The sleep-food connection

For sounder shut-eye, scientists say the rules are simple: No pig-outs please.

For many, a good night's sleep seems like the impossible dream, but new research from the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania provides more evidence that eating the right foods may help make sound shut-eye a reality. The bottom line: Very short sleepers consume the most calories, while the longest sleepers take in the fewest.

The study, soon to be published in the journal Appetite, finds that people who get the ideal seven to eight hours of sleep per night have more well-rounded diets than those who sleep too much (9 hours or more) or too little (six hours or less).

What’s not clear — yet — is why. “Diets with less variety may not give people the nutritional coverage needed to support healthy sleep,” speculates Michael A. Grandner, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author on the study. Grandner notes that his findings show a link between certain diets and sleep patterns, but stop short of proving definitively that bad eating habits can cause you to get too much or too little shut-eye — both risk factors for health problems including weight gain, diabetes and heart disease.

The study used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate the eating and sleeping patterns of a nationally representative group of men and women. In addition to revealing a relationship between sleep duration and the level of variety in one’s diet, the researchers found that certain sleep patterns are associated with different intake levels of specific nutrients and of calories overall.

For example, people who sleep less than five hours per night drink less tap water and consume less lycopene (an antioxidant found in orange and red-hued produce like tomatoes and watermelon) compared to normal sleepers. And those who sleep five to six hours per night take in less vitamin C and selenium, a mineral found in nuts, meat and shellfish that may protect against cancer.

The study authors may not have all the answers, but Grandner knows what the best diet for sleep probably looks like: “A good sleeper's diet is most likely one that has a variety of different types of foods, with more complete nutritional coverage, and not too much high-calorie food.”