avocado, extra virgin olive oil
  • a palm-size portion of protein, preferably plant-based but pasture-raised or wild-caught if animal-based
  • add anti-inflammatory condiments such as turmeric, ginger, rosemary, capsaicin, green tea, and bone broth.
  • Increase intake of foods rich in tryptophan: beans, salmon, mackerel, milk, nuts and seeds, seafood, turkey, chicken, oats and grains… Tryptophan is the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, itself a precursor to melatonin, which regulates sleep.
  • Clinical evidence also supports the sleep-promoting effects of tart cherries and kiwifruit.

Sleep is therefore not a “waste of time” but an essential component of health. Follow these simple dietary tips above and give sleep a priority in your life. This will lead to more energy, focus, vitality and wellbeing.

If you are suffering from asleep issues, we recommend you consult with a Nutritional Therapist. You can get in touch with me here or call me on 07788 444 199.


St-Onge, M-P. Mikic, A & Pietrolungo, C.E. (2016), “Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality”, Advances in Nutrition, 7 (5), pp.938–949.