What I Did for One Week For Better Sleep
I am a lousy sleeper. A lot of Americans are. In a recent National Sleep Foundation poll, a staggering 84% of adults admitted feeling tired during the week—mainly because they don't sleep well, or they aren't getting enough hours of shut-eye period. My husband likes to say that he sleeps like Dracula: he gets under the covers, crosses his arms over his chest, closes his eyes and that's that for the next seven hours or so. Me, I kung fu fight all night. By morning, pillows and blankets are everywhere and I frequently feel like I need rest from my rest.
Also like a lot of Americans, my problem is not insomnia or some other sleep disorder. Let's call it sleep dissonance. I don't prioritize it, even though I know it's crucial. Lack of adequate rest—anything less than six hours or so of quality sleep—doesn't just leave you foggy and cranky. Chronically missing out is linked to a host of health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, mood disorders like depression, and obesity. Being tired bumps up levels of the hormone ghrelin that triggers hunger and dials down leptin levels that signal satiety. It also makes you crave high-fat, high-calorie, sweet foods and be less likely to reach for fruits and veggies than well-rested folks. (In one study, that added up to 178 extra calories a day.) I am well aware of all of this, and yet I toss back espresso at 5 p.m., or lie in bed watching Netflix on my phone with my frenemy, blue light. And if given the choice between scrolling through Insta or getting another 45 minutes of shut-eye, I will 100% pick the 'gram every time.
Michael Breus, Ph.D., was my wake-up call. He's one of the country's leading sleep doctors and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Of course, it's his job to get people to spend more time in dreamland. However, something he said really resonated with me: Say you're a person who needs eight hours of sleep a night and you regularly get six. Two hours might not seem like a lot—although it is 25% less sleep. "But to your body, it's actually a lot more than that, because you will have missed around 50% of your REM sleep—the type that's crucial for memory, mental acuity and focus—since most of your REM comes during the last third of the night. So whether you go to bed late or wake up early, you're going to miss it," Breus explained. "People always think of sleep as a quantity measure, not a quality measure. They reason that 'As long as I'm in bed by 10 p.m., I'm good.' And nothing could be further from the truth." So much for my "little" bedtime transgressions. Suddenly it made sense why I feel fuzzy-headed and forgetful even though it's not like I pulled an all-nighter—and why I might reach for something that I wouldn't usually eat (oh hey, Lay's!) under well-rested circumstances.
The fact that sleep can alter your food choices, and health, for better or worse is well documented. Now a small but growing body of research—much of it just in the past several years—is showing that the reverse is also true: that what you eat can impact how well you sleep, according to Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University and director of Columbia's Irving Medical Center Sleep Center of Excellence. "In fact, our research has found that even a single day of eating can impact sleep that night," she notes. Overall dietary patterns are important. For example, in a 2020 study she had published in the journal Nutrients, women who most closely followed a Mediterranean-style diet—long heralded as one of the healthiest for its emphasis on fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and fish—had better sleep quality and quantity, as well as fewer nighttime disturbances. And there's some evidence that diets higher in protein and healthy, fiber-rich carbohydrates improve sleep, as well.
But researchers have also identified specific micronutrients and other substances in food that show promise for the tired and weary among us. "The more interesting studies are in people who have some kind of sleep complaint, but not an actual disorder," says Michael Grandner, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who studies nutrition's influence on sleep. "They show that you can somewhat normalize or at least make sleep better. It's hard to draw firm conclusions, but they are proof of concept." There are plenty of foods that can stymie sleep to watch out for, as well (looking at you, caffeine).
What I did for one week for better sleep
Given my less-than-stellar record in the snooze department, I decided to try some of our experts' advice for a week—including diet recommendations from sleep expert Michael Breus, Ph.D., and Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, a Grand Rapids, Michigan-based psychologist and nutritionist, who provided specific meal suggestions. I tracked how I felt and how well I slept according to my smartwatch app. (Not exactly hard science, but still eye-opening.) I also had my iron, magnesium and vitamin D levels checked—the latter was the only one that was slightly low.
Wake up at the same time each morning.
"It's more important than sticking to a consistent bedtime because that's when sunlight hits your eyes and resets your circadian clock," Breus told me. In fact, a Duke study found that all-over-the-place wake and sleep times were even more strongly linked to health issues like high blood pressure, depression, stress and obesity than how much you sleep. Normally, I wake up between 6 and 7:30 a.m., depending on the day, but I dutifully set an alarm for 6:30 every morning. By days 6 and 7, I actually woke up on my own a few minutes before the buzzer even went off. (Minor miracle.)
Sip water first thing—and stay hydrated.
Sleep in and of itself is a thirst-inducing event. According to Breus, your body loses around a liter of water every night, mainly from breathing, so you'll need fluid to replenish it in the morning. Plus, some studies show that going to bed thirsty can mess with your sleep-wake cycle. A large population study published in the journal Sleep found that participants who slept just six hours were significantly more dehydrated than those who nabbed eight. I was worried all that water would be, um, disruptive in the middle of the night—but as long as I hit the loo before bed, I was fine. Did the H2O help my sleep? Dunno. But it can't have hurt.
Get 15 minutes of morning light within 10 minutes of getting up.
This would help ensure I sealed the circadian deal. Bonus: Being outside in the sun also scored me some much-needed vitamin D. So I started each day walking my dog, Ollie, around the neighborhood. I definitely felt more alert and energized compared to my former lie-on-couch-watching-GMA self.
Balance protein and fiber-rich complex carbs at breakfast.
This dietary pattern has been linked to better sleep. In addition to that, I added more foods with zzz's-boosting nutrients like omega-3s and magnesium in to my breakfast. On the menu: steel-cut oatmeal with honey, bananas and nuts; avocado toast on whole-wheat bread; and protein pancakes with berries and nut butter. Not drastically different from my usual a.m. picks, but delish.
Get in some movement.
In a review of 34 studies on exercise and sleep published in Advances in Preventive Medicine, 29 of them found physical activity (at least 30 minutes, most days of the week) to be beneficial. Research shows that it can help you snooze longer and spend more time in deep, restorative slow-wave sleep. The benefits can be profound. In one study, participants with insomnia who did a single 50-minute bout of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise fell asleep 21 minutes faster, spent 36 fewer minutes awake during the night and logged an extra hour of sleep than usual, on average. (Although any type of workout showed improvements over the non-active control group.) It's so effective that exercise is often a prescribed treatment for people with insomnia. How does it work? Experts have several theories: For starters, exercise is tiring—so your body is ready for bed when it's time. Plus, it reduces stress and anxiety that might keep you up at night. Working out also raises your body temperature for about four hours afterward, and then causes it to drop—a similar phenomenon to what happens during sleep that could signal tiredness. And it raises levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and sleep-wake cycles. I already exercise every day for at least 45 minutes—so I had this one in the bag.
Munch a sleep-promoting lunch and dinner.
Same general principles as breakfast. Some of my lunch options included: a spinach salad with chicken, almonds, dried cherries and whatever other veg I wanted; a whole-grain bagel with hummus and smoked salmon; and a tuna salad sandwich on whole-wheat bread with lettuce and tomatoes. Mediterranean vibes! For dinner, I added some foods with melatonin to the mix. Think: a taco bowl with lean ground beef, rice, black beans, salsa and guac; a turkey burger on a whole-wheat bun with lettuce, tomatoes and baked sweet potato fries; or a tofu stir-fry with peppers, mushrooms, onions, broccoli and rice. Again, not very different from my usual diet, although I did eat more fish.
As in: No alcohol three hours before bed, and no more than two drinks, per Breus. This proved a little tricky because my family often eats dinner on the later side, so if I wanted to have wine and still go to bed at 10 p.m. it took some planning. But aye aye, captain!
Have a cup of banana tea 30 minutes before bed.
Yes, you read that right— and yes, I thought it sounded gross too. "Bananas are loaded with magnesium, but the peel has three times the amount as the fruit itself," according to Breus, who came up with this concoction. You cut a washed, unpeeled banana in half (discard the end) and steep it in a cup of hot water until it turns brown, about three to four minutes, then sip. Remember: magnesium has a calming effect and helps maintain regular circadian rhythms. The whole hot banana thing was not my favorite, but I am a firm believer in the soothing effect of "tea."
Avoid blue light 90 minutes before bed.
Light (as in sunlight) is what helps sync your internal circadian clock—which signals when it's time to rest and wake up. Anything bright close to bedtime can put your body into go mode, rather than tell it to wind down—but the blue light from devices like your smartphone or laptop is particularly meddlesome. It has a wavelength that suppresses the secretion of melatonin and causes an increase in heart rate and body temperature that will make it take longer for you to nod off, cause you to toss and turn and shorten total sleep time. (And there's evidence that the "night mode" some phones have doesn't work.) Breus didn't hate me watching TV in the bedroom—its light is less disruptive—but I had to ditch any blue-light-emitting electronics 90 minutes before hitting the hay. Of all the to-dos, this was absolutely the hardest. I totally forgot on night one and wound up getting off my phone at approximately, oh ... zero minutes before bed. But after that, I read a book (on paper) or watched TV.
Keep the bedroom around 66 to 70 degrees.
Research shows that this is the optimal room temperature for sleeping. And because warmer temps can throw off sleep more than cooler ones, it's a good idea to err on the lower side—especially if you also have heavy blankets or comforters. I literally measured the air temperature with my Thermapen to make sure my bedroom was in the sweet spot. I still felt warm during the night and turned on the ceiling fan to make the room even cooler after the first few nights.
Don't go to bed hungry.
Low blood sugar interferes with restful sleep. But you also don't want to hit the hay with a full stomach. "The process of digestion takes away from the process of sleep," Breus explained. He suggested a snack of around 250 calories if I needed it, 30 to 90 minutes before turning in—say, whole-grain crackers and a little cheese, a handful of nuts and dried cherries or cottage cheese with sliced kiwi. I'm rarely hungry at night, and I skipped it.
Find a soul-mate pillow.
"Nobody is 100% satisfied with theirs. And think about it: your pillow is like a bed for your head. Its job is to keep your nose in line with your chest," Breus told me. "So if you're a back sleeper, you'll want a thinner one. And if you sleep on your side, go thicker." Oh, and did you know you're supposed to replace your pillows every year or two? I didn't. Mine were teenagers, so I shopped around and swapped my firm ones for thin, squishy ones, since I sleep all over the place. "Pillows are often way more effective than getting a new mattress—and obviously less expensive," said Breus. "Especially with people who have neck, shoulder or upper back pain, 9 times out of 10 all they need is a new pillow." I'm here to tell you that he's 1,000% right.
Use earplugs and/or white noise.
I am easily awakened by sounds—soft snoring, storms, a mouse two blocks away—and there's plenty of evidence that earplugs and white noise can help you snooze through them. I have been a fan of both for years. (Shout out to the Hatch Restore, which also has a nonblue light for reading and a sunrise alarm; $130 at bedbathandbeyond.com) I even have a free white-noise app on my phone for when I travel. But for this experiment, I brought in the big guns: Bose Sleepbuds (find them for $249 at target.com), which combine the best of both worlds—they drown out noise and pump in relaxing sounds. At $249, they're expensive, but unlike most earplugs (or even wireless headphones), they stayed put all night and muffled sounds infinitely better. I found that having the white noise actually in my ear was more effective too. I woke up a lot less often, which, for me, is really saying something.
At the beginning of the week, my sleep app showed that I was restless for 28 minutes, or 6% of my sleep time of 7 hours and 52 minutes. On the final night, it was 16 minutes—3% of the 7 hours and 38 minutes I was out. "You either reduced your number of awakenings or the length of them. I would say that your results are actually quite remarkable," says Breus. I definitely felt less bleary-eyed in the morning. And I didn't lunge for the espresso machine first thing. Instead, I found myself responding to emails at 7:30 a.m.—coherently!—which is something I wouldn't have done before without lots of caffeine and more wake-up time. While it's impossible to know if my diet made a difference, I can say with certainty that the regular wake-up time, lack of blue light at night and earplugs-slash-white noise were big eurekas for me.
This article first appeared in EatingWell magazine, November 2021.