Adults need an average of seven to nine hours of sleep each night. But in this 24/7 society, with electronics available at any time of day or night, you might be seeking a safe, quick way to fall asleep. Some studies say carbs might do this, and they might, but there's more to it.
Carbs may make you sleepy, but it's complicated. Whether carbs help you get to sleep depends more on the kind of carbs you consume than eating carbs in general.
Do Carbs Make Me Sleepy?
You might eat that chocolate chip cookie right before bed because not only does it satisfy a craving for sweets, but you think it might help you sleep. You're probably wondering, "Do carbs make me sleepy?" and you're hoping the answer is yes. However, the answer is really more nuanced.
According to a study in the September 2016 issue of Advances in Nutrition, a high carbohydrate diet contributed to more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. That's the stage when more dreaming occurs and helps with memory consolidation. It's not the deepest sleep cycle, however. A high carbohydrate diet is associated with less deep sleep, the researchers found.
Researchers discovered that carbs seem to be utilized during REM sleep. They also found that a high-carb diet helps you fall asleep faster than a low-carb diet. Certain foods, including milk products, fish, fruit and vegetables do show sleep-promoting effects, but the authors said studies have been too short, diverse and small to lead to firm conclusions. More research is needed with a larger sample size, the authors said.
Daytime Drowsiness From Carbs
Eating foods like white bread, white rice, regular pasta and even potato chips can make you feel drowsy, says the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). That's because simple carbs, not the carbs made from whole grains, cause your blood sugar to spike quickly, followed by a drop that can leave you feeling tired after eating. That sudden drop in blood sugar is often called a sugar crash.
Eating lots of sugar reduces the activity of orexin cells, the NSF says. These cells are modulators of the sleep/wakefulness cycle. Orexin cells activate neurons that keep you awake, according to a March 2013 article in Frontiers in Endocrinology. This is why a diet high in sugar can leave you feeling tired after eating.
But, sugar can mess with your nighttime sleep habits. Constant spikes in blood sugar can contribute to frequent waking up at night, according to the Advances in Nutrition article. Eating a diet of whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats helps keep your blood sugar on an even keel, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Read more: List of Healthy Carbs
All Carbs Are Not Equal
Carbohydrates are one of three components of your diet. The others are fats and proteins. All three have their roles in a healthy diet, and all three play a role in getting a good night's sleep. Carbs are typically the biggest part of your diet.
Adults should get 45 to 65 percent of their diet from carbs, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If you eat 1,800 calories a day, that's 203 to 293 grams per day, or about half your daily diet, says Harvard Health. But, like fats, there are good carbs and bad carbs. When you get your carbs from whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables and dairy, those are good carbs. They have healthy vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals.
But when you get carbs from sugar, like in cookies, cake, candy and soda, you're getting empty calories, Harvard Health says. Even when you get them from highly processed foods made from white flour, like white bread, pasta, crackers and muffins, you're not getting much in the way of nutrients. You want to eat carbs that are in their natural state, not refined carbs.
Sleep and Diet
Rather than eating carbs specifically to get a good night's sleep, researchers emphasize that to become sleepy at night, you should focus on eating a healthy diet. While eating a high-carb diet at night can make you sleepy, the quality of sleep you get is not as good as the sleep quality people who eat a healthy, balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats receive, according to Advances in Nutrition.
What does seem to help with better sleep is eating high-quality carbs, from those whole grains and natural sources, according to a February 2013 study in the Journal of Epidemiology. Healthy eating leads to healthy sleeping, according to the NSF.
People who eat low-fiber diets high in saturated fats also tend to spend less time in deep sleep, the NSF says. Too much sugar, on the other hand, leads to all that nighttime waking. That fiber-rich, low sugar diet with lean protein and healthy fats helps you fall asleep faster and get both REM and deep sleep, so you should wake feeling refreshed.
Read more: The Effects of Sleeping 5 Hours a Night
More Dietary Recommendations
A poor diet can not only mess with your sleep, but it can make you uncomfortable while you're trying to sleep, says the NSF. Heartburn caused by fried or high-fat meals, spicy foods, alcohol and soda, especially when these foods are eaten close to your bedtime, can make you feel uncomfortable while sleeping and cause you to wake up.
Being overweight, especially when you have fat around your middle, can lead to sleep problems like sleep apnea, restless sleeping and insomnia, the NSF says. If you decide to eat healthy foods, you just might lose weight as well as sleep better.
B vitamins are also important in your diet when it comes to your sleep, the NSF adds. B vitamins, found in fish, poultry, meat, eggs and dairy, help to regulate melatonin, a hormone your body produces that helps to regulate your sleep.
Focus on Health
Rather than on focusing on one aspect of your diet when it comes to sleep, it's best to focus on overall healthy eating, the NSF says. Harvard Health says when you lower the number of carbs you eat, your protein and saturated fat intake tend to go up. A diet high in saturated fat tends to have more negative health effects, Harvard Health adds.
Unprocessed carbs, on the other hand, are linked to long-term health benefits. The Mediterranean diet, known for its reliance on fruits, vegetables, seafood and whole grains, is associated with better sleep quality in adults, according to an Italian study in the May 2019 journal Nutrients.
Researchers concluded that it could be because people who follow Mediterranean dietary patterns tend to be healthier. Sleep could also come easier to these people because they are less likely to be overweight, researchers said.
Some sleep guidelines from the NSF include:
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule.
- Practice relaxing bedtime habits away from bright lights.
- If you have trouble sleeping, avoid naps.
- Exercise daily.
- Have a cool bedroom, between 60 and 67 F.
- Sleep on a quality mattress with good pillows.
- Expose yourself to sunlight in the morning to keep your circadian rhythms functioning.
- Wind down.
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and heavy meals in the evening.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Effect of Diet on Sleep Quality"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Why the Midafternoon Slump Kicks in and How to Fight It"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Sweet Dreams: How Sugar Impacts Your Sleep"
- Frontiers in Endocrinology: "The Physiological Role of Orexin/Hypocretin Neurons in the Regulation of Sleep/Wakefulness and Neuroendocrine Functions"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Smart Way to Look at Carbohydrates"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Eat to Sleep Better in the New Year"
- Nutrients: "Adherence to the Mediterranean Diet Is Associated With Better Sleep Quality in Italian Adults"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Healthy Sleep Tips"