Previous research has suggested that your sleep can be sabotaged by drinking alcohol or eating too much when you’re close to bedtime, but a recent study indicates that the connection runs in the other direction as well—quality sleep can help you drink less and make better food choices overall.
A study published in the Journal of Occupational Medicine looked at 252 overweight people who reported psychological distress and tracked their eating behavior, including diet quality and alcohol consumption.
Researchers also looked at their heart rate variability during sleep. This provides a snapshot of how well the autonomic nervous system—the one responsible for the “fight or flight” stress response—was operating as they slept.
The association between quality sleep and good lifestyle habits was strong, they discovered. The better participants slept over the course of the study, the less stress they presented in their nervous systems, and the better their diet quality became. When sleep quality was poor, participants tended to eat for emotional rather than physical reasons and they had higher alcohol consumption as well.
Because of the bi-directional nature of that connection, researchers added that they couldn’t conclude whether better sleep recovery leads to a healthier diet or if a healthy diet supports better sleep.
Most likely, it’s both, because they build on each other, and that can have an effect on your sense of resilience as well as your sense of calm, says Alexander Scott, Ph.D., a health psychology researcher at Keele University in the UK, who specializes in the role sleep plays in mental health.
For example, those in the recent study who improved both sleep and diet over the course of the research reported lower stress levels and less emotional distress overall. In other words, physiological recovery boosted their psychological health.
“Sleep and mental health go hand-in-hand,” he says. “From everything we’ve seen in previous research, focusing on quality sleep can have a profound effect in other parts of your life, including your emotional wellbeing.”
Putting good habits into place that build on each other can be key for this, he adds. That means not only implementing good sleep hygiene—going to bed at the same time every night, turning off screens an hour before bed, doing some deep breathing to prep—but also being aware of how sleep and diet may be more connected than you think.
For more tips, be sure to read The 5 Absolute Best Foods to Eat For Better Sleep.