How do nutrition and sleep affect each other? What are simple ways to improve your sleep routine? We've partnered with Dr. Shelby Harris, licensed clinical psychologist, to help dissect how to get the best zzz's and feel your best this new year.

Nutrition and sleep go hand in hand. What you eat influences how you sleep, and how you sleep can impact what you decide to eat (hello late night cookies and chips!).

We know that things like alcohol, caffeine, heavy and/or spicy foods and sugary desserts can worsen our sleep, but did you know that there’s a whole array of foods that can help support your sleep as well?  

Most people think of that Thanksgiving turkey as the ideal sleep-inducing food, but the reality is there’s so many options out there that act in a similar way. Turkey contains an amino acid called tryptophan that, when combined with a complex carbohydrate, turns to serotonin (a relaxation neurochemical) and then to melatonin (a sleepiness hormone made naturally in the brain when the sun goes down). Some foods that contain tryptophan are bananas, nuts, seeds, honey, eggs, fish, soybeans, oats, yogurt and cheese.

While we usually encourage people to refrain from large meals within 3 hours of bedtime, having a small snack (one hour before bedtime) that’s a combo of tryptophan-rich foods and a complex carbohydrate can really help set the stage for sleep (not to mention help with any middle-of-the-night awakenings that sometimes happen because of hunger and/or low blood sugar). Combining a tryptophan-rich food with a complex carbohydrate enhances the tryptophan conversion into serotonin and then melatonin.

Magnesium also has a very calming effect on some people and there’s some promising research showing a role for magnesium in improving sleep in some people. Consuming  foods that are rich in magnesium may also be helpful. Some foods that are high in magnesium are dark leafy greens, broccoli, chickpeas, oranges and sardines.

Some of my favorite pre-bedtime sleep-enhancing snacks include a small banana with some peanut butter, whole grain crackers with a low-fat cheese stick, a bowl of whole-grain low-sugar cereal with milk (be careful with not having too much liquid though!), or a bowl of low-sugar oatmeal. My personal favorite is some nonfat Greek yogurt with low-sugar granola sprinkled on top.

While eating foods such as these can help with the quality of your sleep, there’s many other things to keep in mind to help set the stage for a better night’s sleep. Here’s a few of my favorite suggestions:

  • Keep a consistent bed/wake time 7 days a week (try not to deviate more than 90 minutes in either direction as often as possible). A consistent wake-time really helps set your body clock and helps with the nighttime.
  • Limit screens within 1 hour of bedtime and find other activities to wind down that aren’t reliant on screens (e.g. reading, meditation, listening to a podcast, doing a puzzle, etc.)
  • Make sure to get some light exposure first thing in the morning. If it is dark, try to get as much light in your house as you can, and once the sun is up, get at least 30 minutes of light.
  • Limit alcohol, heavy meals, nicotine, strenuous exercise and liquids within 3 hours of bedtime.
  • Limit caffeine within 8 hours of bedtime (look for any sneaky sources of caffeine like some migraine medication).
  • Keep your bedroom quiet, dark, cool and comfortable – almost like a cave (but one you enjoy being in!)

Finally, if you’ve routinely tried working on the above suggestions but they just aren’t enough when it comes to improving your sleep quality and/or quantity, talk with a board-certified sleep doctor who can get to the bottom of what’s going on. There’s lots of evidence-based treatments available (with and without medications!).