Getting adequate sleep is an important part of overall wellness, but it’s something many of us struggle with. There are many factors that impact how much and how well we sleep, including: stress, environmental cues like light and sound, and even what we eat and drink. Anyone who has ever tried to fall asleep on a full—or an empty—stomach can tell you that finding a sweet spot between starving, stuffed, and satisfied is essential. You’ve also likely heard that spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeine in coffee, tea, soda, and (for the very sensitive) chocolate may disrupt sleep, but did you know that certain foods can actually help you fall asleep and stay asleep?
When it comes to a good night’s sleep, here are some key nutrients and diet-related compounds to consider:
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates our circadian rhythm. It’s not present in many foods, but supplements are readily available. Additionally, melatonin levels increase in the dark, so pull those shades down.
Serotonin is a mood-regulating neurotransmitter that also regulates our sleep cycle, playing a part in helping us calm down and drift off to sleep. It’s involved in melatonin production as well. Serotonin is not found in many foods, but making sure we eat a variety of foods that support and enhance its production can help us maintain good levels.
Tryptophan is an amino acid found mainly in animal proteins but also in some other foods like bananas and honey. Because tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin production, it’s an important nutrient for promoting healthy sleep.
Calcium plays a role in how the body uses tryptophan. This mineral also helps regulate muscle movements and blood pressure, which helps you settle down. Find it in dairy products, dark, leafy greens, tofu, and salmon.
Vitamin B6 is needed for the body to make melatonin and serotonin—key for helping you drift off without stress clouding your mind. Good sources include beans, chicken, fish, and whole grains.
Carbohydrates are actually important because a slight increase in insulin levels helps the body fall asleep faster. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, beans, fruit, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes will break down more slowly and keep blood sugar stable so you don’t wake up ravenous at 3 a.m. Carbs also enhance tryptophan levels in the blood.
Potassium soothes muscle aches and also assists in the regulation of blood pressure as well as nerve function—all important for helping you drift off comfortably. Good food sources of potassium include avocado, banana, tomatoes, oranges, and dark, leafy greens.
Magnesium is a mineral that regulates muscle and nerve function as well as blood pressure and blood sugar. It’s also thought to counteract the stress hormone cortisol. You can find it in foods like nuts, fish, chicken, spinach, bananas, and dairy products like milk and yogurt. A heavy meal right before bed may keep you up as your body works hard to digest all that food, but a light snack can help you catch some quality Zzzs. Here are some foods to try:
Bananas are a bedtime superfood. They’re packed with potassium and vitamin B-6 and are also a source of magnesium and tryptophan. The carbohydrate in bananas are easy to digest and gentle on the stomach. For an evening snack, try a sliced banana with a teaspoon for your favorite nut butter.
Tart Cherries are among the few food sources of melatonin. Try a cup for an evening snack or dessert or sip a half-cup of tart cherry juice before bed.
Milk and yogurt are rich in calcium and potassium and also provide some magnesium and tryptophan. Steer clear of flavored products, as sugar and artificial sweeteners can be tough on the digestive system. Instead, sweeten with a teaspoon of honey for an additional tryptophan boost.
Turkey is practically a tryptophan cliche, thanks to the great American pastime of falling asleep on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a cliche for a reason, though. Turkey, like other animal proteins, is a great source of the amino acid. Just keep portions small (2-3 ounces) to avoid overtaxing the digestive system.
Eggs also contain tryptophan. Try a hard-boiled egg as a convenient late-night bite.
Cheese also provides calcium and tryptophan. Just keep portions to one ounce to keep calories in check. How about a fruit and cheese plate as a pre-bed snack?
Oats, in addition to complex carbs, provide tryptophan as well vitamin B-6. Try ¼ cup cooked with a ½ cup milk and some blood sugar-stabilizing cinnamon for a bedtime snack.
Peanut Butter provides some satisfying protein and fat to balance out carbohydrates in other foods like fruit, grain, or dairy. Like other legumes, peanut butter provides tryptophan. Peanuts on the allergy list? Almond butter or other nuts also contain tryptophan.
Chickpeas are another great plant-based source of tryptophan. They also provide carbohydrates. Try 2 tablespoons hummus with some sliced veggies an hour before settling in for the night.
Though there isn’t any one food or combination of foods that can guarantee a perfect night of sleep, a balanced diet that meets your dietary needs can help your body function as it’s supposed to.
Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, health coach, and writer with a passion for helping others experience a happier, calmer life and a balanced relationship with food. For those in need of some healthy-eating inspiration, Jess created five day's worth of delicious make-ahead lunches to make it even easier to eat well on a busy day. For more information on Jess, check out her website and follow her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.
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