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Sleep Health

Can’t Fall Sleep? It Could Be What You’re Eating

It's all about what and when you eat.


When you struggle to fall (or stay) asleep at night, your whole day can get thrown off by low energy levels and excess stress. There are a lot of different reasons why we can’t seem to get enough shut eye these days, but the most recent discovery suggests that how we sleep has a lot to do with what — and how – we eat. Experts say eating before bed should be avoided, and so should sugary foods.

In a new study, researchers from the Colombia University Irving Medical Center aimed to better understand the relationship between sleep quality and dietary patterns. A questionnaire was given to 495 participants to assess their sleep quality, sleep‐onset latency (how long it took to fall asleep), and whether or not they struggled with insomnia. The participants also took a questionnaire asking about their eating habits. Based on the data, the researchers concluded that those who ate more at night and had a low-quality diet were the most likely to struggle with poor sleep quality and insomnia

But what exactly does this all mean? We spoke to Dr. Jonathan Clinthorne, a nutritionist at Simply Protein, to get some more insight. He says that the results of this study point to our circadian rhythm. “When we’re waking up [with the sun], we’re ready to go, our wake-up hormones come online,” he explains. “At nighttime, [in the dark] melatonin goes up and our bodies aren’t really set to process energy anymore.” Thus, it’s best not to overload the body with too much food before bed. Circadian philosophy says when the sun is the brightest, around noon, is considered the optimal time to eat our largest meal. As it gets dark at night, our brain produces different hormones, including melatonin, that are supposed to help us “rest and digest.”

Aside from eating late at night, Clinthorne says there’s another culprit robbing us of sleep — sugar. “The more added sugars the participants consumed, the longer it took people to fall asleep, and there were more incidents of insomnia,” says Clinthorne. “So when we ask whether it’s quality or quantity of food that affects sleep, it’s both. It has to do with how much you eat, when you eat, and what you eat. If melatonin is high (when it’s dark out) the body doesn’t process blood sugar very well. When blood sugar is high, your hormones can disrupt your circadian biology.” That being said, you may want to rethink your evening dessert! 

And when it comes to the magic number of hours you should stop eating before bed, Clinthorne says three to four is best if you want to decrease your sleep onset latency. 

As for final takeaways from this study and other research, Clinthorne had these tips to share to help you start getting the rest you deserve. 

  • Avoid refined carbohydrates or added sugars (especially at night) if you’re struggling with insomnia or poor sleep quality. 
  • Choose wholegrains like bulgar wheat and quinoa, as opposed to things like whole wheat bread which doesn’t have the same effect on blood sugar.
  • Consuming things like tart cherry juice has been linked to increased melatonin levels. That can help support a healthy sleep pattern. 
  • If you like dessert, reach for something like dark chocolate without added sugar in it. Find indulgences that aren’t going to have a negative impact on your sleep. Try greek yogurt and berries.
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