Nutrition: Do the foods we eat influence how well we sleep?
Author: MySleep

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By Paula R. Pienaar, Sleep Scientist from SSISA Sleep Science in collaboration with MySleep

This is a debatable topic, as we cannot assume a “cause and effect” relationship.  One cannot draw conclusions as to which specific components of a diet are linked to good sleep. For example, where a study observes a negative effect of fried foods on sleep, the interpretation can be fourfold: (1) nutrients (in this example saturated fats) are responsible; (2) food items (fried foods, or lack of vegetables and fruit) are responsible; (3) diet quality (frequent consumption of fried foods lowers the overall quality of the diet) is responsible; and (4) eating behaviours (a lifestyle with frequent visits to fast-food restaurants) are responsible.

We do know however that a link exists between poor sleep and increased caloric consumption:  poor sleep, especially short sleep duration (<6 hours a night) is associated with an increase in appetite hormones, often leading to overeating and contributing to weight gain.

What could we seek in our foods for better sleep?

The protein building amino acid, called tryptophan, and various group B vitamins are used by the body to produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter best known for inducing feelings of calmness and drowsiness.

According to recently reviewed studies, a balanced and varied diet that is rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat protein sources (all of which contain plenty of tryptophan, as well as group B vitamins and minerals) and unrefined carbohydrates may well assist in improving sleep.

Despite the limited clinical evidence for the “perfect sleep promoting diet”, certain foods may be useful in a number of cases. Studies have shown the following food sources to have a beneficial effect:

  • Fish: tuna, halibut, and salmon are high in vitamin B6, which is used to make melatonin and serotonin (always check the sustainability of the fish you intend on buying).
  • Lettuce: contains lactucarium, which has sedative properties and affects the brain similarly to opium.
  • Cherries: particularly tart cherries, naturally boost levels of melatonin.
  • Kiwi fruit: may improve sleep onset, duration and efficiency in adults with self-reported sleep disturbances.


Did you know?

Research conducted by the Australian Institute of Sport reported that small doses of tryptophan (1 g) may improve both the time taken to fall asleep, and sleep quality. This can be achieved by consuming approximately 300 grams of turkey or approximately 200 grams of pumpkin seeds.

Choosing foods that increase serotonin production may help promote sleep

Choosing foods that increase serotonin production may help some people into slumber. However, the scientific evidence on these are far from strong, but if you like them, there’s no harm in trying!

Food source

↑ serotonin

↓ serotonin


Complex carbohydrates rich in fibre:
Beans, lentils, barley, pumpkin, chickpeas

Refined carbohydrates:
Breads, pasta and sweets such as cookies, cakes, pastries and other sugary foods


Low-fat cheese, chicken, turkey and fish (including prawns and crayfish)

High-fat cheeses, deep-fried fish or chicken


Unsaturated fats:
walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds

Saturated and trans fats:
Samosas, potato chips or other high-fat snack foods


Milk, chamomile tea, passion flower tea

Caffeine products (coffee, Ceylon tea, cola drinks) – aim to limit or eliminate consumption after 3pm.


Although unclear, science does agree on the following:

  • Certain carbohydrates and fats may modulate sleep quality by influencing the amount of deep sleep you get per night.
  • Foods rich in sugar and/or caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, coca-cola) can lower your sleep quality.
  • Of proteins, the amino acid tryptophan is the most promising candidate as a sleep- promoting nutrient as it increases the production of serotonin, but needs to be taken with a complex carbohydrate.
  • Content of a diet or evening meal seems to modify sleep duration at most only 10 minutes in healthy individuals with no sleep problems.
  • Deficiencies of group B vitamins and minerals may disrupt sleep. Their effect seems to be based on their influence on the secretion of melatonin.

If you experience excessive daytime sleepiness or have sleep concerns, it is recommended to visit your general practitioner who will refer you to a sleep health professional. Sleep Science, in collaboration with MySleep can provide sleep health screenings to identify and manage your sleep concerns. These services are currently available at the Sport Science Institute of South Africa (Newlands) and in Century City. For more information, go to


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3. The Magic Bullet for a New You 575
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Disclaimer: This information is for education purposes only and is intended to answer some of the frequently encountered questions about the meaning of ‘Sleep Apnea’.
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