Good Sleep Hygiene: A Nutrition-Based Look at Sleep

By Summer Banks FNS, SPT on Feb 16, 2021

When was the last night you had some incredibly great sleep?

Having a good night’s sleep is one of the keys to leading a healthy life. Our bodies and our minds need regular and deep sleep to recharge for the next day. With how fast-paced and hectic our lives have become, it’s a wonder anyone can get the full eight hours anymore.

Despite how hard it feels to get adequate sleep, we can take steps to improve our sleep. Getting better rest starts with understanding the science of sleep.

This is what you need to know about sleep, nutrition, and how to start getting better rest.

What Counts as a Good Night’s Sleep?

Let’s start with the basics. Understanding what makes up a good night’s sleep means understanding what kind of sleepers we are as humans. Humans are what is known as a diurnal species. This means that we are a type of animal that likes to sleep during the night and be awake once the sun is up.

There are two basic types of diurnal sleepers for us humans. You’ve probably heard of the term “night owl.” These are less active people during the morning and more active during the evening and early night.

sleep hygiene night owl

On the other side, we have a less used term called “larks.” These “morning people” are up, ready to go before the rest of us get out of bed. The majority of us fall somewhere between these two extremes.

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A study published in Biological Psychology demonstrated that night owls could adopt the sleeping patterns of larks. Additionally, the larks have fewer naps and reported fewer cognitive and health problems. The study also showed that night owls have similar sleep patterns to the general population of sleepers.

Two more biological factors determine how we sleep. The first is our circadian rhythm. This is your body’s natural 24-hour clock. Unlike the clock on your wall, this biological clock doesn’t care about the numerical time but environmental cues. Temperature and how bright it is can affect this internal clock.

The other factor is your sleep-wake homeostasis. This essentially means that your desire to go to sleep gets stronger for each hour you spend awake.

Sleep comes in two separate stages: non-REM and REM sleep.

Non-rem sleep has three stages within it. Stage 1 is the part of sleep where your mind and body transition from waking to sleeping. Stage 2 is light sleeping that bridges the gap between heavy sleep and stage 1. At stage 3 of non-rem sleep, you experience the deep sleep your body needs to feel rested the next day.

REM sleep is the stage we are probably most familiar with. This stage is defined by “rapid eye movement.” Unlike the other stages, your muscles tense, breathing and heart rate increase in this stage, and your eyes dart back and forth while closed. REM sleep is the stage that helps us consolidate memories and to dream.

Now that we know a basic outline of sleep, what counts as a good night’s sleep?

It breaks down like this. Adults should be getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep that feature at most one interruption. This interruption should be minor, and adults should be able to go back to bed within 20 minutes of waking up during sleep.

Teens have a more comprehensive range of sleep needs, with some needing as little as 6 hours and others requiring up to 11 hours to feel fully rested.

In any case, good sleep also means falling asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed.

With all this research on how we sleep, do we even know why we do it?

Why Do We Sleep?

Sleep is kind of weird when you think about it. Each day, for somewhere between 6 and 11 hours, our bodies need to be unconscious and immobile. Somewhere in our evolutionary past, this should have been a significant flaw, right?

As it turns out, almost everything sleeps. Even insects and nematodes need to sleep. Predators often need more sleep than their herbivorous prey. No matter where you look in the animal kingdom, you’ll find someone taking a nap.

So why do lifeforms on our planet do this strange behavior? Well, scientists are currently hard at work trying to figure out this riddle, and it might even be an unanswerable question. Researchers have dedicated major projects to understanding the theories of sleep, and there are a few reasonable hypotheses put forward as to why humans sleep in the first place.

Inactivity Theory

This is an older theory used to explain sleep in animals that has been largely discarded. The basic argument was that while sleeping, an animal had lower odds of winding up in a dangerous situation. This is especially true if you sleep during the night when your vision is at its worst. This theory was one of the early attempts at explaining why we sleep.

Some big problems quickly emerged. If sleep was about safety, then why are we unconscious during sleep? That leaves us pretty open to danger, right? Researchers quickly moved on to more solid theories of sleep.

Energy Conservation Theory

This theory is a surviving bit of the Inactivity Theory. When we sleep, our metabolic needs drop significantly. This means that a sleeping person uses up fewer resources than a person who is awake. In times before agriculture and fast-food restaurants, this meant being able to make the most out of scarce resources.

Overall, the theory is technically correct. We do use less energy while we are at rest and that means needing fewer resources. However, does this explain all we need to know about why we sleep?

Restorative Theory

This theory has gained widespread support as research proves that sleep does play a massive role in healing.

There are a few things worth noting here. In cases of severe sleep deprivation, immune system functioning can virtually shut down. This means that sleep plays a vital role in our immune system’s healthy functioning. Certain types of cell growth and healing also only, or mostly, happen during sleep.

Sleep also lets our brains clear out a neurochemical known as adenosine. This chemical builds up during the day, and it is only during sleep that our brains get a chance to refresh.

This leads us to the next theory of sleep.

Brain Plasticity Theory

Recent research has demonstrated a link between brain development and sleep patterns. The brain can be physically changed depending on how good or how bad your sleep is.

sleep hygiene brain plasticity

This is especially true in critical parts of our lives. Infants and children need to get so much sleep partially because it helps their brains fully develop. Sleep also plays a significant role in memory and emotion, which connect to brain plasticity.

Each of these theories is still unproven, but they also provide us insight into why we sleep. This mysterious behavior looks a little clearer with these explanations.

Now that we know all the ins and outs of sleep and biology, how can we start having better sleep hygiene?

Good Sleep Hygiene 101

Good sleep hygiene is an interesting subject. Before discussing how nutrition plays a role in sleep, we need to understand the foundations of getting good sleep.

There’s strong evidence that demonstrates that when people know how to get a good night’s sleep, their sleep actually improves. According to Behavioral Medicine, educating young adults about good sleep hygiene might even create long-lasting sleep habits that improve their health for years to come.

To help understand sleep, researchers are currently building a sleep hygiene index to determine the quality of an individual’s sleep, according to the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

If you’re worried about how you would do on a sleep hygiene test, don’t worry – you’re not alone. There are many people out there that could do with improving their sleep hygiene. Improving your sleep hygiene often means making small improvements that come together to reshape your overall sleep habits.

Here are some general steps you can take to move towards good sleep hygiene.

Have a Regular Sleep Schedule

Having a regular sleep schedule is the core of better sleep hygiene.

What does this mean, exactly?

This means having a regular and set time when you should be in bed and asleep and a time when you are waking up. When this pattern syncs up with your natural circadian rhythm, you are going to set yourself up for good sleep.

There is a lot in our society that gets in the way of these ideal sleep patterns. An estimated 10 percent of shift works experience what is known as “shift-work sleep disorder,” according to research published in the Handbook of Clinical Neurology. This condition disrupts our sleep patterns and is directly caused by shifts not syncing up with any recognizable sleep pattern.

Other sources of disruption include cramming for exams, irregular nights out, and roommates with opposing sleep patterns. You can adjust your sleep pattern to become more consistent and start having better sleep.

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Nap Smart

Napping is great, but it can be ruining your nightly sleep.

People in every culture nap. It is just something we humans love to do. There’s nothing wrong with a little cat nap to restore yourself in the afternoon. Napping might play a role in good sleep hygiene, according to the Journal of Sleep Research.

Napping can also be an important part of making our society work better. For example, nurses typically work long shifts and do work that is physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding. This leads to poor sleep and exhaustion during the working day.

One study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing has suggested that integrating a “nap time” into nursing shifts might help improve both health and performance.

So, what about sleep hygiene? Napping is great, but not if you are taking naps before bed. The closer your naps are to your bedtime, the more they will start to compete with your sleep pattern. You should avoid napping in the evening in order to preserve your sleep schedule.

Start a Routine

Another aspect of good sleep hygiene is making sure that you are able to have a set pattern as you are going to bed.

What do you do before you head off to bed? Is there a set pattern of behaviors you have, or is it more of a frantic mess as you try to pin down your day’s last activities?

Our minds and our bodies love patterns. Sleep is maybe one of the best areas to explore this. You can improve your sleep hygiene by setting a routine for yourself before you go to bed each night.

Try to incorporate things that allow you to get to bead easier. Reading and other light relaxation forms can help you ease your busy day and into a good night’s rest. One thing you can definitely take out of your pre-bedtime routine is your smartphone.

Your Smartphone Might be Messing up Your Rhythm

Research often backs up what common sense has been telling us for years. One study published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that the overuse of screens before bedtime can disrupt our sleep patterns.

There are many reasons for this. As we talked about earlier, part of our circadian rhythm is ruled by our exposure to light. The bright light of a screen so close to your face can disrupt our natural sleep patterns. Phones, tablets, and laptops also demand a lot of cognitive energy, which means that they are actively encouraging us to stay awake and attentive while we use them.

Limiting your smartphone use, using “night mode,” or putting the phone down altogether can help you improve your sleep hygiene.

Get Comfy

Sick of tossing and turning? The solution might be simpler than you might have imagined.

Tossing and turning disrupt our sleep patterns and increases the amount of time we wake up during the night. To get smoother sleep, you should make your bedroom comfortable.

This one is all about personal preference, but it can get a little complex. You want to make sure that your bedroom has the right temperature for you to get to sleep. You also want to make sure your bedding is one that you enjoy sleeping in.

Other small factors include being hydrated, limiting noise, and letting go of the day’s worries before bed. Experiment with these factors and try to reshape your sleeping environment into one that truly allows you to unwind when you are ready for bed.

Don’t Workout Before Bed

Last but not least we need to talk about working out.

A meta-analysis of exercise and sleep published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine concluded that regular exercise does improve select sleep outcomes in adults. Working out during the day can help you get the rest you need at night.

However, there is one major don’t of sleeping and exercising. You want to avoid getting in your workout before you go to bed.

If you workout before sleep, you run the risk of disrupting your sleep pattern. When you work out before bed, you are getting the body pumped up, which just pushes you further away from sleep.

To get the best sleep that you can, you should limit strenuous physical activity when you are trying to get to bed. Exercise can improve your overall sleep habits, but it all depends on when you have your workouts. According to Behavioral Medicine, learning how to develop better personal sleep hygiene can help you improve your sleep.

Now that we’ve covered sleep 101 let’s dig into the research behind sleep and nutrition.

How Can You Make the Most of Sleep and Nutrition

Sleep and nutrition are bound up together. As it turns out, the various aspects that make up our health aren’t just separate pieces but a bunch of unique factors that come together to form the whole of our wellbeing.

Sleep and nutrition are two of those factors that go hand in hand. New research, including a recent study published in Nutrients, is constantly reshaping and redefining how we understand sleep and nutrition. The latest studies on nutrition, sleep, and athletes can give us interesting information that we can use daily.

You could spend your entire life studying sleep and how it relates to nutrition. Some researchers do just that! However, to simplify our understanding, we’ve taken some of the core concepts of how our diets can impact our sleep hygiene and distilled them down for you.

This is how what you eat affects how you sleep.

The Science of Eating Before Bed

You’ve probably heard the conventional wisdom that says that you shouldn’t eat before bed. This might not be as true as you think it is.

A new study has come out in the journal Nutrients that suggests that avoiding food before bed has less to do with eating itself and more to do with what we eat.

sleep hygiene eating before bed

Eating heavy meals full of fatty and sugary foods can disrupt our sleep. These meals disrupt our ability to have a smooth rest throughout the night by overtaxing our digestive systems before bed. However, there is a quick snack that you can turn to ease your hunger before bed.

The next time you are looking for a late-night snack, you should reach for something low in calories and high in nutrients. These are the late-night snacks that can provide you with a boost to your sleep health.

As it turns out, the body can improve sleep if you have a light, nutrient-dense snack before bed! You’ll be able to go to bed without feeling hungry and have a better sleep if you opt for a healthy snack instead of that leftover pizza.

This is because the body can make good use of those nutrition-rich snacks while you are asleep. Rather than struggle to digest a massive meal, the body can quickly process the nutritional value of a light snack and use those resources to fuel the restorative aspects of good sleep.

Good Foods to Eat Before Bed

Some foods are better than others when it comes to snacking before bed. These are the categories of foods you want to reach for when you are hungry for that late-night snack.

You should look for foods that are high in proteins. Lean white meats, vegan protein snacks, and certain cheeses like cottage cheese all make ideal pre-bed hunger snacks.

Fruits and veggies are also your best friend. Like with the rest of our diets, having plenty of fruits and veggies helps us stay healthy and strong. This is also true for sleep. Dark greens like broccoli promote good sleep and are packed with nutritional value. Nuts are also a good choice for people looking for a pre-bed snack.

You can get creative with how you have your late-night snack. A small veggie wrap, a spread, or a homemade protein bar can all be great ways to get some food in before you get to bed.

Remember that healthy food doesn’t have to be bland and boring. If we enjoy the food we eat, we will be more likely to engage with it in the long run.

Now that we know what we should be reaching for before bed, what should we avoid?

What You Shouldn’t Eat Before Bed

It’s just as easy to find the foods you should avoid before bed as it is to find the ones you want to be eating.

Just think of what the opposite foods would be.

Ice cream, leftover pizza, and ordering a burger and fries might be poor choices for your sleep hygiene. These foods cause heavy disruption to our sleep patterns for a variety of reasons.

It all comes down to insulin. This hormone is released by the body to help break down the foods we eat every day. When you eat lots of sugars and carbs, the body needs to release a lot of insulin to catch up.

During the day, this can leave you feeling sluggish and tired. However, during the night, this can leave you tossing and turning.

Hormonal changes in the body have a ripple effect that gets at all of our bodily functions. For the same reasons a carb-heavy meal makes you feel drained during the day, these kinds of foods can also make it harder for you to fall asleep at night.

Stick to healthy foods, fruits, and veggies, as your late-night snacks and sleep hygiene will improve.

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Caffeine and Sleep

This one should be obvious, but it’s worth digging into the research to see just how caffeine and sleep work against each other.

It’s a common misconception that caffeine “gives” you energy. Caffeine makes you “forget” that you are tired!

Here’s how it works.

Throughout the day, your brain builds up a chemical called adenosine. This is a chemical signal that tells you how tired you are. Each night when you go to bed, your brain clears out the old adenosine and gets ready for a new day. Adenosine is part of your natural biological rhythm, and it helps you to know when it’s time for bed.

Caffeine is a sneaky chemical. It binds to the same receptors in the brain as adenosine. This blocks the adenosine from doing its job. If you drink your caffeine in the morning or the afternoon, this gives you a burst of energy and pep.

However, if you have your caffeine too late in the day, it can disrupt your sleep. This is why having too much caffeine can make you feel jittery in the afternoon.

Caffeine takes a while to work throughout our system. It can take up to 6 hours for the effects of one caffeinated drink to run its course. For some people, this means no coffee afternoon if you want to get a good night’s sleep.

Alcohol and Getting a Good Night’s Rest

This is one case where the research is busy trying to correct a false belief held by many people.

We tend to think that alcohol can help put us to sleep. In fact, alcohol is one of the most common over-the-counter “sleep aids” in the country. However, alcohol offers false hope for people looking for better sleep.

Research published in the scientific journal Alcohol tells us just how alcohol disrupts sleep. This gets a little tricky so hold on. Alcohol does make you fall asleep faster and easier, but there is a big part of the picture that this isn’t looking at, and that is sleep in the long term.

Alcohol actually disrupts the second half of sleep. This is the half that is responsible for feeling well-rested and healing the body, as well as consulting memory. That alcoholic drink might be making you fall asleep faster, but it is effectively ruining the sleep you are getting.

Avoiding or limiting alcoholic beverages before sleep can be a great way to improve your overall sleep hygiene.

How Blood Sugar Affects Sleep

Blood sugar and sleep go hand in hand.

As we talked about earlier, when you eat foods that spike your insulin levels, you are going to have a harder time falling asleep. These sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods have a deeper impact on our health than just messing up our sleep schedules.

Let’s take a look at the intersection of blood sugar levels, sleep, and the bigger health picture.

Part of the relationship between sleep, nutrition, and blood sugar involves health outcomes. Research from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute has shown that improving sleep habits actually improves our blood sugar levels and medical conditions related to regulating blood sugar levels.

This is one instance where sleep and blood sugar have an intertwined relationship. Another study published in Sleep Medicine Reviews demonstrated that improving sleep was actually able to help people better manage their glycemic levels.

This means that there is a relationship between blood sugar and sleep. Improving your sleep while also improving your sugar and carb intake can help reshape your overall health.

What About Saturated Fats and Sugary Foods?

By now the picture should be becoming pretty clear. What we eat has a direct relationship with how we sleep. When we eat right and intake nutrition-rich meals, we are setting up our bodies for success, and a key part of this puzzle is saturated fats and sugary foods.

sleep hygiene saturated fats

Research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests that eating lots of saturated fats can lead to lighter, less restorative sleep.

This research looked at adults who were given a diet to follow as compared to adults who were eating foods high in saturated fats and low in fiber. The results showed that adults on a junk food diet had worse sleep.

Their sleep took longer to start, was less restorative, and had more interruptions throughout the night. Adults with a healthier diet not only slept better but also fell asleep faster.

This paints a picture that other studies in our discussion enforce. Diets that are heavy in sugary, carbohydrate-rich foods that are also loaded with saturated fats put a major dent into our sleep hygiene.

Restoring your health and improving your sleep means finding new ways to avoid those foods instead of focusing on foods that improve your sleep.

One type of nutrient has shown a strong relationship with improving sleep, and you can find it in many different types of foods.

High Fiber Diets—The Key to Good Sleep?

High fiber diets, as it turns out, are good for more than keeping you regular. They can also improve our sleep dramatically.

These diets are associated with a few key factors of good sleep. Research from Advances in Nutrition shows that fiber can improve some of the most important parts of sleep.

Falling asleep is the hardest part of sleep for some people. This is called “sleep onset.” Ideally, most adults will fall asleep within 30 minutes of lying down for bed. Adults who take longer than this can suffer from insomnia as well as other conditions.

Diets that have an adequate amount of fiber are associated with lower sleep onset times. This means that if you get the fiber you need from your diet, you will be more able to fall asleep quickly. This improves your overall sleep hygiene.

Fiber has another important impact on sleep. Sleep stability is how well you make it through the night without waking up again.

Diets that have enough fiber are also associated with more stable sleep patterns. This means that getting enough fiber not only helps you get to bed more quickly it also helps you to get a solid night’s rest.

Our sleep patterns are woven into our nutrition, but both are only part of a larger picture, which is our health. Certain health conditions can be made worse by our dietary choices and our sleep patterns.

How Diet Affects Sleep-related Conditions

Many conditions mess with our sleep, but one of the most serious is apnea.

This is a condition wherein the airway can become obstructed during sleep, which leads to frequent bouts of waking. This condition can become fatal if left unchecked. Our diets are woven into the fabric of our sleep.

Research published in the journal Sleep has demonstrated that our diets directly impact sleep quality of life. These studies show that sleep apnea becomes much more severe when our diets are rich in fatty foods.

Other studies have shown that it can worsen when diets are weighted down with things like fatty red meats and other unhealthy foods.

These three factors can come together and make your sleep health even worse. A poor diet makes sleep hygiene worse, and those two feed into each other. Our diets, just like our sleep hygiene, are at the center of our overall health.

Countless other medical conditions can be made worse by having the wrong diet. Many of these conditions also upset our sleep behaviors. One of the best ways to improve your overall sleep hygiene is to eat healthy foods that are rich in nutrients but low in saturated fats. The diet that is right for your condition is also the diet that will help you get the best sleep.

Which Diet Gives You the Best Sleep Hygiene?

Now that you are up-to-date on the latest sleep hygiene research, let’s look into how we can change our diets to improve our sleep.

The research has our backs here as well. Whether you are looking for whole diets that can improve your sleep or just a few simple tweaks to make your nights more restful, there are steps you can take to improve your sleep quality by improving your nutrition.

If you’re ready to boost your physical health and improve your sleep while you are at it, these dietary changes might be the right moves to make for you.

Small Changes With Big Impacts

You want to try these changes if you’re not ready for a massive dietary overhaul but still want to get better sleep. Scientists who published a study in Nutrients have found that certain foods can boost our sleep quality.

These are foods that increase the amount of serotonin and melatonin in the body. They can also increase the levels of tryptophan in the body, which naturally occurring chemical that can make you feel sleepy.

If you are ready to add these foods to your diet, you can start by bringing in some cherries. Oddly enough, this food can boost your overall sleep quality while also improving your health’s larger picture. This is one health food that has massive nutritional impacts.

Almonds, turkey, kiwi, fatty fish, and walnuts are also great choices. All of these foods boost the right neurochemicals for sleep while not adding anything that can harm your night’s rest.

These small changes are a great way to start improving your diet and your sleep hygiene, but there are bigger changes you can make if you are ready to really improve your sleep.

Big Changes With Even Bigger Impacts

As we have been talking about, your sleep and your overall health are linked. You can create a lot of impact in both areas by improving your diet.

This isn’t about fad diets or quick weight loss schemes; this is about making long-term changes to your health by improving what you have to eat. If you are looking to make some big changes that can improve your sleep, these are dietary plans that can help you get better rest at night.

Diets such as the Mediterranean diet have been associated with improved sleep habits. This is because these diets are naturally low in saturated fats and high in sleep-boosting nutrients like fiber.

These are the kinds of diets you want to turn to. Rather than making general dietary recommendations, you should look for diets that are inherently healthy and meet your specific needs.

Your sleep and your health go hand-in-hand. When you want to improve your sleep hygiene, you can always start by improving your nutrition. Your sleep and your health will thank you for the extra TLC and you might just notice you lose a little, or a lotta, weight in the process. When you’re ready for lasting change that’s not a fad diet or trendy fitness program, check out Noom. We were immediately impressed with the 1:1 coaching, group coaching, dedicated social group. daily lessons, quizzes, and so much more. 

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About the Author:

Summer Banks has researched over 5000 weight-loss programs, pills, shakes and diet plans. Previously, she managed 15 supplement brands, worked with professionals in the weight loss industry and completed coursework in nutrition at Stanford University.

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