Food and Sleep

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cropped-graphic-e1423682891979Volume 12, Number 6

With respect to the importance of diet for health, the saying “you are what you eat” may be warranted. Research over the past several years would suggest that a variant of this saying may eventually prove to be accurate: “you sleep what you eat.”

While there are still relatively few well-done studies on this topic, evidence available to date suggests that higher intake of saturated fat over the course of a day is associated with less slow-wave sleep that night (slow-wave sleep refers to the deeper stages of sleep). Similarly, high fat intake has also been associated with overall lower sleep efficiency (percentage of time asleep while in bed), a longer period to the first REM (rapid eye movement) episode, less time in REM sleep, and more time awake after having fallen asleep. The data also suggest that higher fiber intake and lower sugar intake are associated with better sleep architecture and greater sleep depth.

Research is also relatively limited regarding specific nutrients and sleep, but some evidence suggests that nutrients that promote the synthesis of serotonin and melatonin are conducive to better sleep. As tryptophan and Group B vitamins are necessary for the body to produce serotonin, a diet that is rich in fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and low-fat protein sources helps ensure that these components are obtained. Milk and/or other dairy products have traditionally been considered sleep-promoting for some people, but again, scientific evidence is limited.

There are certainly other eating- or drinking-related behaviors that can affect sleep. Eating a large meal too late at night or too close to bedtime can interfere with sleep. Of course, caffeine intake late in the day can inhibit sleep. Alcohol may help a person fall asleep but is known to interfere with sleep depth and can cause frequent wakening during the night. Extensive fluid intake before bedtime leads to necessary bathroom visits during the night.

Arguably, more is known about how poor sleep affects food intake. The importance of sleep for weight management is well established, as persons who get inadequate sleep typically have a more difficult time managing their weight for a number of reasons. Among the reasons are that poor sleepers or sleep deprived individuals tend to have higher levels of total caloric intake, including higher fat intake, and lower quality diets overall.

While “more research is needed,” evidence to date would suggest that diets generally promoted as healthy (i.e., emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruit, low fat protein sources) are associated with better sleep. Unfortunately, the identification of specific sleep-promoting foods remains elusive.


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor of Family Medicine and Director of Behavioral Science for the Family Medicine Residency Program, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine. His clinical practice includes psychotherapy, consultation, and coaching.




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