The People's Perspective on Medicine

What Should You Eat to Sleep Better?

A large study shows that diet makes a difference at bedtime. Will you change what you eat to sleep better, even if it means fewer snacks and desserts?
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Americans are a nation of insomniacs. We stay up too late snacking and watching television or emailing friends and family. Burning the candle at both ends can lead to hypertension, obesity, automobile accidents, bad decisions at work, forgetfulness and depression. Sometimes it can be difficult to get the sleep you need, though. It is little wonder that sleeping pills are big business in the United States. But what if there were something you could eat to sleep more soundly?

How Could You Eat to Sleep Better?

What if we could improve our sleep by changing our diets? A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that our predilection for sugar and refined carbohydrates could be contributing to our sleeping problems (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online, Dec. 11, 2019).

Researchers tracked more than 50,000 postmenopausal women participating in the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study for three years. They collected information on what the women ate as well as on their sleep patterns. Women who ate more sugars, starches and refined grains reported more insomnia. On the other hand, those who ate more fruits and vegetables had less trouble sleeping. A menu like the Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains, seems to be what you should eat to sleep better.

The authors report that

“Higher intakes of dietary added sugars, starch, and nonwhole/refined grains were each associated with higher odds of incident insomnia.”

Will You Change What You Eat to Fight Insomnia?

If you would like some guidance on how to eat to sleep more easily, consider following the guidelines for a DASH diet or a Mediterranean diet. Both emphasize whole foods, with lots of produce, little refined carbohydrate and minimal sugar. We offer frameworks for both diets in our book, The People’s Pharmacy Quick & Handy Home Remedies. For more practical information on how to cook meals following such principles, you might consult Recipes & Remedies From The People’s Pharmacy.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Gangwisch JE et al, "High glycemic index and glycemic load diets as risk factors for insomnia: analyses from the Women's Health Initiative." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online, Dec. 11, 2019. DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/nqz275
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For years I used to suffer from lack of deep sleep. I’d wake up 2-4 times a night and always woke up exhausted in the morning. Then I started doing intermittent fasting. My last meal is usually 5-6pm. I go to bed anytime between 10-11pm. I sleep like a baby now, with fewer sleep interruptions, and I wake up feeling refreshed in the morning,

I solved my sleeping problems by purchasing a bed where you adjust the sleeping comfort with a numbered controller. In the summer I pump it up to a higher number, and in the winter I let the air out so it feels like a softer bed which envelopes me. It supports ALL of your body, not just your butt, head and shoulders. They are somewhat pricey, but my sleep is well worth it!

Due to the onset of fibromyaligia 23 years ago insomnia is a way of life. After ten years of fibromyalgia, I went for a sleep study and the diagnosis was that I got 7 minutes of sleep a night. Then the doctor prescribed Ambient, which I took for about 5 years.Chose to discontinue it gradually due to worries of addiction. Now I have my own formula of herbs and supplements which have worked well. I have noticed that when I eat foods with lots of sodium after 5 p.m. I am up and down to the bathroom all night. Also no caffeine after 3p.m. Sleep better when I have at least one mile of activity in the day.

I find I don’t sleep well if I eat foods that have a lot of preservatives in them. That includes fast foods or pickles, olives or many things that come out of a can, jar or box.

What is meant by “incident insomnia”? Is it any different from the regular kind? (How many kinds are there, anyway?)

“Incident insomnia:” How many people in the population under consideration experience insomnia. There are at least two kinds of insomnia, probably more: trouble falling asleep and trouble staying asleep.

Good advice about the effect of diet on sleep, but I think it’s important to clarify that people who “stay up too late snacking and watching TV or emailing friends and family” don’t have insomnia. They might be just as sleep-deprived the next day, but insomnia is an inability to sleep, not just choosing to do other things instead. Many of us with actual insomnia are doing all the things we’re supposed to do and still struggle with falling or staying asleep. Conflating the two really isn’t helpful.

Good point, Jane. Thank you for the clarification.

For me, no sweets after 2pm and limiting computer/blue screen time after evening meal turned out to be the key for better sleep. I keep a log, of activities, foods, etc. to findout what might be the triggers for insomnia. I got a blue light filter program (free) installed which also helped.

A challenge well worth the effort. Bad habits are difficult to change but not impossible!

It will be a full-time undertaking. Trying to avoid unhealthy ingredients is next to impossible in today’s supermarkets and restaurants. You would basically have to make everything from scratch, a very time-consuming endeavor for most people.

Some years ago, inspired by a book club meeting dish, I started trying to have just simple 3-ingredient salads, with mixed small leafy greens. And, to my surprise, found myself sleeping all the way through the night.
Can’t do any harm.

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