What should you eat to optimize your sleep?

Good sleep is inseparable from good health. In fact, lack of sleep can increase the risks of cardiovascular disease, weight gain, diabetes, or even depression.

Our diet directly influences the quality of our sleep. As such, maintaining an appropriate diet throughout the day helps us to benefit from a good night’s rest.

Alongside nutritionist Anthony Berthou, we explain in this article which types of nutrition to choose in order to optimize your sleep.

We run on 24-hour rhythms

Almost all of our body’s biological functions are regulated by 24-hour cycles: that’s what we call our circadian rhythm. Our internal clock is going to act as the conductor that will regulate different function’s circadian rhythms. In this way, it will control the production of the sleep hormone (melatonin) at the end of the day and the awake hormone (dopamine) in the morning, take care of lowering our body temperature and our heart rate at night, and even manage memory consolidation during our sleep.

An important element will help our biological clocks to synchronize with a 24-hour rhythm: light. You see, the retina will capture variations in light, which will effectively tell our brains to secrete the appropriate daytime or nighttime hormones, making us awake or sleepy.

The sleep cycle

Our sleep is made up of a series of approximately 90-minute cycles, ranging from 4 to 6 cycles per night. Each cycle is comprised of different phases:

  • Light sleep, which lasts about 20 minutes
  • Deep sleep, which is very restorative
  • REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the period in which we dream

In order to optimize your sleep, it is important for the moment that we fall asleep to be as close as possible to the moment when we naturally begin our first cycle. Conversely, when there is more time that passes between falling asleep and the beginning of the first cycle, you will feel that your sleep was not restorative.

To identify the beginning of our sleep cycle, the body sends us different signals: yawns, irritated eyes, drowsiness, concentration problems… So, it is essential to go to bed at the first indications of fatigue in order to not miss the “sleep train.”

Which food for which meal?

Neurotransmitters are vital to our circadian rhythm regulation:

  • In the morning, we need dopamine and norepinephrine, which are going to be our basis for waking up and getting motivated.
  • At night, we need serotonin and melatonin, which are responsible for calming down and regulating sleep.

That’s why it is necessary to prioritize a diet that boosts the production of these neurotransmitters at the right times of day.

1) Breakfast

For breakfast, it is recommended to consume a source of animal protein. These will promote dopamine production, which will stimulate us waking up and feeling motivated. Besides boosting our motivation and alertness, this dopamine production will maximize our circadian rhythm regulation. So, we are getting ready for bed as soon as we eat breakfast!

You can, for example, opt for:

1 or 2 eggs

or 1 yogurt (goat or sheep’s milk)

or 1 ounce of cheese

or 1 piece of high quality ham

There are also plant-based alternatives, especially nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews, etc.). Chia seeds are another vegetarian alternative, even though they contain less protein per portion.

👉 Check out our article on the ideal breakfast

2) Lunch

At mid-day, it is also recommended to have some protein – animal or plant – in order have enough energy to last until the end of the day. For example, you can go for:

4.2 oz of fish or poultry

or 2 eggs

or 4.2 oz of tofu

or 5.3 oz of cooked legumes (lentils, beans, chickpeas, etc.) even if they are not the ideal option because of their carbohydrate content

These proteins must be paired with legumes whose fiber content will help you feel full and whose low glycemic index will allow for a steady release of energy in the body.

👉 Check out our article on the ideal lunch

3) Snack

For a snack, you can choose a fruit or two pieces of dark chocolate. They will serve as your carbohydrate intake: via insulin secretion, these carbohydrates will promote the production of serotonin, the neurotransmitter which is responsible for relaxation and wellbeing.

Pair this carb intake with a small handful of fatty acids (ideally walnuts and almonds), which will provide tryptophan, an amino acid from which serotonin will be synthesized.

👉 Check out our article on the ideal snack

4) Dinner

In the evening, choose a vegetarian meal without meat, fish, or eggs! In fact, tyrosine – present mostly in animal proteins – promotes dopamine production, a neurotransmitter fuels our experience of waking up and being motivated. If dopamine is ideal in the morning for getting ready, then at night our body needs to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for calming down and regulating sleep. This serotonin is synthesized by tryptophan, an amino acid that we find in plant-based proteins: legumes, soy, wholegrain rice, sunflower seeds, chocolate…

Additionally, animal proteins contain amino acids which compete with tryptophan. These amino acids will slow down the tryptophan’s path to the brain; as such, it is not absorbed as well, which affects serotonin production, and therefore, sleep.

Lastly, animal proteins (and cooked fats in particular) put too much stress on our bodies in the evening because their digestion time is longer. The body is going to have to produce more energy, and therefore more heat, to allow this digestion. However, our bodies need to lower their temperature at night in order to sleep.

So, instead, opt for a portion of vegetable protein, as well as for foods which promote serotonin production:

Walnuts and almonds

Yogurts and cheese

Carbohydrates (whole grains or fruits)

👉 Check out our article on the ideal dinner

Sleep disruptors

Different elements can disrupt our sleep and prevent restorative rest.

Dietary disruptors:

1) Coffee


Due to its caffeine quantity, coffee stimulates the nervous system for 6 hours after its consumption. To a lesser extent, tea also helps to stimulate our brains.

2) Alcohol


Even though it leads to drowsiness, alcohol also creates a release of adrenaline throughout the night and lowers melatonin levels.

3) Excess animal protein at dinner


As we’ve seen, it is better to go for vegetable proteins at night, which contain carbohydrates and tryptophan which will allow for serotonin synthesis.

4) Cabbage and fermented foods


Cabbage and fermented foods like sauerkraut can lead to bloating and therefore reduce the quality of your sleep.

5) Spices


Spices – like pepper, paprika, or chili –should be avoided at night for people with gastrointestinal sensitivities.

6) Fried fatty foods


Cooked fats – especially those that are fried – increase digestion time and can therefore disrupt sleep.

Optimize your magnesium intake!

Magnesium deficiencies are common. These deficiencies can present themselves through different ways which can disrupt sleep: sensitivity to stress, irritability, anxiety, nervousness, night cramps…

Foods with the richest magnesium content are the following:

  • Dark chocolate (min. 70% cocoa)
  • Nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, hazelnuts…)
  • Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, white beans…)
  • Whole grains (buckwheat, oats, rye, brown rice…)
  • Sardines in oil
  • Seafood
  • Spinach
  • Figs

Other disruptors:

1) Stress and anxiety


Stress and anxiety affect the quality of our sleep: they create difficulties falling asleep and can lead to insomnia. Mindfulness meditation and even self-hypnosis are practices that can help to reduce stress levels before going to bed.

2) Blue light


The use of screens (computer, tv, phone) at night should be eliminated. These screens produce a blue light which activates up to 100 times more photoreceptors than white light does. As a result, they disrupt our natural circadian rhythm and reduce our sleep time. So, avoid screens as much as possible before going to sleep. The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) recommends limiting the use of LED devices, which are richest in blue light. It is also necessary to fall asleep in a dark environment in order to promote melatonin secretion.

3) Heat


At night, our bodies need to lower their temperature in order to have quality sleep. So, avoid hot baths and showers before going to bed and remember to cool down your room at night to an ideal 62.5°F.

With all of these tips, wishing you good night’s sleep  🌙

Sources

  • Knutson KL, Spiegel K, Penev P, Van Cauter E. The metabolic consequences of sleep deprivation. Sleep Med Rev. 2007 Jun;11(3):163-78.
  • Hercberg S, Galan P, Preziosi P, Bertrais S, Mennen L, Malvy D, Roussel AM, Favier A, Briançon S. The SU.VI.MAX Study: a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of the health effects of antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Arch Intern Med. 2004 Nov 22;164(21):2335-42. Erratum in: Arch Intern Med. 2005 Feb 14;165(3):286. PubMed PMID: 15557412.
  • Colzato LS, Jongkees BJ, Sellaro R, van den Wildenberg WP, Hommel B. Eating to stop: tyrosine supplementation enhances inhibitory control but not response execution. Neuropsychologia. 2014 Sep;62:398-402.
  • Ohayon MM. Epidemiology of insomnia: what we know and what we still need to learn. Sleep Med Rev. 2002 Apr;6(2):97-111.
  • Markus CR, Jonkman LM, Lammers JH, Deutz NE, Messer MH, Rigtering N. Evening intake of alpha-lactalbumin increases plasma tryptophan availability and improves morning alertness and brain measures of attention. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 May;81(5):1026-33.
  • Møller SE. Carbohydrate/protein selection in a single meal correlated with plasma tryptophan and tyrosine ratios to neutral amino acids in fasting individuals. Physiol Behav. 1986;38(2):175-83.
  • Spiegel K, Knutson K, Leproult R, Tasali E, Van Cauter E. Sleep loss: a novel risk factor for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2005 Nov;99(5):2008-19.
  • Van Cauter E, Holmback U, Knutson K, Leproult R, Miller A, Nedeltcheva A, Pannain S, Penev P, Tasali E, Spiegel K. Impact of sleep and sleep loss on neuroendocrine and metabolic function. Horm Res. 2007;67 Suppl 1:2-9.
  • Wurtman RJ, Wurtman JJ, Regan MM, McDermott JM, Tsay RH, Breu JJ. Effects of normal meals rich in carbohydrates or proteins on plasma tryptophan and tyrosine ratios. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Jan;77(1):128-32.
  • Anses - https://www.anses.fr/fr/content/led-les-recommandations-de-l%E2%80%99anses-pour-limiter-l%E2%80%99exposition-%C3%A0-la-lumi%C3%A8re-bleue
  • Article Yuka sur le petit déjeuner : https://yuka.io/fondamentaux/petit-dejeuner-ideal/
  • Article Yuka sur le déjeuner : https://yuka.io/fondamentaux/le-dejeuner/
  • Article Yuka sur le goûter : https://yuka.io/fondamentaux/le-gouter/
  • Article Yuka sur le dîner : https://yuka.io/fondamentaux/le-diner/

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8 comments

  1. Sandie

    When I click on “ideal dinner” option, it links to an article in another language and I speak English.

    1
    Reply
  2. Karen

    Am I understanding that it IS good to eat cheese and yogurt in the evening to produce serotonin? Would these be vegetarian products and not dairy?

    Reply
  3. Yvette

    Very good information, all my Health questions were answered especially what I should eat before going to bed, I hope it will change my sleep pattern

    Reply
  4. Patty

    Excellent article- the information and the way it was put together

    Reply
  5. Anne

    That made a lot of sense. Thanks!

    Reply
  6. Michelle

    The colder, the better for me! I have found that my most comfortable sleep temperature for my bedroom is 59 degrees! I sleep like a baby!!

    1
    Reply
  7. Juliet

    NIght temperature at 62.5? I turn our thermostat down to 73 at night, and still need a sheet, a comforter, and two blankets to keep from freezing. Maybe that’s because I live in Texas, and am used to 100° temperatures during the day! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Reply
    1. Judy

      I would have trouble with 62 degrees as well. My lowest would be 67-68.

      Reply