Don’t sleep on this: Exercise for healthier sleep

As I write this post, the Pacific Northwest is blanketed by a fog of hazardous wildfire smoke. It’s one more stress layered onto an already maximally anxiety-producing year.

After abandoning my usual exercise routine for a week to protect my lungs, I realized that no indoor exercise on top of no opportunity for a run or even a longer walk outside was contributing to some bad nights of sleep, and some overall bad feelings about… a lot of things. I got back to working out, and after just one day I saw a significant, positive improvement in my sleep: less waking, a longer period of deep sleep, and a longer sleep duration over all.

Talk to your doctor about starting any new physical activity. If you’ve been away from exercise for a while, if you’re thinking of taking up a new type of exercise, or if you’re not sure what’s safe for you due to wildfire smoke, recent illness or other reasons, check in with your doctor first.

If you don’t have health insurance or can’t afford an office visit, you can find a low-cost healthcare clinic near you here.

DISCLAIMER

My favorite online fitness site right now is Fitness Blender, which offers a huge variety of workouts and a science-based approach to fitness that helps me feel like I’m in good hands. You can see any of their workout videos free on their website, and they offer workout programs that are designed to suit different needs and goals.

If yoga’s your thing, Well+Good offers tons of yoga videos, featuring a variety of trainers and intensities– hello, gentle yoga. You can also sign up for Well+Good’s newsletter here to see when new yoga videos and other healthy content are published (I may earn a small commission or other perk if you sign up using my referral link).

Does exercise help you get a healthy night’s sleep? Do you have a favorite yoga routine that helps you relax?

Can we eat our way to healthier sleep?

Cruise through the search results for “food and sleep” and you’ll find hopeful articles about foods and beverages that just might help us kick insomnia and sleep better each night. The idea of a midnight snack doubling as a sleep cure sure is tantalizing– but is it too good to be true? Let’s see what the research has to say, and make our own plan for eating and sleeping well.

The connection between what we eat and how we sleep

Turkey salad croissant sandwich sits alone on a counter top beside a short stack of plates. Behind, a dark room.
Photo by Kristin Hardwick from StockSnap

Many sites recommend that those of us trying to improve our sleep choose foods and beverages that have chemicals, like tryptophan, that have a known connection to sleep. Tryptophan– famously found in our Thanksgiving turkeys but also present in other foods, like dairy milk– can convert into melatonin (the sleep hormone) and serotonin (a hormone thought to steady mood and improve sleep) in the body. Melatonin and serotonin are present on their own in a number of foods and could help us get to sleep, stay asleep or sleep longer. Some other vitamins and minerals, like B, D, magnesium, and folate, could help with this as well.

Unfortunately, studies on the impact of specific foods haven’t generally been replicated or large enough for us to know for certain which foods are best for sleep. Instead, it’s probably better for us to focus on diet as a whole.

How does my whole diet impact sleep?

There is some evidence that a higher carbohydrate diet can decrease the amount of time it takes us to get to sleep, as well as decreasing our light sleep and increasing our REM (rapid eye movement– the time when we’re dreaming) sleep, which help us be better-rested. On the other hand, high fat diets seem to be associated with less-efficient sleep, with more waking up and less dreaming. And we don’t know a lot of specifics yet, like if there are specific times of day we can eat certain types of food in order to increase sleep quality. But over all, the general recommendations for healthy eating (fruit and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, moderate fat, sugar, caffeine and alcohol consumption… you know the drill) line up with the recommendations for a healthy sleep diet.

So does that mean we should just… eat healthy?

Yes, sadly, it appears that there is no silver bullet— or magic almond–that’s going to help us get to sleep when we’re tossing and turning. I’m bummed, too. But while a general recommendation works for the general public, each of us as individuals have different needs. Different foods could have a positive or negative impact on our ability to get healthy sleep. It just takes a little work to figure it out.

The two-week Eat to Sleep Challenge

If you have a hunch that what you eat impacts how you sleep, you can use a food and sleep diary to look for patterns. Every day for two weeks, write down what you eat at each meal and snack, and track your sleep each night– about how many hours you slept, what sleep disturbances you had, if any, and how you felt when you woke up. To make this a little more fun, I’m calling it the Eat to Sleep Challenge.

Tracking our diet like this can make it tempting to try to “clean things up” or make us feel bad about what we ate, but keep in mind that this is supposed to be a snapshot of your real life, so just be you. Plus, you don’t know what you’ll find out– it may be that you get the sleep of your life after Cheetos and wine night, and that’s the kind of information you don’t want to miss!

After you’ve tracked your meals and sleep for two weeks, take a look and see if you can find patterns. Do you wake up extra grumpy every time you eat a late-night snack? Did a night of insomnia follow your 4 pm latte?

Once you’ve looked for patterns in your current diet, you can also experiment with adding potentially pro-sleep foods into your meals to see what happens. I recommend trying each new item on its own, every day for two weeks, to give you enough time to observe how any given food works for you.

I made you something!

Since tracking every food you eat and every wink you sleep for two weeks– or more, if you’re testing a turkey sandwich hypothesis– can be a little tedious, I made you a fun, printable Eat to Sleep Challenge log!

Okay, fine, I’ll show you the list

Alright, here it is: Foods and beverages that may– may!– contribute to a healthy night of sleep.

  • Kiwi
  • Tart cherry juice
  • Malted milk
  • Milk
  • Fatty fish
  • Nuts
  • White rice
  • Turkey
  • Chamomile tea

If you make a tasty bedtime snack out of four or more of these foods, I definitely want to hear about it!

Sources

Sources consulted for this article include:

The best foods to help you sleep.” SleepFoundation.org

Foods that help or harm your sleep.” WebMD

The 9 best foods and drinks to have before bed.” Healthline

Effects of diet on sleep quality.” Advances in Nutrition

// Featured image: Photo by Burst from StockSnap // Photo illustration by Amy Clark for Sleepie Blog