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Sleep and Food: What to Eat for Better Sleep

Colin Greening explores the relationship between sleep and food. When we don’t eat well, we don’t sleep well. Why is it we feel so poorly when we don’t get a good night’s sleep? It’s because of our hormones. Our bodies need to work properly, and the best way to hormonal health is through our food. 

Dr. Robert Pastore
Last updated on
Fact Checked by Dr. Robert Pastore
Sleep and Food: What to Eat for Better Sleep

This article was written by Colin Greening, a professional hockey player who also graduated from Cornell University.

As a professional athlete, I have learned an important component of sleep: Quality is more important than quantity. Our schedules are designed for entertainment at night. That means we work late, after which we often travel. It’s a demanding business that creates physical and mental stress. There’s little time for professional athletes to recover with quality sleep. But, it’s important to understand that this isn’t just a health issue for professional athletes; it is a universal problem. These days it seems everyone’s daily schedules are extremely busy and stressful, and there are never enough hours in a day.

Unfortunately, when strapped for time, sleep and proper eating habits are often the first things to be compromised.

When I don’t eat well, I don’t sleep well. Why is it we feel so poorly when we don’t get a good night’s sleep? It’s because of our hormones. Our bodies need to work properly, and the best way to hormonal health is through our food.  Whole foods!  Foods left in their original form like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Not processed food that, in and of itself, can cause stress. 

Two-Faced Cortisol

Have you ever been late for a flight at the airport? Many of us have had that harrowing experience rushing into the airport and dashing to the check-in counter, before eyeing the long line at security. All the while constantly looking at our watch and wondering how we can possibly get to our plane on time. Yet you have to figure out how to get on that plane, and fast. Think of the extra energy your body seems to find at moments like these. This “boost” is commonly referred to as “fight or flight” mode (pun intended). Where does it come from? It's a so-called stress hormone called cortisol. It makes us more aware and more alert. It cranks up energy fast. It helps us perform at higher levels -- important stuff for professional athletes.

But there's a downside. Stress is not helpful for sleep.

Let’s look at another example. If I cut my hand, then the injured area would turn red, swell and feel warm. The body’s natural response is to heal. Like the airport scenario, cortisol is added to the equation to help regulate my injury. Why is cortisol involved in both situations? Stress! Our bodies will respond with cortisol whether you’re late for a flight, cut yourself or, you guessed it, eat a poor diet. Stress is stress. Our body doesn’t know the difference between one stress and another. Each time, our brain’s natural response is to flood our bodies with cortisol.

Abnormally high cortisol levels and a good night's sleep are simply not good bed companions. Constant stress creates abnormally high cortisol levels that can cause us to “burn out” and crash. We have trouble fighting off being sick. It reduces our glucose metabolism during sleep and fails to break down our food into energy. Neither I, as a professional athlete, nor anyone else, can be successful if we don’t recover from our daily activities with proper sleep. A first step to balance cortisol levels and recover during sleep is to eat properly.

Let Our Bodies Do The Work

After a restful night's sleep, I wake up feeling rejuvenated and strong. Why? It’s because I gave my body a chance to repair itself. I allowed Growth Hormone (GH) to do its job. It repairs and strengthens our bodies during the night during a phase called "deep sleep." But getting into "deep sleep" is no piece of cake (yes, another pun), as we especially have trouble getting into a "deep sleep" when we consume too much sugar.

I have trouble sleeping if I have high stress. To avoid stress, I eat foods low or absent in sugar. Sugar is quick energy, and our bodies have a desire to use it immediately. But the body has something in there called insulin that sucks up sugar. More sugar means more insulin. High insulin mean lower GH levels, and when you have low GH levels it can't do its normal repair work. Lower GH levels mean we typically wake up groggy and tired. And it's often a product of unhealthy foods.

A tired brain is a sloppy brain. That's why at night we don't crave a vegetable. We want a cookie. We want sugar. Our sleep-deprived brain resorts to primitive instincts. It wants energy now! That's why we instinctively reach for comfort foods that are high in refined sugar and unhealthy fat. Poor food choices can cause a rather unhealthy sleep cycle.

Whole Foods to the Rescue

Eating whole foods isn't about one or two specific foods. Yes, foods like tart cherry juice and kava tea can help you sleep. But that's using a bandage where more significant treatment is what's needed. You need to eat whole foods throughout the day. Whole foods will keep you energized all day and naturally encourage sleep as night approaches. Eat whole foods that are rich in fiber. High fiber foods like Savi seeds or almonds help dull the effect of the sugar we already have in our diet.

Secondly, healthy fats are important. They help keep our energy levels up during the day. Shawn Stevenson, the author of “Sleep Smarter”, compares our metabolic system to a fire. Eating simple carbohydrates is like putting strands of paper on the fire. It will quickly turn bright, but it will then quickly burn out. It cannot sustain the fire. However, eating healthy fats is like throwing a wooden log into the mix. The fire will burn for a very long time. Healthy fats are also healthy for our immune system. Eat avocados, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, flax and hemp seed, olive and coconut oil. They all make for a healthy immune system that can help us recover quickly during sleep.

Thirdly, supplement your healthy fats with protein. There was a study in 2008 where healthy men were fed a high fat-and-protein diet and a low fat-and-protein diet. (High fat-and-protein meant 1% carbs, 61% fat, 38% protein. Low fat-and-protein meant 72% carbs, 12.5% fat, and 15.5% protein.) The diet with higher fat and protein content increased all stages of deep sleep. The second diet did just the opposite; sleep quality was decreased.

The right protein source varies from person to person. I have learned it depends on our own body chemistry. Personally, I struggle with digesting dairy, so when choosing protein, I steer clear of all dairy products. Some people choose fish and meat; others choose something that’s plant-based. There’s no magic source as to what protein is right for you. Listen to your body. If you feel lethargic, bloated, gassy, or have blood shot eyes when you wake, I would question what is being eaten. Food should be our friend, not our enemy.

I May Be Small But I Pack a Punch

It's time to start talking about some little guys that can really be game-changers in the sleep world. Micronutrients. These little guys are the building blocks of healthy hormones and can really help you sleep. They include minerals, vitamins, enzymes, trace minerals and phytonutrients.

Dr. Kirk Parsley, a former doctor of the United States Navy SEALs, found that emphasizing the importance of micronutrients drastically improved his soldiers’ sleep quality. When he was new to the SEALs, Dr. Parsley had many soldiers coming to him complaining of sleep problems. In fact, many were taking medications so they could sleep. So Dr. Parsley began his review by taking blood samples from his soldiers, and he found shocking results. Physically, they appeared to be in peak physical condition. But “metabolically, they looked like crap,” said Dr. Parsley. His tests came back with low testosterone, low growth hormones, low insulin sensitivity, and high inflammatory markers.

Dr. Parsley realized his soldiers were lacking proper micronutrients. In addition to promoting the importance of whole foods, Dr. Parsley supplemented the soldiers’ diets with extra Vitamin D, magnesium and tryptophan. His nutrition plan worked. The majority of his soldiers no longer needed sleeping pills.

Final Thoughts

All athletes get the same professional advice about eating and sleeping, and the average person might think they'd adhere to the rigid rules.  But rules are meant to be broken, even by athletes who should know better. I know some who spend time in the middle of the night eating pizza. Some have the occasional extra beer. We, too, struggle with always putting the right foods in our bodies. Eating correctly is constantly changing and a lot depends on what’s right for each individual. However, through my career I’ve learned that a good night’s sleep starts as soon as I get up in the morning. Fueling my body to aid in sleep shouldn’t be limited to a certain meal or snack. It’s a routine.

My advice is don’t get overwhelmed and start drastically changing your diet. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Good nutritional habits take time; even for those whose careers depend on it. Improving sleep patterns through nutrition is not about perfection. It’s about being aware.