Sleep plays an important role in sports performance. Lack of sleep has been shown to negatively influence exercise, especially sub-maximal, prolonged exercise. Sleep deprivation may not only reduce performance, but also negatively impact cognition, pain tolerance, immune function, and inflammation. Lack of sleep is also not good for our waist line. Sleep restriction increases hunger and appetite, especially for carbohydrate-rich foods.

There are a number of studies looking at the impact of nutritional interventions on sleep. Nutrition can influence sleep by impacting different neurotransmitters associated with the sleep-wake cycle. For instance, melatonin, a hormone made by the body, has a sleep-promoting effect. Melatonin is made from serotonin, which is made from tryptophan. Tryptophan transport into the brain to eventually be made into melatonin and this can be influenced by our food choices.

So what can we eat to improve our sleep? Read on for 3 ideas!

  1. High glycemic index foods:

Eating carbohydrate rich foods with a high glycemic index pre-bed may improve sleep. The glycemic index of a food measures how much it increases blood sugar. High glycemic index foods cause a higher increase in blood sugars, which stimulates insulin release. One of the things that insulin does is bring branched chain amino acids (BCAA) from the blood into the muscles. BCAA compete with tryptophan for transport into the brain. By reducing the amount of BCAA in the blood (since insulin brings it into muscles), tryptophan has a better chance of being transported into the brain for eventual conversion into melatonin, and then we can feel the sleep promoting effects of melatonin. Some high glycemic index foods include: baked potatoes, white rice, white bread and bagels, cream of wheat, and dates.

  1. High tryptophan containing foods:

As mentioned, tryptophan is needed for melatonin production in the brain. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in food, so high protein diets containing more tryptophan may improve sleep quality. Small doses of about 1 gram of tryptophan have been shown to improve sleep. This can be achieved by consuming approximately 300 grams of turkey or 200 grams of pumpkin seeds. This explains why you are so sleepy after a big turkey supper!

  1. High melatonin containing foods:

While some people take a melatonin supplement to improve their sleep, melatonin can also be found naturally in food. For example, foods that contain high amounts of melatonin, such as tart cherry juice, have been shown to improve sleep. However, there may be other components of tart cherry juice, such as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory phytochemical, that also improve sleep that won’t be found in a melatonin supplement.

Getting enough sleep is important for you to perform at your best and to also stay healthy. For those competing in upcoming fall marathons, make sure that you’re getting enough shut-eye in the days leading up to the race. Before bed, try a cup of tart cherry juice or some instant oats with pumpkin seeds. If you have leftover thanksgiving dinner, some leftover turkey on a white kaiser bun may also do the trick!

Categories: Megan Kuikman

Megan Kuikman

Hello! I’m Megan Kuikman. I’m a Registered Dietitian with specialized training in sports nutrition. My goal is to help athletes and active individuals achieve a healthy attitude towards health, training, and food. I empower athletes to fuel properly for training in order to restore their health and enhance performance. You can get in touch with me at:


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