Here’s What You Should Know About Nutrition and Sleep

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When it comes to feeling healthy and refreshed, prioritizing sleep is non-negotiable. But whether it’s falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling rested in the morning, we all experience challenges from time to time. There are some simple habits most of us know can make it easier to get a good night’s sleep — for instance, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, creating a sleep-promoting environment, and avoiding blue light and caffeine close to bedtime. 

One of the lesser talked-about factors in sleep is diet, but research shows that good nutrition and sleep are like peanut butter and jelly. They just go together! Let’s examine what to eat more of — and less of — to help you catch better Z’s.

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see your healthcare provider immediately. Additionally, restrictions and regulations on supplements may vary by location. If you ever have any questions or concerns about a product you’re using, contact your doctor.

Long Story Short

  • Your everyday food choices can influence your sleep patterns, and how you sleep at night can influence the food choices you make, including cravings.
  • The best diet for better sleep prioritizes foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds that provide omega-3 fats, fiber, and lean protein, as well as nutrients like magnesium, tryptophan, melatonin, and calcium.
  • Ultra-processed foods that are high in added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, as well as caffeine and alcohol, are more likely to disrupt sleep and can worsen conditions like sleep apnea and acid reflux.

How Nutrition Affects Sleep

Nutrition is an evolving science, but one thing’s for sure: what we’re eating impacts literally every aspect of our health, including sleep. This means the food choices you’ve been making all week could very well play a role in how rested you feel tomorrow morning. More specifically, things like meal timing, nutrients, and even portion sizes (overeating or undereating) help shape your sleep patterns. (1)

Your body’s biological clock is called your circadian rhythm — it regulates your sleeping, waking, thirst, hunger, energy consumption, and metabolism. (2) These aren’t aspects of your health that you generally have to think about because your circadian rhythm works almost on autopilot in response to your lifestyle habits.

Your digestive system is impacted by your circadian rhythm too; for example, a change in the way you’re eating can trigger a change in your sleep pattern. On the other hand, a change in the way you’ve been sleeping affects things like the way energy is used and stored and the types of foods you’re craving. (3)

Additionally, inadequate sleep is linked to an increase in appetite-regulating hormones, like ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin, which stimulates hunger, tends to rise when you aren’t getting enough high-quality sleep, while leptin, the hormone that signals fullness, decreases. This hormonal imbalance can trigger cravings, particularly for high-calorie, sugary, carbohydrate-rich foods, as the body seeks fast energy to combat fatigue. (4)

The Nutrients That Help Us Sleep

The best way to support better sleep through diet is to prioritize foods that contribute an array of nutrients. Incorporating a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains provides a balance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, proteins, and healthy fats your body needs. Emphasizing a few specific nutrients may be particularly helpful for your circadian rhythm. 


Sandra Chavez, MS, RD says several foods naturally contain tryptophan, an amino acid that, when lacking, has been associated with poor sleep. Tryptophan becomes vitamin B3, also known as niacin, which then turns into serotonin, a brain chemical involved in mood and relaxation. (5) (6) Serotonin, in turn, is converted into melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles. (7

Some foods that are either rich in tryptophan or promote serotonin production include: (8)

  • Bananas
  • Hazelnuts
  • Wild rice
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Strawberries 
  • Pineapple
  • Kiwi

“These foods don’t have to be eaten at bedtime,” says Chavez. She continues, “Rather, adopting an overall diet that delivers enough tryptophan can be a great move towards better sleep.”


Magnesium plays a crucial role in promoting relaxation and calming your nervous system, making it easier to fall asleep. Additionally, magnesium helps regulate levels of the brain chemical GABA, which has calming effects on your brain. (9)

Registered dietitian and author of Eat To Sleep: What To Eat & When To Eat It for a Good Night’s Sleep Karman Meyer tells Sleepopolis, “The first nutrient I focus on with many clients is magnesium. It’s like nature’s gentle sleep aid, helping relax the muscles and calm the mind, making it easier to drift off and stay asleep.”

Magnesium-Rich Foods

Meyer recommends skipping sleep supplements if possible and instead reaching for foods with magnesium, such as: (10)

  • Leafy greens, like spinach
  • Nuts and seeds, like almonds and pumpkin seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Avocados
  • Dark chocolate


Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain and helps regulate the sleep-wake cycle. It’s released in response to darkness, signaling to the body that it’s time to sleep. Some foods contain small amounts of melatonin, such as: (11)

  • Tart cherries
  • Grapes
  • Walnuts
  • Rice
  • Eggs
  • Tomatoes

However, it’s unlikely that most people consume enough food-derived melatonin to make a significant difference in their sleep patterns. (12) Because of this, man-made melatonin supplements are popular; however, they’re generally intended for short-term use such as recovering from jet lag, and long-term safety research is limited. (13)


Not just good for building strong bones, calcium helps regulate the production of melatonin. (14) Additionally, calcium helps your brain use tryptophan to produce serotonin, a brain chemical that further aids in relaxation and sleep. Some of the best food sources of calcium are: (15

  • Tofu made with calcium sulfate
  • Canned fish that contain edible bones, like salmon or sardines
  • Dark leafy greens, like kale, collard greens, and bok choy
  • Calcium-fortified foods like certain cereals, orange juice, cow’s milk, and plant-based milk

The Foods That Make it Hard to Sleep

While you’re designing a diet that includes sleep-promoting foods, it’s equally important to reduce the types of foods that have the opposite effect, especially close to bedtime. Some foods and beverages that can make it challenging to fall asleep or stay asleep include:

  • Caffeine-containing items: Coffee, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate can stimulate the nervous system, leading to increased alertness and difficulty winding down. (16)
  • Spicy foods: These may cause indigestion and heartburn, making it uncomfortable to lie down and relax. (17)
  • High-fat and heavy meals: Eating these foods close to bedtime can lead to discomfort and may cause disruptions in sleep. (18)
  • Sugary snacks and refined carbohydrates: These types of ultra-processed items can cause fluctuations in your blood sugar levels, potentially leading to restless sleep. (19)
  • Alcohol: While initially sedating, drinking alcohol can disrupt sleep cycles and lead to frequent awakenings later in the night. (20)

Is There an Ideal Diet for Sleep? 

Achieving better sleep through food begins with adopting a balanced diet that supports relaxation and maintains stable blood sugar levels throughout the day. A diet rich in nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats can promote better sleep quality. (21)

Chavez says, “While there is no one perfect diet for every person, generally a Mediterranean-style eating pattern contains a balance of nutrition that promotes good sleep.” She notes, “A healthy dose of omega-3’s from fatty fish and some nuts, complex carbohydrates, and lean proteins are just a few of the sleep-promoting benefits of this eating style.” (22)

Furthermore, incorporating foods that provide tryptophan, magnesium, and calcium can aid in the production of sleep-promoting chemicals like serotonin and melatonin. Limiting caffeine and alcohol intake, particularly close to bedtime, can also help regulate sleep-wake cycles and promote restful sleep. (16) (20)

Establishing regular meal times and avoiding heavy, spicy, or fatty meals close to bedtime can further support a healthy sleep pattern. Ultimately, focusing on a well-rounded diet with attention to timing and nutrient composition is a good place to start. (1)

Can an Unhealthy Diet Impact Sleep Disorders? 

The relationship between nutrition and sleep is also apparent in some sleep disorders. Consuming a diet full of ultra-processed foods, which tend to be high in added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats, has been linked to various sleep disturbances. (23)

For example, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can be worsened by an unhealthy diet and alcohol use. Research shows that diets high in saturated fat, processed meats, and ultra-processed snack foods are associated with more frequent and severe breathing-related night wakings among people with OSA. (24)

It’s important to address sleep apnea as, not only does it disrupt your rest, but it’s also a risk factor for other conditions, like diabetes and heart disease. 

Amy Beney, MS, RD, CDCES tells Sleepopolis, “A recent [2021] study showed that those with a diet higher in fruits was associated with a reduced risk of sleep apnea versus a diet higher in animal innards, fried foods, salted foods, carbonated beverages, and non-carbonated beverages.” (25)

These types of foods — which make up much of the standard American diet — can disrupt the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and interfere with the production of sleep-regulating hormones like melatonin and serotonin. The time you eat matters, too: eating late at night can also worsen symptoms of sleep apnea. (26)

How Sleep Affects Nutrition

How you sleep affects your food choices (and overall nutrition), and the quality of your food choices affects how you sleep. 

For one thing, when you don’t sleep well, this can knock your appetite-regulating hormones out of balance, triggering cravings for high-calorie and sugary foods. (4) Your body’s ability to keep your blood sugar within healthy levels can also be thrown off track. (27)

Plus, think about the last time you didn’t sleep well for a couple of days. You probably didn’t make the best decisions thanks to brain fatigue, and you may have had a hard time choosing healthy foods. 

Getting your sleep on track supports a healthy hormonal balance and helps your body function properly. This makes it easier to make better food choices and support your overall well-being. (28)

Can Sleep Help You Lose Weight? 

Getting enough sleep isn’t just crucial for health and wellness but can also play a significant role in weight management. Experts recommend adults get 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. (29) This may help promote normal hormonal balance and metabolism, which can support weight loss efforts. (28) Not to mention, being well-rested leaves you with more energy, which may make it easier to take that afternoon walk or make healthier food choices. 


Does eating a lot for dinner make you sleep better?

Eating a large meal before bedtime can actually disrupt sleep quality, as it can lead to discomfort, indigestion, and reflux. Additionally, consuming heavy or high-calorie foods close to bedtime can stimulate digestion and increase metabolic activity, making it harder to fall asleep. Opting for a light snack or meal earlier in the evening and allowing time for digestion before bedtime is more conducive to promoting restful sleep. (30) (1)

Can a low-carb diet cause sleep problems?

Your body uses carbs to make serotonin, so ditching them could impair this process and worsen your overall sleep. Or, it might not noticeably affect you, as everyone is different. (31)

The Last Word From Sleepopolis 

Most of us agree that we’d like to sleep better most nights. While there are countless sleep disruptions that we may not be able to control as easily — like crying babies, noisy neighbors, and a stressful day — one thing we can be more intentional about is what we’re eating. 

Nutrition and sleep are strongly linked, and looking for opportunities to improve your diet is a worthy cause. Try to cut back on the ultra-processed foods and add in more of the good stuff, including foods that contribute more magnesium, tryptophan, and calcium to your diet.


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Karman Meyer. Personal Interview. February, 2024.

Amy Beney. Personal Interview. February, 2024.

Sandra Chavez. Personal Interview. February 2024.

Lauren Panoff

Lauren Panoff

Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD is a Colorado-based health and nutrition writer who has been published with a number of trusted wellness platforms. She is a dietitian who specializes in plant-based living, as well as a mother of two humans and a dog.