By Michael Breus, PhD, ABSM
We’re talking a lot these days about the connection between sleep and weight: How a strong sleep routine can help keep weight problems in check, and how sleep deprivation contributes to obesity and weight-related health problems, such as diabetes. A poor sleep routine can seriously undermine a healthy diet, leading to eating the wrong foods at the wrong times, and can make it difficult to lose weight or to keep weight off.
So we know that sleep has a great effect on how we eat. But does how we eat—or more precisely, what we eat—have an effect on our sleep? One thing we might not be talking about enough is how choosing the right foods can help strengthen sleep.
Foods full of vitamins and minerals are the basic components of a healthy diet, promoting healthy cell function, helping regulate weight, providing the energy we need to get through our busy days. Many of the foods that are most healthful to our bodies and our waistlines are also the foods that can help us sleep better. Here are some suggestions for creating a sleep-friendly diet.
Reach for these healthy, mineral-rich foods
Magnesium is a mineral that functions to relax nerves and muscles and also promotes healthy circulation. Deficiencies of magnesium have been associated with several sleep disorders, including insomnia and restless leg syndrome. Foods high in magnesium are some of the most sleep-friendly foods around.
Bananas are a great source of magnesium. So are many other nutrient-rich, waist-friendly foods, including:
Fruits: in addition to bananas, avocados, berries and melons
Leafy greens: spinach and Swiss chard
Nuts and seeds: including cashews, almonds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and nut or seed butters
Beans: black beans, tofu, soybeans
Whole grains: brown rice, millet, wheat and oat bran
Potassium is another key mineral in the body that helps to relax muscles and nerves, as well as to promote healthy circulation and digestion. Research has shown a possible genetic link between potassium and slow-wave sleep: a study at the University of Wisconsin found that a gene in fruit flies that is responsible for regulating the flow of potassium is also the gene that allows for slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave sleep, also known as delta sleep, is the deepest phase of our sleep cycle, the time when we get our most restorative sleep.
Bananas win again, as a great source of potassium as well as magnesium. Other healthy foods that contain high levels of potassium are:
Vegetables: leafy greens, mushrooms, tomatoes, and cauliflower
Beans: including lima, soybeans, lentils, pinto and kidney beans
Fish: salmon, cod, and flounder
Citrus: especially in juice form, in sources like orange juice
Calcium is a mineral that plays a direct role in the production of melatonin, the “sleep hormone” that helps to maintain the body’s 24-hour sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin levels rise naturally during the night, helping to promote sleep, and are suppressed during the day, allowing us to be alert and wakeful. Calcium, like magnesium and potassium, is also a natural relaxant in the body.
Dairy products are rich in calcium and can be a good choice for a sleep-friendly evening snack. That glass of milk your mom had you drink before bed? Turns out, mom was right. There are other non-dairy foods that are also packed with calcium. If you’re not fan of yogurt, milk, or cheese, try these options for bringing more sleep-promoting calcium into your diet:
Dark leafy greens: turnip greens, collards, spinach, mustard greens, kale
Nuts and seeds: Brazil nuts, almonds, sesame seeds
Soy: tofu, soymilk
On the subject of melatonin: There are very few foods that contain melatonin and can therefore provide the body with a natural source of this important hormone. Melatonin supplements are readily available, but don’t work the same way in the body that a naturally produced or derived melatonin will. One of the very few sources of melatonin in foods? Cherries. One study found that adults who drank tart cherry juice in the morning and the evening for two weeks reported significant reduction in insomnia. Fresh and dried cherries, as well as cherry juice, are a potent natural source of melatonin.
Take your vitamins
It’s a great plan to try to get as many of your nutrients from whole foods as possible—structuring your diet this way will naturally lead you to eating well. But vitamin and mineral supplements can play an important role in helping maintain your health and your sleep. These are some of the best supplements for sleep:
Vitamin B. There are several supplements on the B spectrum that can boost your sleep. Vitamin B3 (also known as Niacin) has been shown to promote REM sleep. Vitamin B6 helps the body to produce serotonin, which is known as the “calming hormone.”
Calcium and Magnesium. In addition to creating a diet in calcium- and magnesium-rich foods, these minerals can also be effective in supplement form. Taking these together in a 2:1 ratio (calcium: magnesium) can help the body prepare for sleep and also guard against the deficiencies of these important minerals that have been linked to sleep disorders.
Vitamin D. This supplement has made plenty of news in recent years, with much discussion of how deficiencies in Vitamin D can lead to depression, weight problems, and difficulties with sleep. This recent study of veterans suffering from both chronic pain and Vitamin D deficiency found that Vitamin D supplements led to both a reduction in pain and improvement to sleep and to the veterans’ sense of well being.
There is no single magic bullet that can eliminate sleep problems—that is to say, switching to a bananas-only diet not only isn’t practical, it isn’t going to make your sleep troubles disappear. Creating and maintaining a strong sleep routine is about more than just what you eat—but eating well can surely help.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™