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The Diet Pattern Was Just Linked To High-Quality Sleep In A Comprehensive Review

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Image by Goodboy Picture Company / iStock
January 21, 2022

It's common knowledge by now that if you want to sleep well, you probably shouldn't drink coffee or eat something super sugary right before bed. Beyond these foods to avoid, researchers have been puzzling over what we should be eating to promote sleep for decades. An in-press review paper in the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics summarizes what they've found out so far. Here's the latest on what to add to your plate if you're looking to remove barriers to your sleep.

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What the researchers found.

For this review, a team of sleep and nutrition experts from the University of Chicago and Columbia University analyzed clinical studies that looked at how macronutrients and dietary patterns affected the sleep quality (either self-reported or measured by a machine) of adults. Twenty studies conducted between 1975 and March 2021 met their criteria. After looking at this body of research as a whole, here's what conclusions the team came to:

  • Diets higher in complex carbohydrates (e.g., fiber) and healthier fats (e.g., unsaturated, especially polyunsaturated) were associated with better sleep quality.
  • Diets higher in protein were associated with better sleep quality.
  • Diets rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and anti-inflammatory nutrients and lower in saturated fat (e.g., Mediterranean diet) were associated with better sleep quality.
  • Diets that were high or very-high carbohydrate or characterized by high sugar intake were tied to lighter and poorer quality sleep.
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As for why these dietary choices might promote (or impede) high-quality, deep sleep, the science isn't crystal clear.

In the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics review, authors speculate that it could be because plant-based diets support the production of serotonin and melatonin—two hormones that are essential in the sleep-wake cycle. The gut-brain connection could also be at play. There's some fascinating emerging research to show that the microbes in our gut can affect certain sleep measures. Those who follow diets high in probiotics, fiber, clean protein, and healthy fats typically have a richer gut microbiome.

On the other side of the coin, diets that are high in refined carbs, sugars, and processed foods have been associated with weight gain. "Excess weight, in turn, can lead to poor sleep quality" and up your risk for sleep problems, the authors share in the report.

While they note that longer-term and more rigorous studies (especially including more women, who tend to report greater sleep disturbances than men) are needed to reinforce these findings, it seems that when it comes to rest, a minimally processed, plant-forward but protein-rich diet pattern a la Mediterranean diet is best.

Registered dietitian and nutrition scientist Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, shares this additional insight: "This robust research review provides useful nutrition intel for good sleep. In addition to the mechanisms the authors propose, I think it's interesting and particularly noteworthy that high fiber foods like whole grains and legumes, as well as the Mediterranean diet, are rich sources of magnesium—an essential and majorly underconsumed mineral that happens to also promote sleep."*

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What this means for your plate.

This review reinforces what we've long suspected: Eating foods that support your overall health will also help out your sleep. (And a solid sleep routine will further promote vibrant health from there. It's a fun cycle.) As if a healthy heart, a sharp mind, and a steady metabolism aren't enough reason to follow a Mediterranean-inspired diet, you can now add better sleep to the list. Get started eating your way to deeper zzz's with this treasure trove of healthy recipes.

Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor

Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 articles on mbg, her work has appeared on Bloomberg News, Marie Claire, Bustle, and Forbes. She has covered everything from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping to a group of doctors prescribing binaural beats for anxiety. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.