If your athlete is struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep through the night, or is dealing with some mild feelings of anxiety, tweaking their nutrition habits can help. Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, offers a few simple suggestions for helping your athlete improve their diet and their sleep quality at the same time.
Caveat: While nutrition can be used as a tool to improve sleep quality and help ease mild symptoms of anxiety, if your athlete is struggling with sleep disturbances or anxiety, it’s important to talk to a medical professional in addition to making smart nutritional choices.
1. Eat Enough and Keep It Balanced
“The first line of defense for your overall physical and mental health is to make sure that you have a well-balanced diet,” says Ziesmer. “Consuming a variety of different foods over the course of the day, particularly a lot of different fruits and vegetables, is going to help ensure that your athlete gets the nutrients they need. It’s also important to make sure your athlete is eating enough: Under fueling can exacerbate sleep and anxiety issues.” She also recommends a check-in with your family doctor to get bloodwork done to make sure that your athlete isn’t deficient in certain vitamins and minerals, including zinc, magnesium, and vitamins D and B.
2. Get the Right Fats
“Omega 3 fatty acids are extremely beneficial for brain health, and have been shown to help reduce anxiety,” says Ziesmer. Fatty fish are the best source of Omega-3s, so if your athlete likes salmon, tuna, and mackerel, add those to the shopping list. If your athlete isn’t a fish fan, Ziesmer says that flaxseed, walnuts, flaxseed oil, or walnut oil also contain high amounts of Omega-3s.
3. Get Some Sun
“A huge percentage of the U.S. population is deficient in vitamin D,” says Ziesmer. “And low vitamin D levels have been linked to anxiety. Fortunately, vitamin D is relatively easy to obtain: Just spend time outside in the sun.” She recommends roughly 30 minutes per day in bright sunlight. If that’s impossible in your area, especially in the winter, there are plenty of foods that contain or are fortified with vitamin D.
4. Include Magnesium and Zinc Sources
Magnesium and zinc are both important minerals for preventing and reducing anxiety. “Leafy greens, nuts, and seeds are a great source of magnesium, while zinc will primarily come from meat sources,” says Ziesmer. “Liver, oysters, cashews, and egg yolks are especially good sources of zinc.”
5. Cut Back on Caffeine Early
If your athlete tends to drink a caffeine-infused sports drink during afternoon practice, that caffeine could be wreaking havoc on their sleep schedule. Some people feel the impact of caffeine longer than others, so if your athlete is always wide awake around bedtime, try cutting out caffeine after noon. “Caffeine makes our brain go into overdrive. And even if you don’t feel the obvious effects of it, it can still keep you awake at night,” Ziesmer adds.
6. Create a Routine
Cutting caffeine helps promote sleep, but the best way to help improve your athlete’s snooze time is to help them create smart routines and rituals around bedtime. This means things like setting a schedule for bed/wakeup times and adding soothing pre-sleep activities, like reading a book rather than scrolling on Instagram, or taking a warm shower after practice. Ziesmer says a set schedule and routine—including bedtime snacks and beverages—is the best way to promote sleep.
7. Enjoy a Warm Beverage
While chamomile tea is touted as the best herbal option for making someone feel sleepy, any relaxing herbal tea that your athlete likes is a great option. The ritual of having a cup of tea before bed can help put your athlete in a state of relaxation—and of course, provide some bonus hydration! Any herbal tea will work well before bed, but make sure it doesn’t contain caffeine. Adding a bit of milk to the tea can also be sleep inducing, Ziesmer adds.
8. Add a High Protein Dessert
A higher protein snack before bed can help a young athlete sleep better, especially if there’s a late game or practice, or if they tend to underfuel during the day. If your athlete complains of waking up in the middle of the night feeling hungry, a protein-dense snack before bed will help. A mug of hot chocolate made with one percent milk, for example, is a tasty and protein-dense treat in addition to being a soothing warm beverage. Ziesmer also recommends a small bowl of Greek yogurt with berries and granola.
Nutrition can help improve sleep and reduce feelings of anxiety by giving the body more of what it needs (like antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables) and less of what it doesn’t (like caffeine).