A calm environment, comfortable pillow and cozy blanket are all important factors for a good night's sleep, but there’s one aspect of sleep quality that’s often overlooked: nutrition. What you eat and drink can play a significant role in the quality and duration of your slumber.
According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, sleep is important for physical and mental health, but not getting enough sleep can increase the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure. Luckily, the nutritious eating pattern that protects heart health is the same diet that’s recommended for better sleep. Here’s what you need to know about the relationship between nutrition, sleep and heart health.
How to improve your heart health by sleeping and eating better
A heart-protective lifestyle includes following a nutritious diet and getting sufficient sleep. Lack of sleep may increase your risk of high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart attack and stroke.
Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night.
There is no singular food that helps improve sleep, but research supports the idea that a nutrient-rich, varied, Mediterranean-style or DASH dietary pattern is a smart idea for optimal slumber. The best part is that the same dietary pattern is recommended for heart health!
Low-quality dietary patterns (high in sugar, salt and saturated fat; low in fibre, vitamins and minerals) are associated with an increased risk of both heart disease and poor sleep.
Dietary patterns that include lots of vegetables, fruit, fiber and healthy unsaturated fats, such as a plant-based diet or Mediterranean diet, are associated with better sleep quality and better heart health.
Foods that promote sleep
Why does a Mediterranean eating pattern beneficially affect sleep? Researchers theorize that it may be due to the melatonin (hormone) and serotonin (a neurotransmitter that carries signals between nerve cells in the body) levels in these foods, which help promote healthy sleep patterns. Foods rich in melatonin include:
- Whole grains
- Beans and lentils
- Vegetables and fruits
Meal timing matters.
Eating large, heavy meals close to bedtime can lead to indigestion and discomfort, making it difficult to fall asleep. To promote better sleep, aim to have your last large meal at least two to three hours before bedtime. If you need a snack, opt for something light and easily digestible, like yogurt or a small piece of fruit.
How do beverages affect sleep patterns?
Consuming too much fluid before bed can lead to frequent nighttime urination, disrupting sleep. Limit fluid intake in the evening to ensure a more restful night's sleep.
How does caffeine affect sleep?
Coffee and tea contain caffeine, a stimulant that promotes alertness. These beverages are great in the morning when you need a little boost, but can cause insomnia if you drink them later in the day. Ideally, caffeinated coffee should be consumed at least eight hours before bedtime. In addition to affecting attention and mood, insomnia is also linked to high blood pressure and heart disease.
Studies show that drinking caffeinated beverages reduces total sleep time by 45 minutes and hinders deep sleep. Health Canada recommends that adults cap their daily caffeine intake at 400 mg.
Here’s the caffeine content in select beverages:
- Brewed coffee (1 cup) 135 mg
- Instant coffee (1 cup) 75-100 mg
- Black or green tea (1 cup) 30-50 mg
- Cola (355 mL can) 35-45 mg
- Energy drink (250 mL can) 80 mg
How does alcohol affect sleep?
Alcohol may initially make you feel drowsy, but actually disrupts sleep cycles, decreases sleep time, and leads to a less restorative slumber. Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health says that having zero drinks per week is associated with better sleep. The full guidelines outline these health risks:
- Drinking 2 drinks or less per week: Likely to avoid alcohol-related consequences.
- Drinking 3–6 drinks per week: Increased cancer risk.
- Drinking 7 or more drinks per week: Increased risk of heart disease or stroke.
One drink is equal to:
- 340 mL beer, cider or cooler
- 142 mL wine; or
- 43 mL (one shot) of spirits.
By consuming nutrient-rich foods and limiting alcohol and caffeine, you can enjoy a more restful sleep while simultaneously protecting heart health.
Learn more about preventing heart disease and stroke.
Cara Rosenbloom RD is a registered dietitian, health journalist and owner of the nutrition communications company Words to Eat By. Her work has been published in over 75 publications worldwide, including the Washington Post, Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Allrecipes and Healthline. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Nourish (2016) and Food to Grow On (2021). Read nutrition articles at https://www.wordstoeatby.ca/