Having trouble sleeping? Wondering if it's your diet? Or better yet, if there are certain foods that can make falling asleep each night a little easier?
Adequate, quality sleep is an essential part of better health - with research suggesting it is key for weight loss, muscle gain, recovery, and overall well-being. So we've broken down how your diet can help or harm your sleep patterns by listing the best and worst foods for sleep based on research.
What Makes You Sleepy?
Melatonin is a hormone released by your body that is thought to help regulate your sleep-wake cycles. As you approach bedtime your levels increase and after waking they fall. The amount you release and when is closely related to your body's internal clock (circadian rhythm) and how much light you are exposed to - in other words, the sun
But how does food affect this process?
Melatonin is also synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan - a common component of many foods. But the research looking at how strongly diet can impact your ability to sleep is not clear cut. Some studies suggest that eating a healthy diet high in nutrient-dense whole foods may assist in better sleep quality (4,5,6,7,8). And eating certain foods before bed may increase available melatonin or assist in melatonin production (9,10).
It is unlikely that food has as strong of an impact on regulating sleep as your exposure to light and body's circadian rhythm, but if you're having trouble getting a good night sleep, opting for more sleep promoting foods before bed couldn't hurt.
Best Foods for Sleep
Majority of "sleep-inducing" foods are either a natural source of melatonin, high in the amino acid tryptophan or contain essential nutrients that play a role in melatonin production.
Based on existing research, these foods may support sleep quality and duration:
1. Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice is a natural source of melatonin and studies suggest that consuming tart cherry concentrate may help improve the quality and duration of sleep in healthy men and women (13). Even more interestingly, in multiple studies, drinking tart cherry juice helped ease symptoms of insomnia in older adults and increased sleep duration by 90 minutes (14,15,16).
While these studies are not conclusive, they are promising. And this coupled with the additional health benefits associated with tart cherry juice - including beneficial nutrients, reduced muscle soreness and immune support, make it a viable option to try (17,18)!
Almonds are also a source of additional nutrients that may support sleep. One serving of almonds (1 ounce) provides 19% of the daily value of magnesium - an essential mineral that is linked to improved sleep quality and stress when consumed in adequate amounts (21,22,23).
In addition, almond oil is a source of oleic acid, a fatty acid used to make oleamide, a compound that accumulates during sleep deprivation and helps induce sleep in animals (24,25,26). In one study, researchers concluded that oleic acids are particularly important for sleep disorders in depressed individuals (27).
We'll all experienced the post-Thanksgiving food coma which has led many to claim the turkey is the culprit. In this case, it is likely more the amount of food you ate that caused your blood sugar to crash, but there is still some merit to the turkey for sleep theory.
Turkey is a good source of tryptophan, which can be converted in serotonin and then melatonin (28,29,30). And dietary increases in tryptophan have been associated with sleep promotion in some studies (31). But even though tryptophan supplies the necessary nutrients to promote more melatonin production, it doesn't necessarily mean that is what happens when you eat more turkey. Tryptophan is likely more supportive of sleep than necessarily sleep-inducing.
Regardless, turkey is a great nutrient dense food option that is worth adding to your dinner if you enjoy eating it! And bonus, all poultry, not just turkey, is a source of tryptophan.
Salmon is also a nutritious protein option, providing a significant amount of omega-3s and vitamin D to your diet. And the combination of these two nutrients might support sleep even further by increasing serotonin production (35).
In one study, the high content of vitamin D in salmon was though to help improve sleep quality and help participants fall to sleep sooner compared to other dietary proteins (36).
Salmon is also a source of vitamin B12, which is thought to help regulate circadian rhythms (32).
Eating more carbs before bed may also help increase feelings of sleepiness by creating a small rise in blood sugar, followed by insulin and sleep-producing hormones (38).
Not into oats before bed? Many types of grain rice and other whole grains offer similar benefits.
In one study, adults with self-reported sleep disorders who ate 2 kiwis an hour before bedtime, seemed to sleep longer and better (39). Participants also reported they fell asleep more quickly.
7. Chamomile Tea
Chamomile has long been used as a "calming tea" and has been praised for a variety of health benefits including stress reduction and improved sleep. But the research isn't 100% clear cut on the benefits of chamomile for rest (40).
Chamomile contains the antioxidant apigenin that is thought to produce calming and sleep-inducing effects (41).
Another possible reason why many feel sleepy after drinking certain teas or a warm glass of milk is the psychological effects of drinking a warm liquid before bed. Drinking something warm can increase body temperature which supports a restful state (42).
Worst Foods for Sleep
While what you eat before bed may have a minor impact on helping you fall asleep faster, some foods can do the opposite by increasing energy levels, causing acid reflux and indigestion, or disrupting your REM sleep.
Here are the four worst types of food for sleep:
This one should be a no brainer. If we drink caffeinated beverages in the morning to help wake us up, it’s not surprising they would keep us up at night. Caffeine acts as a stimulant to our central nervous system and its effects can be felt for hours after you consume it. Which is why research suggests that caffeine taken within 6 hours before bed can disrupt sleep (43).
Consider cutting off any caffeine at least 6 hours before bed if you are finding it difficult to fall asleep.
Foods that are high in caffeine include:
- Green tea
- Dark sodas
While drinking a nightcap may help you feel sleepy, it won’t necessarily help you stay asleep. Alcohol reduces rapid eye movement (REM) sleep - the type of sleep that occurs 60-90 minutes after falling asleep and is key for quality rest (44,45). Interrupting REM sleep can result in irritability, anxiety, and trouble concentrating.
And according to the National Sleep Foundation, alcohol can also mess with your circadian rhythm, aggravate breathing problems (like sleep apnea), and increase the need for bathroom breaks throughout the night, all of which can lead to poor sleep.
3. High Fat Foods
According to research, high fat and low carb diets are linked to less REM sleep and increased waking throughout the night (34).
In addition, high-fat meals have often been associated with increased reflux and indigestion, especially when consumed right before bed (46). And saturated fat, in particular, tends to be the culprit (47).
Instead, opt for a more balanced approach at night with portion controlled meals that contain complex carbs, lean protein, and healthy fats, like omega-3s, that promote sleep.
Other foods that can contribute to heartburn include:
- Spicy food
- Carbonated beverages
- Tomato products
4. Added Sugar
Even though higher carb intakes at night are associated with better sleep, foods rich in sugar might contribute to insomnia (48). Higher intakes of sugar in the diet are linked to less deep sleep and more sleep disruptions during the night (47).
And to make matters worse, sleep deprivation can lead to increased sugar cravings the next day (49). Creating a snowball effect of poor blood sugar control and poor nutrition intake.
Healthy Eating and Sleep
Choosing the right foods before bed is one thing, but eating well all day can have an even greater impact. Good nutrition is important for managing daily energy levels and mood, both of which can also impact sleep behaviors. It's no wonder majority of foods that support better sleep tend to be nutritious options.