The end of the year is a time for reflection and looking ahead, and it’s easy to feel pressure to do a lifestyle overhaul for a “new year, new you!” However, as you might know from first-hard experience, these drastic changes rarely stick for the long-term. This year, why not try a gentler approach to healthy habits? Read below to learn how!

By now, we’ve all heard that getting enough quality sleep benefits our mental and physical health. The link between sleep and overall health & wellbeing is well-researched, so if we know how important it is, why can’t we make it a priority?

Part of the answer can be found in our sleep-wake cycle. Or, more specifically, the factors that impact our sleep-wake cycle. Our circadian rhythm (AKA, internal clock) is influenced by exposure to light, stimulating the release of hormones that make us feel more sleepy or alert. But when we need to wake before the sun or finish our responsibilities long after the sun sets, our internal clock can lag behind or start working its own schedule. I notice this particularly during the winter months or when I travel across time zones.

And we can’t discount the role nutrition plays, either. Whether it’s providing essential nutrients for the body or eating to reduce sleep disruption, how and what we eat matters for better sleep, too.

Here’s how you can source some key nutrients from your meals and snacks:

  • Include foods that naturally contain melatonin, such as tart cherries, oats, milk, bananas, and fatty fish like salmon. These rank among my favorite foods, so I need little convincing to enjoy them more often!

  • Seek out foods with the nutrients that support melatonin production, like:

    • Nuts (especially pistachios) that contain vitamin B6, tryptophan, and magnesium

    • Milk and dairy foods high in calcium and tryptophan

    • Antioxidant-rich foods like kiwi, which also contain serotonin (reference)

  • Avoid foods that might disrupt sleep or make it harder to fall asleep like:

    • Foods that gives you indigestion, such as reflex or bloating/gas

    • Foods or drinks containing caffeine. Besides the obvious in coffee, this can also include caffeinated tea and soft drinks, chocolate, and energy drinks

    • Alcohol, which may initially help you fall asleep but might prevent you from getting deeply restful sleep

    • Spicy foods (to a degree). I love spicy, well-seasoned food and we often cook meals with hot peppers, hot sauces, and other acidic ingredients. For me, this doesn’t cause an issue but if you’re more sensitive to spicy foods, save those options for earlier meals in the day when possible rather than avoiding them altogether.

Another commonly overlooked habit is eating large meals too close to bedtime. Our digestive system needs time to break down and absorb the carbohydrates, protein, and fat in our meals. If you notice late dinners impair your ability to fall asleep, try a switch to an earlier meal followed by a smaller snack or mini-meal later in the evening.

While you’re at it, go ahead and ditch the false claim that you shouldn’t eat after a certain arbitrary time. Our stomachs don’t have a closing time, so just be mindful if you feel like the size or composition of your meals makes it hard to fall asleep. If you adjust the timing, just remember there’s no need to skip meals or snacks; undereating is a stressor on the body. Short-changing your energy intake might leave you feeling even more tired during the day.

Our fast-paced, demanding lifestyle can really undermine our efforts for better sleep. So we can also shift attention to setting up a bedtime routine and environment more conducive to rest and relaxation.

I noticed an improvement in my ability to fall asleep faster when I made these updates:

  • Set my phone out of reach so I’m not tempted to doom scroll or monitor social media.

  • Associate sounds and scents with sleeping. I love using the Hatch Restore’s soothing sleep sounds and an aromatherapy diffuser on my nightstand.

  • Morning workouts or daytime movement, instead of intense activity in the evening. If you find it hard to sleep if your heart rate or body temperature stay elevated after a workout, exercising earlier could be a helpful adjustment.

  • Keep a consistent schedule. The full spectrum of colors and gentle sounds from the Hatch Restore Sunrise Alarm are a reliable way to wake up when I need to, especially if my phone is out of reach!

If you’re considering a resolution for the new year, start with a few of these suggestions. My best advice as a dietitian who has counseled hundreds of clients is to give it time. We don’t form new habits overnight.

It may be helpful to “stack” a new habit onto an existing one. Maybe include a new snack option while packing your lunch, or plug in your phone charger in the bathroom while you brush your teeth. While this may seem simplistic or even basic, this is precisely why these changes are more likely to stick for the long-term. That way, when this time rolls around next year, you’ll have a series of sleep success stories to reflect on!

*Nutrition Expert Cara Harbstreet, Masters of Science, Registered Dietician, Licensed Dietician (Nutritionist) is an Intuitive Eating Registered Dietitian and often known as the “anti-diet dietician.”*