We know sleep is key for every fitness goal, whether it’s getting back in shape or running a marathon. “Improving both the quantity and quality of sleep is essential to health,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, a registered dietitian and author of “2 Day Diabetes Diet.”
“Improved sleep can fight against premature skin aging, improve metabolism and even fight against food cravings,” she adds. Yes, really. For many people, sleeping better might just be the missing link to looking and feeling better — especially when it comes to weight loss.
Here’s the diet advice nutrition pros most commonly give their clients who are looking to improve their sleep — and reap the benefits.
“Don’t eat a big meal too close to bedtime because eating actually revs up your metabolism,” recommends Anne Danahy, a registered dietitian. “Plus, lying down right after eating is more likely to keep you up with indigestion and reflux. Give yourself a good three hours before you lay down for your dinner to digest.”
Some people reach for a bedtime snack simply out of habit, according to Brooke Zigler, a registered dietitian. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself these questions: Am I actually hungry right now? Am I thirsty? Am I bored? Am I tired? Am I eating something because I always eat something before bed?
“By stopping to evaluate and think before reaching for a snack, you may make a different decision,” Zigler says. “We often think we are hungry when in fact we may just be thirsty or even tired. By really trying to understand what our bodies are telling us, we can become more in tune with our needs!”
And if you do opt to have a snack, do it strategically. “Instead of having a snack right before going to sleep, try having a 150–200 calorie snack containing both fiber and protein approximately two hours before going to sleep,” Zigler suggests. “This will give your body enough time to properly digest the food and will also provide you with a steady blood glucose level. Be sure you do not lay down immediately after eating since that may result in heartburn or acid reflux, which may keep you awake at night.”
You probably know caffeine can affect your sleep, but lots of people still consume it well into the afternoon and evening. “High amounts of caffeine, especially later in the day, can have a negative impact on the sleep cycle,” Palinksi-Wade explains. “On top of this, large amounts of caffeine (greater than 400mg per day) suppress the release of serotonin, which can have a negative impact on mood while increasing the risk of insomnia. Limit yourself to around 300mg of caffeine or less per day and avoid caffeine after 2 p.m. (or at least 8 hours before bed) to prevent it from impacting your sleep.”
“For people who struggle to unwind and can’t seem to stop thinking about the stressors of the day before bed, eating food rich in L-tryptophan may help,” Palinski-Wade notes. “This amino acid, which can be found in pistachios, turkey and cheese, has been shown to have a documented calming effect, which can help you relax and get a more restful night’s sleep. Aim to eat these foods within 2–3 hours before bed for the best benefits.”
As for how much to eat, one serving of food rich in the amino acid is enough to have a slight calming impact, so opt for 3 ounces of turkey breast, 1 ounce of pistachios or 1 ounce of cheese. “I would start with a small amount, track your own personal sleep changes and increase only as needed,” Palinski-Wade adds.
“Foods that contain calcium and magnesium (such as milk or yogurt) are also great for promoting healthy sleep,” says Alix Turoff, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. “Think about that cup of warm milk before bed!”
“Magnesium is pretty widespread in whole foods like nuts, legumes,100% whole-wheat products and many fruits and vegetables,” Danahy adds. “Another magnesium-rich snack idea would be 100% whole-wheat bread with some peanut butter.”
“Adding tart cherries to your nighttime routine can also improve both quality and quantity of sleep,” Palinski-Wade says. “One study found drinking tart cherry juice before bed led to as much as 90 minutes of increased rest in those who experienced insomnia.” While tart cherry supplements are available, whole food sources are preferable, she says. “The studies on tart cherries have mostly used 100% juice, so I would generally recommend adding either a 1/2–1 cup of fresh tart cherries or 4 ounces of the juice to start and see if that dosage improves sleep, increasing only as needed.”
Melatonin supplements are a common natural fix for sleep troubles, but you can actually get melatonin from certain foods. “As you age, melatonin levels tend to drop and increasing this hormone with a melatonin-rich bedtime snack can help you fall asleep faster,” Danahy explains. “The best food sources of melatonin are a handful of raspberries and almonds about 30 minutes to one hour before bed.”
“I often recommend adaptogenic herbs to help the body adapt to all types of stress,” Danahy says. “Holy basil (also known as tulsi) is one that comes in a tea, and many people find it to be helpful at bedtime because it can you de-stress and it promotes relaxation and sleep.”