Since the 1960's the Mediterranean diet has been recommended for its cardiovascular and brain health benefits. What if it could also help us get a better night's sleep? Here we look at the key sleep-promoting components of the Mediterranean diet and the foods to include for a better night's rest.

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According to the CDC, one in three Americans do not get enough sleep. That's roughly one-third of us who are walking around each day in a fog. In addition to leaving us feeling tired, poor sleep quality is also linked to a number of chronic health conditions including depression, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Recently, studies have looked at the sleep quality of people eating a predominantly Mediterranean diet and the results are promising. Here we look at the Mediterranean diet, the components of it that may promote better sleep, and gain insight from sleep medicine specialist Scott Leibowitz, MD, D,ABSM, FAASM.

A woman sleeping with a thought bubble with food items from the Mediterranean diet
Credit: Getty Images / LaylaBird / saemilee / PanaceaArt / Tatiana Liubimova / saemilee / Liliya Shlapak / Elena Sapegina

The Mediterranean diet and it's connection to sleep

The Mediterranean diet is considered by many to be one of the healthiest dietary models in the world. Studies on the Mediterranean diet began in the 1960's when researchers noticed that the instances of death caused by cardiovascular disease were lower in countries, such as Greece and Italy, that border the Mediterranean Sea than they were in Northern European countries and in the United States. Since then, the Mediterranean diet has been studied as a powerful tool for the prevention of many other diseases and conditions including cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression, cancer and type 2 diabetes.

This way of eating is based on the daily consumption of fruits and vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, legumes, whole grains and nuts; moderate consumption of fish, white meats, eggs and fermented dairy products, like yogurt; and low consumption of red meat. Moderate alcohol consumption, typically in the form of red or white wine, is also allowed.

The Mediterranean diet contains foods that are high in fiber, which studies show to improve overall sleep quality, increase sleep efficiency and reduce sleep disturbances. Fiber-rich foods have also been found to promote a lower glycemic index, which is also linked to a reduced risk for insomnia. It also contains foods that are high in nutrients that have a direct relationship with healthy sleep.

Dr. Scott Leibowitz explains, "Individuals who follow a Mediterranean diet have been shown to have less sleep complaints than those who do not. They also have less complaints of anxiety and depression. Because this type of diet is higher in omega-3 fatty acids—which independently has been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression, improve sleep and protect against some of the cognitive deficits of sleep loss—as well as high in tryptophan, melatonin, magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin D; there is likely a direct relationship between the Mediterranean diet and these higher levels of nutrients that result in improved sleep."

The top Mediterranean foods for better sleep

Veggies and fruit

a white platter with cucumbers and avocados

Get the Recipe: Cucumber & Avocado Salad

Vegetables and fruit make up the bulk of the Mediterranean diet—in fact, it is recommended that every meal contain them, with some models recommending a minimum of 6 servings of vegetables and 3 servings of fruit daily.

Dark leafy greens pack the biggest punch of the sleep-promoting vegetables with spinach and Swiss chard topping the list. Greens are high in B vitamins and magnesium—both essential nutrients in promoting healthy sleep.

Fruit is also important with dried figs, avocados and bananas helping provide the magnesium that we need to promote healthy sleep. In addition, the dark pigmented skin of fruit such as cherries and berries offer a boost in melatonin, as does pineapple! And the serotonin provided in kiwi fruit seems to be the real winner with one study showing that when participants ate two kiwi fruit one hour before bed, they had better sleep onset, quality, duration and efficiency.

Legumes

White Bean & Veggie Salad

Legumes, including beans, peas and lentils, are a staple food of the Mediterranean diet with some models recommending that they be included in every meal. This group packs a big nutritional punch! High in B vitamins and magnesium, legumes provide a high-fiber plant-based source of protein.

If you're not a fan of beans, consider other legume sources such as alfalfa, peas, carob, soy, and peanuts that still provide the B-vitamin boost needed to boost serotonin and promote healthy sleep.

Whole grains

Greek Quinoa Salad
Credit: Greg DuPree

Whole grains are another primary component of the Mediterranean diet, and they provide an excellent source of sleep-supporting magnesium.

Foods like couscous, quinoa, bulgur wheat, brown rice and wild rice are excellent sources of the complex carbohydrates that our bodies need for energy. These whole, minimally processed grains, are typically high in fiber, have a low glycemic index and help regulate blood-glucose levels—all associated with promoting healthy sleep.

Nuts and seeds

Pistachio-Crusted Chicken with Warm Barley Salad

Nuts and seeds are another principal component of the Mediterranean diet. And with nuts like almonds, pistachios and walnuts providing a source of melatonin and seeds such as chia, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin providing tryptophan and magnesium, it's easy to see why these foods should be included in a diet promoting healthy sleep.

In addition, walnuts are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids—another key component in promoting healthy sleep.

Fatty fish

Salmon with Tomatoes and Olives recipe on a white plate

Fatty fish are some of the best sources of two of the most important omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA; and they are an excellent source of tryptophan. Both DHA and tryptophan support the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.

Including fatty fish such as salmon, trout, albacore tuna, Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, anchovies, sardines and even mussels, provide an excellent dietary source of omega-3's to support melatonin production. They are also good sources of sleep-supporting B vitamins and vitamin D, which Dr. Leibowitz explains is directly involved in the synthesis of melatonin.

Bottom line

While there is still much research to be done on the specific ways the Mediterranean diet impacts sleep, studies show that people who adhere to the Mediterranean diet have better sleep quality than those who don't.

"Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly help people feel better in general, and individuals who do so tend to report better quality of sleep than those who eat poorly and live a sedentary lifestyle," says Dr. Leibowitz.

It's important to know that if you have a true sleep disorder or underlying medical condition, even proper diet, meditation, exercise and the perfect sleep hygiene may not work without additional help.

To find a sleep specialist in your area, you can visit Sleep Education.org to find an American Academy of Sleep Medicine Accredited physician.