The Sleep-Nutrition Connection and How To Eat for More Z's

by Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

Last Updated: May 13, 2021

Even before Fitbit, Garmin, and Apple told us we weren’t sleeping enough, we already knew it, and now we can’t ignore it! About 35% of us get inadequate sleep or less than 7 hours per night. Sleep deprivation is on the rise as our lives become ultra-stretched. Our circadian rhythms get thrown off with increased screen time, artificial light, reduced physical activity, and time spent outdoors in natural light. Sleep, nutrition, and health are intertwined much more than people realize. The good news is that much of this is modifiable! Let’s try to eat our way to better sleep.

How Sleep Affects Nutrition…and Nutrition Affects Sleep
While there is still a huge amount of research needed to understand the sleep-nutrition connection, it’s clear that sleep deprivation affects eating habits; the reverse may also be true, as eating habits may also affect sleep.1 Sleep deprivation creates a cascade of disrupted hormones, including cortisol, leptin, and ghrelin, which can profoundly affect our eating habits as these hormones regulate our hunger and fullness signals. Sleep deprivation can lead to a larger appetite and more intense cravings for food, especially foods higher in fat and carbohydrates.1

Observational research trends show that people who sleep less tend to have more nutrient shortfalls and less balanced diets, which may be a precursor to poorer sleep.1,2 Aiming for a balanced diet or Mediterranean style eating habits could help improve sleep, along with some of the considerations below.

Nutrition Tweaks for More Z’s
  • To snack, or not to snack?
    The answer to this Shakespearian question is: Everyone is different. Experiment to find what works for you. Try eating a light snack before bed, especially if you’re hungry. If you’re not hungry or if snacking doesn’t help, then avoid it. Some people sleep better on a half-empty stomach. If that’s the case for you, try to put 2-3 hours between snacks and slumber.
    • Try a snack that includes a good source of tryptophan, serotonin, or melatonin: Cherries, tart cherry juice, turkey, chicken, eggs, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese, corn, asparagus, broccoli, grapes, oats, walnuts, pistachios, flax seeds, mushrooms, kiwi.
  • Digest before getting horizontal.
    Allow enough time for digestion, especially after eating a large meal. While some people feel sleepier after a meal, a meal before bedtime may disrupt sleep for the following reasons:
    • Digestion takes a lot of energy and releases energy (glucose), which perks us up.
    • Laying down after eating can slow digestion or cause reflux which could be uncomfortable for sleeping.
  • Cap the buzz.
    For most people, avoiding caffeine after lunch is enough to prevent it from affecting sleep. Everyone metabolizes caffeine differently, so those who don’t handle it well may need to cap it off even sooner or avoid caffeine altogether. Remember to check any tea, soda, vitamin-infused waters, water enhancers, energy drinks, protein shakes, and even headache medications for hidden caffeine.
    • To reduce caffeinated beverages without experiencing a withdrawal headache, try reducing intake by 1/4 cup per day or 1/2 cup every two days.
  • Reduce pee for more Z.
    To prevent the ever-annoying night peeing, limit liquids within 2 hours or more of bedtime.
  • Maybe melatonin?
    Melatonin is found naturally in our body, and the levels fluctuate to induce sleep.2 These levels can be thrown off with age, disrupted schedules, and altered natural light. Some people have found benefits from taking supplemental melatonin an hour before bedtime. You’ll need to find the dose right for you. While supplements are available, we always recommend lifestyle changes first and to consult your healthcare provider before taking anything.
  • Limit libations.
    Drinking alcohol is notorious for causing drowsiness and putting us to sleep, but it produces a very poor-quality sleep, leading to sleep deprivation instead.
  • Take time for tea.
    Although we still want to tread lightly with liquids near bedtime, we’d be amiss not to mention L-theanine and Chamomile:
    • L-theanine is a natural component of green or black tea that may help with stress, relaxation, and improve quality of sleep.2 Choose a decaf tea if you want to avoid caffeine.
    • Chamomile tea is a well-known traditional sleep and relaxation aid.2
  • Move it, move it.
    Not only is our input (nutrition) important for sleep, but our output (activity) is as well. Exercise can help improve sleep;3 however, it is recommended to avoid exercise near bedtime as it can disrupt your sleep.
    • Even better than just exercising, consider getting active outside! Our circadian rhythm and sleep-inducing hormones rely on natural light exposure to make them ebb and flow normally. Try to get outside to see the daylight or even get outside to see dusk or darkness at night to help.

Sleep deprivation can occur with short duration, disrupted, or restless sleep. Any new parent or insomniac knows that sleep deprivation is no joke! To improve your body’s natural recovery slumber, try following some of the tips here or in our other articles: 7 Tips For A Better Night’s Sleep and 3 Ways To Snooze Towards Better Health. For more personalized advice about your nutrition, book a Telenutrition appointment with any of our talented Kroger Health Dietitians who are well seasoned in juggling life and food challenges.

  1. Santa Cruz, J. (2019, August). The Link Between ZZZs & Eats. Today’s Dietitian, 21(8).
  2. Mohr, C. (2020, November 5). Managing Sleep, Stress, and Mood (Webinar). Today's Dietitian.
  3. Dolezal, B. A., Neufeld, E. V., Boland, D. M., Martin, J. L., & Cooper, C. B. (2017). Interrelationship between sleep and exercise: a systematic review. Advances in preventive medicine, 2017.

Disclaimer: This information is educational only and not providing healthcare recommendations. Please see a healthcare provider.

Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

Katy Keogh, MS, RDN, LD

A mom of 2 little kiddos and over 15 years experience in nutrition, Katy enjoys helping her patients squeeze good nutrition and activity into an already “full” life and find their own balance with nutrition and health while still enjoying food to the fullest. She is an expert in weight management, mindful eating, digestive health, anti-inflammatory nutrition, culinary nutrition, cooking/baking, and any other topic related to food! Outside of work, you’ll find her traveling, walking, jogging, beer tasting, and eating gelato.