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Healthy Diet Choices may Improve Your Sleep

Good distance running performance depends not only on good training habits but also adequate rest and good restorative sleep.  Enjoy this guest post by Meg Riley from Sleepjunkie.org. 

A Healthy Diet Guide to Getting Better Sleep

The sleep-wake cycle, which regulates when you fall asleep and wake up, is influenced by two factors— melatonin and serotonin. Melatonin is strongest during deep sleep and weakest during the day; in contrast, serotonin is strongest during the day and weakest during deep sleep. Good sleep hygiene, like regular bedtimes and keeping away from electronics one hour before bed keeps melatonin and serotonin levels balanced. However, one element which can affect both melatonin and serotonin is diet.

     Eating a well-balanced diet, not only improves health, but it can also improve your sleep. Foods contain a variety of vitamins and minerals, some of which our bodies use to regulate chemicals is responsible for sleep. But be warned: while there are good foods to improve sleep, there are also bad foods that throw our sleep-wake cycle out of balance, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Good Foods

Choosing the right type of foods can improve sleep quality. Some chemicals, like tryptophan, increase serotonin and melatonin production and can’t be naturally produced by the body. Look for foods rich in tryptophan, carbohydrates, calcium, melatonin, vitamin B6, and magnesium for better sleep.


Tryptophan is an amino acid that promotes sleep by increasing both serotonin and melatonin levels. The body can’t produce tryptophan on its own— we need to consume it so that the body can turn it into serotonin.

Foods with tryptophan include:

              • Milk
              • Cheese
              • Eggs
              • Nuts
              • Fish
              • Beans 


              Carbohydrates are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in food which we use for energy. Carbohydrates may boost tryptophan and serotonin levels by triggering insulin production. Insulin lowers all the amino acids in the blood except for tryptophan, making tryptophan’s access to the brain easier.

              Good sources of carbohydrates include:

                        • Rice, particularly jasmine rice
                        • Bread
                        • Pasta
                        • Dairy products
                        • Potatoes


                        Calcium helps the brain use tryptophan to increase melatonin production, relaxing the muscles and calming the nerves. Low calcium levels have been linked to poor sleep.

                        Foods with calcium include:

                              • Yogurt
                              • Milk cheese
                              • Kale and other dark leafy greens


                              Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by the body, responsible for regulating the sleep-wake cycle— production is lowest during the day, but gradually increases as the sun sets, inducing sleep.

                              Foods rich in melatonin include:

                                        • Cherries
                                        • Walnuts
                                        • Bananas
                                        • Oats
                                        • Tomatoes

                                        Vitamin B6

                                        Vitamin B6 helps in the production of serotonin and melatonin— it converts tryptophan into serotonin, which is used to regulate melatonin levels. Vitamin B6 comes from external sources, like food, drink, and supplements. Vitamin B6 deficiency has been linked to insomnia and depression.

                                        Foods containing vitamin B6 include:

                                                  • Fish (salmon, tuna, and halibut)
                                                  • Eggs
                                                  • Pistachios
                                                  • Bananas
                                                  • Chickpeas


                                                  Magnesium is a trace mineral and a macronutrient which helps destress the body and promote sleep through GABA regulation. GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter that sends messages between the brain and the nervous system, reducing the activity of nerve cells for a natural calming effect on the body.

                                                  Foods with magnesium include:

                                                      • Whole grains (bulgur, barley)
                                                      • Almonds

                                                      Bad Foods

                                                      For better sleep, try to avoid foods high in fat and sugar, spicy foods, and caffeine. These foods disrupt the sleep-wake cycle and make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Also, try to avoid eating large meals late at night, since this too can affect sleep quality.


                                                      High-fat foods are harder to digest, especially at night when the body slows down its functions to prepare for sleep. Eating high-fat foods tears the focus of the body between digesting and sleeping— poor sleep may come because the body is focusing on digesting rather than sleeping.


                                                      Spicy foods contain hot peppers, which when consumed, increase body heat. At night in preparing for sleep, the body naturally drops in temperature— consuming spicy food makes cooling more difficult for the body. For best sleep practices, avoid consuming any spicy food at least 3 hours before bed.


                                                      High-sugar foods cause sugar spikes and crashes in the body, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Large amounts of sugar reduces the level of orexin cells, responsible for regulating wakefulness. By limiting sugar consumption, the body keeps energy levels consistent.


                                                      Caffeine is a stimulant that promotes alertness, the opposite of sleep. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, a chemical in the body which causes sleepiness and delays the sleep-wake cycle. While mostly found in drinks, like coffee, soda, and energy drinks, foods like chocolate also contain caffeine which could affect your sleep. Try to avoid caffeine 4 to 6 hours before bed. 

                                                      Time Matters

                                                      The time you eat matters to both your sleep quality and your health— the earlier you eat dinner, the better. As the sun sets, your body starts to slow down its functions, including digestion. Eating large meals late at night makes it harder for the body to digest. 

                                                      The best time to eat dinner is between 6pm and 6:30pm. Studies show that regularly eating dinner after 8pm adds an extra 2 inches to your waist.

                                                      Start Sleeping Better

                                                      What you eat has a greater impact than you might’ve guessed on your sleep quality. Foods like milk and cherries, regulate serotonin and melatonin levels, key factors of our sleep-wake cycle. Make sure to avoid spicy foods, foods high in fat and sugar, and caffeine to encourage better sleep. Also, be sure to eat 3 hours before bed to allow proper digestion, and so that the body can focus on sleep.  

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