It’s not a secret: Sleeping well is incredibly important for good health, as well as recovering from any type of training regimen. It doesn’t matter how dialed-in your diet and training are, if you’re not sleeping well, your health will suffer.
Unfortunately, even when we make sleep a priority by getting to bed on time, it doesn’t guarantee a good night’s sleep. Many people suffer from insomnia, interrupted sleep patterns, or trouble sleeping for a full seven to nine hours a night.1
What you may not realize is that there are dozens of diet and lifestyle factors that affect how well you sleep once your head meets the pillow every night.
How Your Macros and Calories Can Affect Your Sleep
Whether or not you track your fat, carbs, and protein, the relative proportion and amount of each of these macronutrients in your diet can impact your sleep.
There are two main concerns regarding macros that could be affecting your sleep: you may not be eating enough carbohydrates or enough fat (or both.)
Low carb diets are incredibly popular for more than just weight loss. While I’m not anti-low-carb, I find that a lot of my clients — my active female clients in particular — don’t do well on a very low-carb diet long term. Disrupted sleep is one of the first signs that they’re not tolerating the diet.
Many active women on a low-carb diet experience blood glucose drops overnight, which ramp up stress hormones like cortisol and can even wake some women up if it’s extreme enough. Whether or not you wake up hungry, if you’re wide awake right before bed or at some point during the night, you might be experiencing a drop in your blood sugar.
Most of my active female clients see significant improvements in their sleep quality when they’re on a higher carbohydrate diet (more than 30 percent of calories). Even if your overall carb intake is low, having a higher carbohydrate meal within four hours before bed can shorten sleep onset, helping you fall asleep faster.2
Try increasing your total carbohydrate intake to 40 to 50 percent of your calories, or adding 30 to 50 grams of higher glycemic index carbohydrates to your dinner. For a woman consuming 2000 calories a day, this is 200 to 250 grams of carbs per day.
Great options include white rice, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, and bananas. Natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup are some easily digested sources of glucose.
Fat is another macronutrient that can impact sleep. Dietary fat helps us produce hormones and slows the release of glucose into our blood when we’re digesting carbs from our meal. Long-chain monounsaturated and saturated fats from butter, animal fats (e.g. lard or tallow), olive oil, palm oil, or macadamia nut oil are especially satiating and keep us feeling satisfied for hours after eating a meal.
Adding some healthy whole food fats to all your meals, and dinner especially, prevents overnight hunger and the blood sugar swings that can come from a very low fat diet.
Aim for at least 20 percent of your calories from fat, and try upping it to 30 to 35 percent if you’re struggling with hunger overnight. For a woman on a 2000-calorie diet, this is at least 45 grams fat per day, and possibly closer to 65 to 75 grams of fat per day for an adequate intake. Some of my clients feel best on 40 to 50 percent of their calories from fat. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Remember, inadequate food intake in general (regardless of the macronutrient balance) is going to screw up your sleep. Insomnia is an incredibly common symptom of malnutrition. Make sure you’re eating enough food overall to support your training levels, even if you’re trying to lose body fat.
And don’t go to bed ravenous! Try a snack containing carbs and fat within an hour of your bed time if you’re struggling with pre-bed hunger. One of my favorites is frozen berries or banana with heavy cream or coconut milk, or a frozen, gluten-free waffle with some almond butter on top.
If you’d prefer a beverage over a snack, try herbal tea with a spoonful of honey and a dash of heavy cream or coconut milk. Throwing in a little hydrolyzed collagen powder, which is a great source of the sleep-inducing amino acid glycine, can make it even more beneficial for sleep.
Micronutrients For Better Sleep
Once you’ve got your macronutrients and calories dialed in, it’s good to ensure that your diet is high in micronutrients — vitamins and minerals — especially those that directly impact sleep quality. Some of these nutrients are hard to get high amounts of in the diet, so supplementation may be warranted.
Don’t avoid salt, especially if you’re active. Too little salt may trigger sleep issues in women who are training regularly. Use salt in your cooking and add salt to taste, especially if you’re following a diet low in processed foods with added sodium. If you sweat a lot during workouts, you may need to add some salt to your water to replace the sodium loss.3
Magnesium is a nutrient that calms the nervous system, and can be effective in treating insomnia and improving sleep when supplemented. Yet it’s difficult to get high amounts of magnesium in our diets even when eating healthily. I usually recommend 200 to 400 mg of a chelated form of magnesium like magnesium glycinate or magnesium taurate before bed. You can also take an epsom salt bath to absorb magnesium through your skin.
Vitamin B6 is another nutrient that impacts sleep thanks to its effects on melatonin and serotonin production, both neurotransmitters that affect sleep when out of balance. While B6 is found in many foods, cooking reduces the bioavailability of B6 by 25 to 40 percent, so getting a little extra is a good idea if you’re not sleeping well. Try taking an extra 25 mg per day, and don’t exceed 100 mg daily from all supplement sources.
Zinc affects our body’s ability to use magnesium and B6, and also impacts our sensitivity to excitatory neurotransmitters which can make us more sensitive to stimulation. Zinc is found in oysters, clams, beef, lamb, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, cashews, turkey, and lentils, and is easier to absorb from animal sources. If you are vegetarian or have impaired digestive function, or simply don’t eat a lot of zinc-rich foods, you may need to supplement. Most of my clients do well taking 15 to 30 mg supplemental zinc per day in a chelated form like zinc citrate. Don’t take more than 40 mg per day on an ongoing basis.
These four micronutrients are not the only ones that affect sleep, but are the best place to start when looking to increase the nutrient-density of the diet or to add low dose nutritional supplementation to your plan.
(Always check with your doctor or a licensed dietitian before starting any supplementation!)
Stimulants and Sedatives
So far we’ve focused on what to add to your diet if you’re struggling with sleep. Let’s now discuss the things you may need to remove from your diet in order to sleep better.
First, consider your caffeine consumption from drinks like coffee and tea, assessing both the amount and timing of the caffeine intake.
If you drink multiple coffee beverages a day, or have caffeine in the afternoon, it may be causing your sleep disruption.
While you don’t have to completely eliminate caffeine (I’m not cruel!) you may want to cut down on how much you’re having during the day. Try limiting caffeinated beverages to before noon only, and replace one or two caffeinated beverages with a decaf option.
You can try even taking a break from caffeine for a while if you’re really struggling with sleep, but remember to slowly reduce your intake as a cold turkey removal can cause withdrawal symptoms.
And remember that caffeine can come from other sources beyond coffee and tea. Chocolate is a common source of caffeine that people consume close to bedtime, and I’ve found for myself and some clients that having chocolate before bed negatively affects sleep. Try limiting yourself to a small square, or have it earlier in the day if it’s keeping you awake.
Finally, even though alcohol is often used to help us fall asleep, it negatively affects the overall quality of our sleep, making our sleep less restful. While there’s nothing wrong with having a glass of wine or beer to relax at the end of the day, you shouldn’t be relying on alcohol to fall asleep, and daily intake for women should not exceed one to two servings.
If you’re drinking more than that regularly, consider taking a break from alcohol for a while so that you can recalibrate your sleep cycles as well as your alcohol tolerance.
So Your Diet Is Great… Now What?
Once you’ve got your diet, supplements, and stimulant use under control, consider the other lifestyle factors that can affect sleep quality.
Light and dark exposure throughout the day makes a big impact on your sleep cycles and circadian rhythms (your body’s 24-hour clock system.) Be sure to get plenty of natural light during the day and avoid artificial blue light at night. Take a walk outside at lunch, or take your workout outdoors on a sunny day, and turn off the laptop and smartphone at least one hour before bed.
If you’re training several days a week, make sure you’re not exercising very close to bedtime, as exercise is stimulating and can keep you from falling asleep. Try moving your workout to the morning or midday if you’re feeling overly wired at night. And be sure you’re not overtraining, as one of the primary symptoms of too much exercise is poor sleep and insomnia.
Finally, look at your stress levels and stress management habits. I’m willing to bet that most of us struggle with stress in some way, and unless you’re proactively dealing with it, it can significantly impact your health and sleep quality. Learning healthy ways to cope with stress can make a big difference in your sleep as well as your quality of life.
And if you’ve made all these changes and you’re still not seeing improvements in your sleep, consider working one-on-one with a health expert that can give you individualized recommendations for getting your sleep back on track!
- How much sleep do we really need? National Sleep Foundation.
- Afaghi A, O’Connor H, Choow CM. High-glycemic-index carbohydrate meals shorten sleep onset 1’2’3. Am J Clin Nutr February 2007; 85(2): 426-430
- Blank MC, Bedarf JR, Russ M, Grosch-Ott S, Thiele S, Unger JK. Total body Na(+)-depletion without hyponatraemia can trigger overtraining-like symptoms with sleeping disorders and increasing blood pressure: explorative case and literature study. Med Hypotheses. 2012 Dec;79(6):799-804.
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