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April 11, 2022 Kristen Peairs

The Employee’s Guide to the Best and Worst Foods for Sleep

The specific foods we eat, when we eat, and how we eat all affect the quality of our sleep.

Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each day to feel rested, and 35% of adults in the United States report getting less than those optimal seven or more hours.

The impact of not getting enough sleep correlates with decreased ability to perform well at work and increased incidence of chronic health conditions. Having inadequate sleep can also lead to more intense food cravings and higher caloric intake, resulting in weight gain. Additionally, there is the mental health impact of insufficient sleep: increased anxiety, agitation, and frustration, just to name a few.

At some time in our lives, nearly all of us experience what it is like to be sleep-deprived.

It’s rough. The body drags and the mind lags while the world keeps going at the same pace it always has.

I’ve certainly been there. As a sensitive sleeper, I’ve investigated many strategies to help myself get those coveted zzzz’s. Earplugs, exercise, meditation, herbal teas, supplements, blue light filters, bedtime wind-down routines… I’ve tried them all! When I started paying attention to how the food I put into my mouth affected my sleep, I was surprised to learn just how much of a difference it made in my ability to rest deeply.

Let’s dive a little deeper into what I have learned about food and sleep.

What is the Relationship Between Food and Sleep?

When considering the relationship between food and sleep, think about chemistry and rhythm.

For chemistry, it is important to know that every food we put into our bodies sets off a chain reaction of chemicals that can affect everything from our heart rate to our mood to our sleep/wake cycles. Understanding how specific foods affect our unique bodies can give us the ability to choose foods that meet our needs for rest and relaxation just as much as energy and focus.

Keeping a journal about the foods and beverages we are consuming and how we are sleeping can help us identify any correlations.

Our bodies have digestive circadian rhythms and sleep/wake circadian rhythms. The digestive circadian rhythm correlates with the sleep/wake circadian rhythm, so if we’ve been traveling across time zones or experiencing disruptions to our normal sleeping schedule, we can expect our digestion to suffer.

To support the digestive circadian rhythm in normalizing, consider the following strategies:

  • Set a timer to encourage eating at regular intervals.
  • Eat foods that contain healthy bacteria (probiotics) that support digestion. Some healthy bacteria-containing foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi.

The Worst Foods for Sleep

The worst foods for sleep are high in saturated fat and/or refined carbohydrates. People who have diets high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrate and low in fiber and variety tend to have more problems with restorative sleep. Also, avoiding foods high in fat and refined carbohydrates can improve sleep.

Specifically, it is best to refrain from eating foods such as burgers, pizza, fries, chips, cake, pie, and candy if good quality sleep has been a challenge.

What are the Worst Drinks for Sleep?

The worst drinks for sleep are drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol.

If we think about it, it makes sense that caffeine can interfere with sleep. After all, it is a stimulant that is consumed to boost energy and alertness. Drinking 3-4 small cups of caffeinated beverages each day may be fine, but if sleep is a problem, stop all caffeine consumption within 7 hours before bedtime.

Regarding alcohol, there are three ways that it interferes with sleep:

  1. Alcohol disrupts sleep cycles by inducing deep sleep too quickly. When we go into a deep sleep too quickly, we receive less quality sleep later in the rest cycle.
  2. Alcohol suppresses REM sleep, leading to decreased mental performance and reduced ability to cope with stress.
  3. Alcohol causes inflammation in the gut, which lessens the body’s natural ability to calm itself. When our bodies cannot effectively self-soothe, we are more likely to experience anxiety.

The bottom line on alcohol is that if sleep is troublesome, try abstaining from alcohol for a month to see if sleep improves.

What are the Best Foods for Sleep?

The best foods for sleep fall into the category of whole foods. Whole foods include fruits, vegetables, grains, and lean proteins. Specific foods that may be especially helpful include potassium-rich bananas and celery, fluid-rich cucumbers and cantaloupes, and melatonin-rich tart cherries and tomatoes. Also, remember to consume some omega-3 fatty-acid-rich foods such as salmon, walnuts, and flax seeds. These healthy fats help encourage calm in our bodies and brains.

Eating a variety of whole foods is also important for sleep. Each food has its complex offering of nutrients to support the health of our minds and bodies. A nutrient low in one food can be provided in another food when we are consuming a varied diet of whole foods.

What are the Best Drinks for Sleep?

The best drinks for sleep include tart cherry juice or herbal teas made from chamomile, passionflower, valerian, lemon balm, or damiana. A good old-fashioned cup of milk may also be supportive.

Patience and experimentation are key when learning how our eating affects our sleeping. A few suggestions for correlating your sleep quality with your food/beverage intake are as follows:

  1. Try only one solution at a time.
  2. Pay attention to what stays the same just as much as what changes.
  3. Take notes on what happens when you eat or drink certain foods.

The Employee’s Guide to the Best and Worst Foods for Sleep—woman drinking tea in white robe while reading book

Tips for Workday Eating that Support Restful Sleeping

  1. Plan ahead for snacking by pre-packing snack-size bags of fruits, veggies, nuts, and whole-grain crackers to take to work.
  2. Eat a small meal or snack at regular intervals of every 2-4 hours throughout the day.
  3. Set a timer to remind yourself to eat the snacks
  4. Avoid consuming caffeine-containing beverages after 3 pm (or within 7 hours of bedtime).
  5. Try consuming pro-biotic-containing foods such as yogurt or kombucha as one of your snacks.

Check out these books for a deep dive into learning about how food affects your sleep and so much more.

  • “This Is Your Brain on Food” by Uma Naidoo, MD
  • “Eat to Sleep: What to Eat and When to Eat it For a Good Night’s Sleep – Every Night,” by Karman Meyer, RD, LDN

For additional resources, check out these articles:

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Kristen Peairs

Kristen Peairs is a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Massage Therapist, and Professional Educator.

Throughout her 20-year career, she has worked with many people suffering from a diversity of chronic health conditions. Understanding how food affects the brain and the whole body has been a key factor in the success of her healing strategies.

At Nivati, she has researched, written, and filmed over 100 health and wellness videos for their content library.

Kristen is currently writing a cookbook for people living with food allergies and intolerances.

She is a graduate of Bastyr University and holds a Master's of Science in Nutrition.

MENTAL HEALTH FOR THE WHOLE EMPLOYEE