Not Sleeping Well? You Might Not Be Eating Enough
Insomnia is a problem that plagues many people—an estimated 10% of the U.S. population suffers from chronic insomnia, defined as interrupted sleep for at least three nights per week for at least three months. And many more people have short-term or recurring bouts with sleepless nights.
But if you’re doing all the “right” things to promote a good night’s sleep and nothing seems to be working, there could be an unexpected culprit behind your lack of shuteye: a lack of the right food during the day.
“Both eating too much and eating too little can influence sleep. You will not necessarily sleep less from eating less, but anything that makes you uncomfortable can affect your duration of sleep,” explains Kristin Carlino, Registered Dietitian at Jersey City Medical Center. “The most obvious signal that you are not eating enough is hunger, but that might not be the case for everyone. It is not uncommon for many people to struggle with identifying hunger because they have tried to ignore it or tamp it down for so long with diets.”
How does lack of food affect sleep?
Food as medicine has become a trending topic in relation to many health disorders. For instance, a 2020 study in Nutrients notes that sleep experts are increasingly turning to how the food we eat directly impacts how well we sleep.
Certain nutrients—such as zinc and B vitamins—have been shown to be associated with better sleep, but the best way to get the nutrients that you need to sleep well is usually in the form of food, not supplements. Translation? Eating the right foods may help you sleep better. And without the proper nutrients from your daily food, you may experience a variety of different sleep disturbances, such as:
Not eating enough may cause you to frequently wake in the night and have difficulty going back to sleep. You might actually be physically hungry, which causes you to wake up as your body attempts to get the calories and nutrients it needs. Or, if you’re lacking key nutrients, your body may also have trouble staying asleep. For instance, high-carb diets low in necessary proteins and fats have been linked to more frequent sleep interruptions.
“What we eat makes a big difference,” says Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D., board-certified internist. “ Those who tend to find themselves wide awake in the middle of the night [might find this habit is] caused by a drop in blood sugar from adrenal ‘stress handler gland’ fatigue. Large amounts of sugar intake at bedtime can aggravate this. Eating a one to two ounce protein snack at bedtime, such as a hard-boiled egg, or some meat or cheese, can result in stable blood sugars through the night, decreasing middle of the night waking.”
Reduction in deep sleep
On a related note, high-carb diets have also been linked to a reduction in REM sleep, which is the deep sleep part of your sleep cycle. REM is when the true “work” of sleep occurs, like restorative processes, memory storage, and cell repair. Without proper REM, or if the REM stage gets interrupted, you won’t feel truly rested and may have negative health effects, from decreased cognition to an increased risk of brain disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Severely calorie-restricted diets have also been shown to be negatively linked to sleep, in both reducing deep sleep patterns and the ability to fall asleep.
Deficiencies in nutrients and minerals such as magnesium have been linked to both poor sleep and restlessness, as well as increased anxiety, which can manifest as—you guessed it—restlessness.
Eating a diet that’s empty in nutrients—such as a primarily high-carb diet—or not eating a balanced diet can impact your hormone levels. For instance, a severely restricted diet can impact cortisol, your stress hormone. Although cortisol naturally tends to rise over the night and peak in the morning to help you wake up, without eating enough, cortisol can peak too early and wake you up early in the morning. You might notice this if you’re a chronic 3 AM waker. (Raises hand.)
Additionally, if you aren’t getting enough of the nutrients you need, your body may also respond by spiking the hormones responsible for hunger and insulin production. While this may have the short-term impact of increasing your appetite, long-term it can interfere with your sleep because high insulin levels can interrupt your sleep cycle.
“Insufficient sleep can disrupt our hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin. With lack of sleep, leptin (our satiety hormone) decreases and ghrelin (our hunger hormone) increases, leading to an increased appetite,” says Carlino. “Our bodies can also start to crave foods that it knows will keep us stimulated like high sugar, high fat, and high salt items.”
A negative impact on natural melatonin secretion
Melatonin is produced from tryptophan—yes, the one associated with Thanksgiving dinner. Tryptophan is actually an essential dietary amino acid found in many foods such as:
- Leafy greens
Without enough tryptophan in your diet melatonin production may be affected, and without the right amount of melatonin, you may have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep.
Additionally, energy restriction (what your body will do if you severely restrict calories) can also suppress melatonin secretion.
How not getting enough sleep affects you during the day
While you should always visit a doctor for any new symptoms you’re experiencing, some of the effects of not eating enough of the right foods during the day may include:
- Low energy during the day
- Increased depression and anxiety symptoms
- Low mood
- Lack of motivation
- Lethargy, tiredness throughout the day
- Low productivity
- Difficulty focusing
Foods that help you sleep
In general, a diet that contains a balanced amount of protein, complex carbohydrates (the good kind!), and healthy fats are associated with better sleep and health in general. Diets rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains can help you get the vitamins you need for sleep. Specific vitamins and minerals that can also help get a better night of sleep include:
- B Vitamins
Again, it’s always better to get your vitamins and minerals from a food source as opposed to taking a direct supplement (remember, absorption of minerals and vitamins is also key, and that often relies on a balanced diet). To help you get a better night of sleep, you can try incorporating some of these proven sleep-associated snacks:
- Cherries–eating cherries or drinking cherry juice before bedtime has helped relieve insomnia in elderly individuals especially. Pair a few cherries with Greek yogurt for a balanced snack that includes lots of protein to keep you full.
- Melatonin-rich foods, such as tomatoes, olives, barley, rice, and walnuts
- Bananas and almond butter
- Sweet potatoes
- Turkey roll-ups
- Cereal and milk—just be sure it’s a low-sugar, whole-grain cereal option (no Lucky Charms here, sorry!)
It’s also important to remember that your nutritional needs may change as you age or develop other conditions in life, so be open and willing to change up your diet as needed.
“There are no absolutes—the human body is unbelievably complex,” says Eugene Scarberry, a retired senior staff engineer at Philips Respironics and sleep expert. “Trying to find the right foods in the right supplements for a stable night’s sleep is a lifelong journey because as you age your body keeps changing.”
When to talk to a doctor
You should always talk to a doctor if you have any new symptoms that include daytime sleepiness, insomnia, increased irritability or symptoms of anxiety and depression. Additionally, extreme caloric restrictions can be a sign of an eating disorder, which will require medical attention and a thoughtful treatment plan.
If you are experiencing any new symptoms or are concerned about your weight or how your body looks, be sure to talk to a doctor about what you are feeling. You never have to suffer any physical or mental health symptoms alone. Additionally, if you aren’t sleeping properly it makes everything else in your life harder, so please be sure to reach out for help.
The last word from Sleepopolis
Sleep is a complex process that relies on your body being in a healthy state to achieve. We might think of sleep as something the body does to turn “off,” but it’s actually another phase of work for our always-active bodies. And in order to achieve sleep, we need to fuel our bodies with the right amount of calories and nutrients to allow it to rest effectively.
Every individual is different, but in general, most people need anywhere between 1,400 and 2,000 well-balanced calories every day to function. If you aren’t getting the minimum amount of calories your body needs—or if you’re eating too much or too little of a certain nutrient—your sleep can be affected. If you’re having trouble sleeping, be sure to talk to your doctor about some options that may help you.