“A healthy eating pattern is linked to longer, more restorative sleep,” says Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of Sugar Shock. We know that both when you eat and what you eat has an impact on your shut-eye, so being strategic with your evening food choices is of the utmost importance when it comes to improving sleep quality and ensuring you wake up feeling rested rather than fatigued. Cassetty explains that there are three key nutrients to focus on for better sleep: fiber, magnesium, and melatonin.
The 'Big 3' nutrients for sleep quality
Before you hit the supplement aisle, check out the produce section: It turns out that plant foods have all the building blocks you need for healthy sleep. Cassetty says that if 75 percent of your plate is made up of plant-based foods like fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, and pulses, you’re well on your way to better sleep. This is largely due to the fiber content of plant-based foods, which, in addition to benefits like improving digestion to helping prevent heart disease, is also a major player in stepping up sleep quality.
“Fiber is linked with fewer sleep disturbances and better sleep efficiency,” says Cassetty. That means more time actually asleep, and less time tossing and turning. One noteworthy study examined the link between the Mediterranean Diet—which is rich in fiber—and sleep quality, finding that the more closely participants followed the diet, the more likely they were to have high-quality sleep. Cassetty recommends 25 to 38 grams of fiber per day to set yourself up for overnight success, but she cautions that if you aren’t used to eating that much, you should gradually increase to avoid GI distress and make you’re drinking plenty of fluids.
Magnesium is another crucial component for sleep that helps your brain and body relax and get ready for sleep. “Magnesium acts on a similar pathway in your brain as anti-anxiety drugs, so it helps your body wind down and get into sleep mode,” Cassetty says.
Magnesium is found in many plant foods, including nuts, seeds, whole grains, pulses, leafy greens, and even dark chocolate. Despite this long list, about half of adults in the United States don’t get enough in their daily diets, which can take a toll on their health from a few different angles. “In one 20-year study that measured magnesium intake and sleep quality among young adults, high magnesium intake was tied to better sleep parameters,” says Cassetty. People with the highest magnesium intake levels spent more time sleeping, and were less likely to clock fewer than seven hours per night than their peers who had lower magnesium intakes. In addition to sleep, low magnesium levels are also associated with mood disorders, which can impact sleep (in addition to overall well-being).
For many of us, melatonin might have the strongest association with sleep. But did you know you don’t need to pop a pill to get a dose of melatonin? Melatonin is a hormone that our bodies make to help us regulate day and night. When melatonin rises in the body, you start to feel sleepy. We produce melatonin naturally, but according to Cassetty, your diet can offer a boost. “Plenty of plant foods supply melatonin, and one study found that compared to people with the lowest veggie intakes, those with the highest had a 16 percent greater concentration of melatonin in their urine, indicating that veggie-eaters got a meaningful boost of this sleep inducer.” Melatonin is found in a number of plant foods, most notably walnuts, tart cherries, grapes, tomatoes, and oats.
Dietitian tips for eating before bed (including when to do it)
The first thing to consider when dreaming up your ideal bedtime snack is, well, do you actually need one? According to Cassetty, it depends. If you’re starving or stuffed, it’s going to be hard to fall asleep and your sleep quality will likely suffer. Rather, you’re looking for that Goldilocks-level of contentment as you get close to drifting off, and ideally leaving 10 to 12 hours between your last meal and breakfast. “This fasting period aligns with your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s internal clock,” says Cassetty. “Your circadian rhythm regulates your sleep-wake cycle, and an overnight fasting period provides a strong cue to this clock, helping promote better sleep.” Cassetty also mentions that eating too close to bed can contribute to acid reflux, which can interfere with sleep on top of just being generally uncomfortable.
3 perfectly-designed evening snacks filled with the 'Big 3' nutrients for sleep
If your stomach is rumbling before bed and you decide you do need a snack, Cassetty recommends the following simple recipes as delicious combinations of fiber, magnesium, and melatonin to help you take the edge off your hunger without leaving you overly full. If you don’t need a bite before bed, they totally work as nutritionally-dense desserts, too.
Banana split with walnuts
Slice open a banana, sprinkle it with some cinnamon, and top with an ounce of walnuts for a delicious bedtime snack with sleep benefits. A banana has about two grams of fiber and 32 milligrams of magnesium. Pairing it with an ounce of walnuts will add another two grams of fiber and 44 milligrams of magnesium, making this duo an excellent source of fiber as well as providing 18 percent of your daily magnesium requirements. You can also try this delicious vegan banana split recipe which perfectly fits the bill.
Kiwi plus oats
Make a quarter cup of old-fashioned oats using boiling water and add a teaspoon of chia seeds to the mixture. This combo has seven grams of fiber and 15 percent of your daily magnesium quota to support better sleep. Plus, oats are one of the best natural sources of magnesium, and one study found that snacking on two kiwi fruits before bedtime led to 35 extra minutes of sleep. That’s likely because kiwifruit is rich in serotonin, which gets converted into melatonin.
This delicious (and easy) chia baked oatmeal will definitely induce some shut-eye, too:
Tart cherry juice is a prime source of melatonin. Along with the juice, this cobbler contains fiber-rich chia seeds, frozen sweet cherries, which balance out the tartness and add fiber, and lower-sugar granola (for more fiber and magnesium). Put a half cup frozen cherries in the microwave and heat for 30 seconds to a minute. Then add about a quarter cup of tart cherry juice and two tablespoons of chia seeds. Let the mixture stand until it gels (or refrigerate if you're not eating it right away), and then top with a tablespoon of lower-sugar granola. In addition to the melatonin from tart cherry juice, this snack provides 22 percent of your daily magnesium needs and meets 25 percent of your daily fiber quota.
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