This past year wasn’t an easy one for anybody, and the stresses of our world have resulted in more than 50% of adults in the U.S. reporting that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health. Limited social connection, worries over work and fears for our health have left us all feeling battered and bruised. 

One coping mechanism that many of us share is stress eating — chowing down on often-unhealthy food in response to anxiety. In fact, this is leading to a phenomenon called the “Quarantine 15” — weight gain attributable to poor eating habits.

Add this to another frequently seen COVID-related issue — poor sleeping habits brought on by pandemic anxiety — and you have a perfect storm of factors that can lay you low even if you are not directly impacted by the coronavirus. Poor diet and not sleeping well are inextricably interwoven and have a significant impact on one another.

If you’ve been struggling with diet and/or getting enough sleep, now is a great time to resolve to make some changes. Your body will thank you, and it will go a long way toward making 2021 a better year than 2020.

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What’s The Science Behind Sleep Foods? 

Even before the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that onethird of Americans weren’t getting enough sleep. COVID-19 has increased that risk, leading to what researchers are calling “coronasomnia.”

And yet, there’s nothing we do that’s more important for our health than sleeping. Sleep boosts your immune system, increases productivity, and allows you to metabolize food. Some foods, in fact, even help you sleep.

 Food Compounds That Help With Sleep

You’ve probably heard of tryptophan and experienced its sleep-inducing effects after turkey in a big Thanksgiving meal. Dairy foods also contain tryptophan, which is why many experts recommend a warm glass of milk before going to bed. But it’s only the most popular of the many compounds that help us get to sleep and regulate our sleep cycle. 

Some of these include calcium, potassium and magnesium. Vitamin D, which we get from sunlight and is also found in fatty fish such as tuna and anchovies, is believed to impact the receptors in your brain that control sleep.

 Food Compounds That Negatively Impact Sleep

Surprisingly, the opposite is also true: some foods prevent us from getting a good night’s sleep. You already know to avoid caffeinated beverages like soda and coffee too close to bedtime. What you may not know is that many over-the-counter and prescription medications also contain caffeine, including pain relievers and cold medicines. The same is true of nicotine. It’s a stimulant and thus may inhibit sleep if you smoke too close to your bedtime.

Alcohol is also a factor in sleep. Yes, it may help you to get to sleep faster. But it’s not likely you’ll have a good night’s sleep after drinking too much, and it may cause headaches, nightmares, and night sweats. 

Another chemical that plays a role in your sleep-wakefulness patterns is serotonin. This substance is found in foods from eggs and cheese to salmon and tofu. But there’s a catch here: researchers know that serotonin is important, but studies have not yet determined whether it puts you to sleep or keeps you awake. Removing serotonin from animal subjects seems to make them sleep less, but under some circumstances put them to sleep. Research is ongoing with this intriguing chemical.

What are the Top 10 Foods That Will Help You Sleep Through The Night? 

Although serotonin may be a question mark, there’s clear evidence that some foods prepare your body for sleep and make it easier to achieve. Here are some foods that have definitive evidence of sleep-inducing qualities.

Sleep Healthy FoodsWhy It HelpsBest For:
BananasContain potassium, which helps you to stay asleep once you get there, studies show. It also keeps you from waking up during the night and reduces muscle spasms which can disrupt sleep.Toddlers and small children who are having a hard time making it through the night.
Almonds, walnuts,  and other nutsContain melatonin, which triggers your body to prepare for sleep.Those who like a light snack before bedtime.
Kiwi fruitHas serotonin, and although the jury is out on its effects, a recent study indicated that adults slept better after eating kiwi before bed.Those who can get to sleep but wake up frequently during the night.
TurkeyContains tryptophan, which increases the body’s production of melatonin.Half a turkey sandwich may help insomniacs who have a hard time getting to sleep.
Fatty fishEating a dinner of fish such as tuna, salmon, or mackerel is healthy for many reasons. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, both of which enhance your ability to sleep.Those who eat a late supper or who make their evening meal the biggest meal of the day.
Chamomile or passionflower teaBoth contain apigenin, an antioxidant that promotes sleepiness and may help reduce insomnia. Passionflower tea also contains gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which inhibits brain chemicals that cause stress.Those who enjoy a late-night drink but don’t want to be up all night after a cup of coffee.
White riceWhite rice has a high glycemic index (GI), an indicator of how quickly your food bumps up your blood sugar. High GI food may help improve your ability to get to sleep and stay there for extended periods.Individuals who have sensitive stomachs.
Dairy foodsYogurt, cottage cheese and ricotta, milk, and other dairy foods contain tryptophan.Those who tolerate dairy foods well.
OatmealOatmeal is a high-fiber, high-carb food that staves off food cravings and leaves you more ready for sleep. It also contains melatonin.Those who eat early in the evening and are hungry again before bedtime.
Tart cherries and tart cherry juiceNot the same as sweet cherries, tart cherries have a high concentration of melatonin. The cherries also contain antioxidants to help you get to sleep.Anyone who craves fruit.

We’ve looked at how certain foods contain substances that may help or hinder your sleep, but what about your diet in general? It turns out there are some diets that are more conducive to a good night’s sleep than others. 

Calorie restriction and fasting diets

These diets involve reducing your average daily calorie intake, with fasting diets being the most severe. In studies on animals, these diets have often been shown to be effective, but more research is needed to understand their long-term effects. One 2017 study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) gave some evidence that a restricted-calorie diet can lead to improved mood and a better night’s sleep as well as weight loss, with no negative side effects.

High-carb diets

Carbohydrate-heavy meals tend to score high on the glycemic index (GI), especially those that feature whole grains and unrefined carbs. Although some foods, such as white rice, can have a high GI score and still be sleep-positive, ingesting too many carbohydrates before bedtime may lead to less NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, which is the dreamless sleep that makes up most of our nighttime hours and gives our body the best opportunity to rest.

Keto Diet

You may experience sleep disruption when you start a keto diet. Reducing carbs and increasing fats may be a big change from your usual diet, and that can impact your sleep patterns. But in the long term, there is some clinical evidence that suggests that keto diets affect adenosine, which is found in the brain and contributes to our feelings of sleepiness at the end of the day.  Adenosine activity relaxes the nervous system and reduces pain, thus allowing for a better night’s sleep.

Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean diets are heavy in olive oil, legumes, fruits, vegetables and fish. They limit dairy products but allow for moderate consumption of wine. Mediterranean diets have been studied more than some of the newer diets, such as keto and paleo, and it is generally accepted that they are linked to better sleep patterns for adults. Many of the acceptable foods in Mediterranean cooking are high in melatonin, tryptophan, and other nutrients that aid sleep and reduce insomnia. 

Where’s The Best Place To Start? 

Making changes to your diet to promote better sleep patterns isn’t a miracle cure, and you won’t see changes overnight. But even small adjustments can set you on a path that will promote better sleep health in the long term and impact your body’s ability to negotiate the stresses and strains of modern life.

Here are some tips on how to make changes that will stay with you and provide excellent long term results.

  1. Eliminate temptation: take a look in your cabinets and pantry and get rid of foods that aren’t healthy. Do you really need three different kinds of chips? Does your alcohol cabinet need THAT many bottles? Toss or use up anything that will not aid relaxation and sleep.
  2. At the same time, add a few things to your shopping list, such as almonds, oatmeal, and some chamomile tea bags. If those aren’t to your liking, try something else on our list that contains the chemicals that will help you sleep.
  3. Avoid going to bed either too full or too hungry. Too hungry and your grumbling stomach will keep you awake. Too full and the metabolic processes of digestion will have you awake and alert when all you need is sleep.
  4. Avoid eating more than a light snack before bedtime. A small bowl of cottage cheese or a handful of nuts is fine, but eating your biggest meal of the day within four hours or so of your bedtime is going to leave you too stimulated for sleep.
  5. Don’t drink at night: you might think that a nightcap is the best thing to help you sleep, and for some people, a glass of wine is enough to have them nodding off at the dinner table. But the effects of alcohol can be felt hours later when you are restless and awake or in the morning when you wake up after a night spent in poor-quality sleep. 
  6. In fact, it’s best to limit all liquids within an hour or so of bedtime. Drinking lots of fluids means multiple bathroom trips during the night and broken sleep.
  7. Avoid sugary foods in the evening: you don’t want a sugar rush keeping you awake, so stay away from the cake, cookies, and other refined carbs too close to bedtime.

What Are The Experts Saying? 

Jamie Hickey, an NASM-certified personal trainer and founder of Truism Fitness, reminds his clients of the importance of separating food from emotions. “Our society uses food to celebrate when we’re happy, hide or sorrow when we’re sad, give us something to do when we’re bored, or eat to cope with stress. The pandemic has brought all of those emotions to the forefront, and on top of that, we are less active. The only way to beat this is to train yourself to look at food differently and to motivate yourself to exercise daily.”

Colleen Christensen, a Registered Dietitian who blogs at says it pays to focus on your food when you’re eating rather than having dinner in front of the TV or computer screen. “Learning to eat mindfully and be in tune with your body’s fullness and satisfaction cues will allow you to enjoy all of your favorite comfort foods while still doing so in a comfortable way.”

When switching up your dietary habits, pace yourself, says Heather Hanks, M.S. Nutritionist at Instapot.Life. “The best way to make sustainable health changes is little by little. A major diet overall will come back to bite you. Don’t follow fad diets, and add as many whole foods into your diet as possible. Stay away from refined sugar and carbs, and make one small change per day.”

The Bottom Line

It’s good to know that there are steps you can take for those times when you can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep — whether it’s a once-in-a-while occurrence or every night. If your insomnia is chronic, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor to make sure there’s no physical reason for it. But, by watching what you’re eating and when you’re eating it, you may be able to minimize your late-night wakefulness and get the sleep you need to greet the new day with energy.