Quality sleep is essential for our well-being and health. As a complex process, falling asleep and sleeping can be influenced by a multitude of factors. Diet is one of them and plays a chemical, physical and psychological role that influences sleep. Amélie, a dietician of the Foodvisor nutrition app, explains how food and sleep are linked and gives you the right reflexes to adopt quality sleep.

Food and sleep: a chemical equation

Throughout the day, our brain releases many chemical substances: hormones. These substances play different roles in the body. While some of them facilitate sleep (calming our body), others delay it (accelerating our heart rate and increasing our attention span).

Melatonin, synthesized from another hormone, serotonin, is the sleep hormone. To make melatonin, serotonin needs tryptophan, an amino acid brought by certain foods and stored in our body. Diet influences our sleep because the concentration of tryptophan in our body increases when a meal is high in carbohydrates and low in protein, or simply, to sleep well, your evening meal must be high in carbohydrates and low in protein.

First of all, you can eat foods rich in tryptophan such as pulses, fish, eggs, dairy products, bananas … But beware, even if meat contains a lot of tryptophan, you should avoid eating it in the evening because it is also rich in tyrosine, which delays falling asleep.

Complete starchy foods, rich in complex carbohydrates, also promote the use of tryptophan by the body: pasta, rice, wholemeal bread, or legumes. They thus facilitate sleep.  Ideal to consume in the evening, foods rich in omega 3 allow to be in shape the day and to fall asleep well in the evening.

It is therefore advisable to regularly eat oily fish (salmon, tuna, herring, trout, sardine), nuts, rapeseed oil, walnut oil, or chia seeds. Always at dinner, you can prefer foods rich in magnesium such as spinach, banana, and almonds which promote the production of serotonin and therefore the production of the sleep hormone! You can even treat yourself to a dark chocolate square, also rich in magnesium, to be melted under your tongue before going to bed, and don’t hesitate to drink a hot herbal tea to soothe your body.

Verbena, linden, and camomile are plants that help you to fall asleep, but it is not advisable to drink alcohol in the evening because although alcohol helps you to fall asleep at first, the second phase of alcohol prevents your body from falling into a deep sleep. It lowers the melatonin level and blocks the entry of tryptophan into the brain. The same applies to caffeine, which is well known to prevent sleep because it is a stimulant. It prevents the secretion of melatonin up to 6 hours after consumption. Finally, you should know that a meal rich in protein is also rich in tyrosine and will therefore have a sleep-retarding effect.

A just meal, to be in the right conditions to fall asleep

Other than the foods that chemically influence sleep, our diet has a physical effect on our body and a psychological effect on our mind.

A physical effect can come to disturb sleep or fall asleep. For example, a meal that is too large will make the stomach feel heavy and slow down the digestion phase. However, the digestion phase is incompatible with the sleep phase. It is, therefore, necessary to avoid too fatty and copious meals because the body will not be in good conditions to calm down and leave room to fall asleep.

A meal that is too light, on the other hand, will make us feel hungry during the night. This can also happen if we eat a meal rich in simple carbohydrates or fast sugars, which will cause our body to produce a large amount of insulin to lower blood sugar levels. This will then lead to a risk of feeling peckish after falling asleep. Psychologically, it is recognized that stress disrupts sleep.

Psychologically, it is known that stress disturbs sleep. Therefore, exciting drinks such as coffee, tea, and alcohol should be avoided. If we go further, the psychological feeling of eating too much or too little can disturb the mind before going to sleep (guilt or frustration). To have a peaceful mind, one must eat with respect for one’s body. Thus, we can take the example of the Hara Hachi Bu, this Japanese practice which consists of eating 80% of one’s hunger and therefore to know how to stop just before being full since a gap exists between the brain and the stomach (the “brain can be hungry” while the stomach has eaten enough.)

In order not to disturb one’s organism with a too copious meal before sleeping, it is advised to eat in full consciousness. The idea is to try to eat slowly, to chew well, to listen to your sensations by concentrating on the different tastes and textures throughout the meal to avoid swallowing your meal mechanically. It is therefore not recommended to eat your meal in front of a screen. You now have the keys to adapting your diet to sleep well.

Avoid eating foods that are too fatty, too spicy, too rich in proteins and simple sugars in the evening, and on the contrary favor complete starchy foods and foods rich in tryptophan. Eat sensibly, respecting your desires, and listening to your body and your hunger. You will then be in the best position to let yourself go to sweet dreams!

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Article written by Amélie, dietician.