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Sleep Basics: How Nutrition Plays a Role

Sleep improves physical and mental health (1). Studies show that sleep is vital in molecular and cellular repair, immune health, restoring energy, and memory consolidation. During sleep, your body goes through rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. REM sleep makes up 20-25% of total sleep and is associated with dreaming (1). On the other hand, NREM makes up 75-80% of total sleep time and occurs in three stages: N1, N2, and N3. During N1, you are in your lightest stage of sleep. During N2, your heart rate and body temperature drop. During N3, you are in your deepest stage of sleep. It is recommended that adults get about 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Restricting your body to fewer hours of sleep results in changes in any of the four stages of sleep described above and results in poor health outcomes (1, 2). Studies have suggested a link between sleep disturbances and an increased risk for hypertension, obesity, type 2 diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and depression (1).

Your diet affects how you sleep! Studies have found that consumption of the amino acid tryptophan improves sleep parameters. Tryptophan crosses the blood-brain barrier to be converted into serotonin, which is an important precursor to melatonin (3). Meals with adequate complex carbohydrates can increase the tryptophan concentration in the body, making it more available to cross the blood-brain barrier (3). Tryptophan food sources include oats, bananas, dried prunes, chicken, turkey, tuna fish, milk, cheese, and even chocolate (4). Other foods that may improve sleep are cherries, goji berries, and eggs, as they are rich in melatonin! Thus, these food sources increase melatonin levels in the body and act as a natural sleep aid (3). Tuna is special; it contains both tryptophan AND melatonin, making this healthy, fatty fish the perfect sleep aid food!

How to Improve Sleep through Nutrition and Lifestyle:

1. Make sure you create a balanced plate with each meal! A balanced diet is made up largely of a variety of vegetables and fruits as well as lean meats and high-fiber foods that provide the recommended daily intake of vitamins and nutrients such as magnesium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, and K. These are key nutrients for adequate sleep!

2. Avoid eating large meals right before bed! Consuming a large meal, especially one loaded with carbohydrates and/or fats, right before you sleep can contribute to poor quality sleep from gastrointestinal discomfort, heartburn, and acid reflux (5). Allow two to three hours for your body to digest your meals before you lay down. You can also try walking after a meal to aid in the digestion process.

3. Turn off that blue light! Remove electronics from your room and avoid the screen before bed as blue light from your electronics and screens can suppress melatonin secretion. At night, light throws the body's biological clock, or the circadian rhythm, out of order. Recent research reveals a connection between shifting circadian rhythms can lead to diabetes and obesity. It is suggested that you stay off electronic devices for at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep.

4. Get physical activity during the day! Exercise has long been associated with better sleep. Research suggests individuals who engage in at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may see a difference in sleep quality that same night. This can include brisk walking, dancing, riding a bike, or rollerblading.


  1. Khanijow, Vikesh et al. “Sleep Dysfunction and Gastrointestinal Diseases.” Gastroenterology & hepatology vol. 11,12 (2015): 817-25.

  2. Vyazovskiy, Vladyslav V. “Sleep, recovery, and metaregulation: explaining the benefits of sleep.” Nature and science of sleep vol. 7 171-84. 17 Dec. 2015, doi:10.2147/NSS.S54036

  3. Binks, Hannah et al. “Effects of Diet on Sleep: A Narrative Review.” Nutrients vol. 12,4 936. 27 Mar. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12040936

  4. Richard, Dawn M et al. “L-Tryptophan: Basic Metabolic Functions, Behavioral Research and Therapeutic Indications.” International journal of tryptophan research : IJTR vol. 2 (2009): 45-60. doi:10.4137/ijtr.s2129

  5. Chung, Nikola et al. “Does the Proximity of Meals to Bedtime Influence the Sleep of Young Adults? A Cross-Sectional Survey of University Students.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 17,8 2677. 14 Apr. 2020, doi:10.3390/ijerph1708267

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