Analysis: the food we eat can help or hinder our sleep and this is especially true for athletes and other sportspeople

By Rónán DohertyLetterkenny Institute of Technology

Sleep is essential for our physical and mental health, learning, development and athletic performance. Adequate sleep is vital for both the general population and athletes, as our bodies repair themselves as we sleep. Inadequate sleep can cause poor academic performance, mood disturbance, increased risk-taking behaviours and impaired decision making which can impact everyday activities such as driving, work and training.

While most people recognise the importance of sleep, few make it a priority for various reasons such as work, family commitments and training. Everyday life can get in the way of a consistent sleep/wake schedule which is necessary to promote adequate sleep.

Sleep is controlled by our circadian rhythm, which controls our sleep and waking time over a 24 hour period. Our brains essentially act as a switch for us to either sleep or wake. Melatonin is released as it gets dark and makes us sleepy while production reduces in the morning as we wake up. Stimulants such as coffee, energy drinks, alarm clocks and light, particularly blue light from screens interfere with our natural sleep wake cycle. Sleep is important for both physical and mental recovery.

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In order to perform at their best, athletes and sportspeople strive to balance hard training with adequate recovery. Recovery is vital for athletes due to the amount of training they do, and both sleep and nutrition are key to this process. If athletes do not recover properly then their performance in training and competition can suffer. Less sleep will increase fatigue, feelings of tiredness and reduce concentration affecting performance. Reduced sleep has also been shown to affect appetite, carbohydrate metabolism (energy restoration) and protein synthesis (muscle repair) which can slow recovery. Lack of sleep can also affect the immune system, increasing the likelihood of colds, flus and other illnesses. 

What is good sleep?

Good sleep leads to feelings of satisfaction, is efficient and results in sustained alertness during the day. Sleep need is individual and varies across the lifespan. Our sleep need is also affected by lifestyle and health behaviours. Teenagers require 8 to 10 hours sleep per night while healthy adults require 7 to 9 hours sleep per night, which reduces as we get older. Daily sleep needs vary between individuals and can be affected by illness, sleep debt and physical or psychological stress. Stress and anxiety impact sleep in the general public and competition anxiety can reduce sleep in athletes. Training and competition times can also impact the sleep of athletes (e.g. early morning training for swimmers), while travel to and from competition can also impact athlete's sleep.

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Foods that help us sleep

Athletes and sportspeople tend to be interested in how best to eat to fuel performance and for recovery after training and competition. However, the food that we eat can either help us sleep or impact our sleep. Foods that contain tryptophan can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. Typtophan Is a protein that can be converted to serotonin then melatonin. Foods with a high melatonin content, such as tart cherries, or small doses of tryptophan (1g – 300g turkey or 200g pumpkin seeds) are effective for improving sleep.

While it may be difficult for some people to consume these foods in such quantities, combining tryptophan rich foods (eg milk, turkey, chicken, fish, eggs, pumpkin seeds, beans, peanuts and green leafy vegetables) in evening meals may be beneficial. High glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrate foods such as rice, oats, baked potato etc increase tryptophan levels which can promote sleep and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. 

Kiwifruits contain a range of sleep promoting nutrients such as serotonin, Vitamins C and E and folate and have been shown to improve sleep duration and quality. Magnesium acts as a relaxant and is linked to melatonin secretion. Magnesium deficiency can result in problems both getting to and staying asleep. Dietary sources of Magnesium include green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, banana and avocado. Calcium and Vitamin B6 are also involved in Melatonin secretion.

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Food that prevent us from sleeping

Certain foods or eating habits can impair our sleep. When feeling tired or fatigued, people will often grab a coffee, as caffeine promotes alertness. However, excessive caffeine consumption can lead to poor sleep which can cause people to consume more caffeine. This can become a vicious circle of poor sleep. Your Skinny Flat White will keep you awake, so those hoping to sleep well should avoid caffeine after 4pm or it could take you longer to fall asleep.

Some people similarly believe that a nightcap can help them sleep. While alcohol may help you fall asleep, it reduces both the length and quality of our sleep. Alcohol intake should be limited to one drink or avoided when you want or need to sleep well. Large portions, high fat content and/or meals late in the evening can impair sleep. Sleep quality is also reduced during periods of reduced calorie intake (e.g. boxers making weight), which can be due to hunger.

Athletes and sportspeople tend to be interested in how best to eat to fuel performance and for recovery after training and competition

Sleep can either be improved or impacted based on the foods that we eat. If you want to sleep well, avoid caffeine, alcohol and large portions or high fat foods in your evening meals and late at night. Athletes and sports people can improve their recovery from training and competition by choosing foods that promote sleep, such as high GI carbohydrate, tryptophan rich protein, tart cherries, kiwifruit, magnesium, calcium and Vitamin B6. 

Rónán Doherty lectures at Letterkenny Institute of Technology and is also a member of the Sport Ireland Institute, Performance Nutrition team. He was the Performance Nutritionist to Irish Olympic medalists Annalise Murphy (sailing) and Gary and Paul O'Donovan (rowing) and also the lead Performance Nutritionist for Donegal GAA from 2015-2019. He is currently undertaking a PhD in sleep and athlete recovery at Northumbria University


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ