Struggling to sleep? Consider a revised eating plan.

Struggling to Sleep? Consider a Revised Eating Plan

Can Your Diet Help With Disordered Sleep? “We are what we eat.” The same might go for, “We sleep as well as we eat.” There can be many factors as to why our quality of sleep may feel compromised. Diet can often be the culprit. But it’s not always that simple. Apart from reviewing the types of foods we’re consuming, there needs to be closer scrutiny and understanding of the relationship between diet and sleep. Sleep scientist, Dr Dale Rae, takes a broader, methodological approach.

What Exactly is Disordered Sleep?

“Disordered, or sub-optimal, sleep differs between people. Sleep can be too short, restless, fragmented, too shallow, or irregular. In some instances, an actual “sleep disorder” such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea may be the underlying cause of poor sleep. In other cases the reason may be tricky to identify, such as work-related stress, personal anxiety, medication, exercise (or lack thereof), excessive screen-time and even diet may all disrupt sleep.”

“The most obvious sign that all is not well with our sleep is that we wake up feeling groggy or unrested, wishing for more time to sleep and recover,” Dr Rae notes. “We might also note that we are less productive, creative or effective at work or school, or that we battle to control our mood and emotions during the day, or that we often get sick”.

“Real concerns about the quality of sleep should be raised when there is a noticeable, prolonged compromise in daytime alertness and functioning. Essentially, the effect of interrupted or compromised sleep will likely manifest itself in our daily routines. We begin to observe adverse patterns of well-being that are just not our usual selves. We might deal with listlessness, ongoing feelings of mild depression, or even a dull headache. We’ll try knocking back another energy drink, telling ourselves to ‘buck up’, or pop a couple of paracetamols. We tend to go for a quick fix to get ourselves back on track. Ironically, it’s one of our most vital health factors, our sleep, that can somehow be overlooked.”

What Do We Do About Disordered Sleep?

If you suspect you might suffer from a known sleep disorder such as insomnia, sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, seek advice from a medical professional. You might be surprised, however, to learn that for many people poor sleep stems from our daytime actions, which can be remedied through practising good sleep hygiene. “Sleep hygiene,” Dr Rae reminds us, “is all that we do during the day that promotes healthy sleep at night:

  • Have we had enough exercise today?
  • Are we eating too close to bedtime?
  • Have we had too much caffeine too late in the day?
  • Have we overindulged in alcohol or heavy, rich food?
  • Have we allowed enough time to decompress after work, to unwind and relax?
  • Have we toned down the lighting or are we watching TV and messaging on our phones?
  • Is our bedroom a calm and relaxing sanctuary?
  • Are we getting to bed at a consistent time from night to night?
  • Are we warm enough? Or cool enough?
  • Could our sleeping posture be improved?
  • Importantly, after a few years, is our mattress still providing the right comfort and support?”
  • Interestingly, diet is a key component of getting better sleep.

Is Diet a Common Cause of a Disordered Sleep?

“The occasional dinnertime excess might interrupt our sleep, but won’t necessarily impact our sleep to become a severe sleep disorder. Importantly, it’s not just about what we eat, but when we eat, the portions we consume, and how long our last meal will take to digest. If we suspect our sleep may have become compromised, and we’ve considered all the possible sleep hygiene factors that could be the cause, then our diet may very well be part of the problem.”

How Can Diet Affect Our Sleep?

Consider some of the possible symptoms:

  • Are you constantly waking up in the middle of the night?
  • Do you wake up hungry during the night?
  • Are you experiencing acid reflux?
  • Are you sluggish during the day?
  • Do you have regular snack cravings?
  • There are many factors that could suggest a diet-related sleep challenge.

At Sleep Science, Dr Rae’s Team Have a Few Tips:

  • The last meal of the day should preferably be eaten 2-3 hours prior to going to sleep. This is to allow the intestinal system enough time to digest the meal. When we sleep, our mind and body need to be in a state of rest.
  • This includes our digestive system. Once the meal has passed into the smaller intestine, our metabolism can slow down and ready us for better sleep.
  • Be mindful of feeling sufficed rather than overeating in the evenings. It may be that dinner is your main meal after skimping through breakfast and lunch in the rush of your day. Consider more substantial or balanced daytime meals to even out your appetite. In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that eating more of our calories earlier in the day is better for our overall metabolic health.
  • Take care to eat enough during the day. Often people who are dieting to lose weight will wake up hungry in the night and find it difficult to get back to sleep without a little snack. Night eating is a bit of a “no-no”. Our bodies are not designed to deal with food at night. Eating at night gives our bodies permission to be awake and active, which can trigger an insomnia-like sleep pattern.
  • Consuming stimulants like caffeine, or depressants like alcohol, close to bedtime is not recommended. If we do manage to sleep, it may not be the full, deep sleep cycles we need every night to fully restore and replenish our energy.
  • Consuming stimulatory foods and beverages can have a “vicious circle” effect. Not getting proper sleep at night may leave us feeling sluggish every morning. To compensate for a dip in energy and alertness, we might turn to coffee and sweet snacks to keep us going during the day. Alternatively, it could also be the daily diet of snacking that is the symptom, along with some other underlying cause of the sleep disorder.
  • Resolving poor sleep related to diet.

If you suspect that you have ongoing poor sleep that is possibly diet-related, then plan a week ahead where you try to pinpoint the underlying issue. It’s not something to be solved overnight. You will need to focus on what appears to be the most likely cause of your sub-optimal sleep. Afford yourself the long-term health benefits of a short-term process:

Process of elimination – If you believe there are certain types of foods or beverages that are inhibiting your quality of sleep, experiment with cutting them out over a few days and nights. Make a mental note of what your morning start is like and how your wakefulness and focus progresses during the day.

Substitution – If you’re eating a well-earned meal in the evening, but suspect it might be keeping you from getting much-needed sleep, perhaps it’s too heavy? Consider something lighter. Perhaps a slightly earlier dinner time could help. It may help to swap a more modest dinner with a more substantial midday meal.

Abstinence – Particularly rich foods, sugary desserts, caffeine and alcohol (including that delicious little nightcap) might make you feel content and ready for bed, but they may not be the wisest choices just before sleeping. Perhaps stick to just the one glass of wine with dinner. Or consider cutting it out altogether.


If you simply cannot resolve what seems like a diet-related sleep challenge, you do not have to go it alone. A consultation with a dietician and sleep specialist could help you work through the possible causes. A Sleep Check or a course of Sleep Coaching could help you find your way back to the quality of sleep everybody needs and deserves. Find out more at

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