Are Tomatoes the Secret Sauce of Better Sleep?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

I’m no stranger to lack of sleep and what it can do to your body and mind. Burning the midnight oil was the rule in med school, and it only got worse during my early years as a doctor. Being on call and working long shifts in the ER made me appreciate every minute of shut-eye I could get.

Just thinking about it makes me yawn!

Poor sleep isn’t a problem that’s unique to doctors, though. Between the stresses of managing a household, a job, maybe school, and a social calendar, there don’t seem to be enough hours in the day. Add in our 24/7 culture of constant connection, and it’s a wonder that any of us sleep at all.

Having trouble sleeping can be a real problem—one that you may even be tempted to address with a prescription medication. Don’t.

Even though it may not feel like this is the case, our bodies are naturally programmed to sleep at night. What’s happened is that we’ve gotten so far out of balance with our natural circadian rhythm that our programming doesn’t always work.

One way you can rebalance your natural rhythm is by practicing good sleep habits. I’d also recommend that you look at your diet. Good nutrition is synonymous with good sleep—and nutrient deficiencies can cause poor sleep.

Take lycopene, for example.

The Link Between Lycopene and Better Sleep

Lycopene is a phytonutrient found in plants. In addition to giving fruits and vegetables their wide array of colors (red, in this case), phytonutrients help protect plants from insects, disease, and other threats in the environment. It’s this protective quality that gives them the great natural antioxidant power they’re known for.

But lycopene, in particular, has also been associated with trouble sleeping.

Specifically, research has linked a lack of lycopene with “short sleep”—defined as sleeping five or fewer hours in the night—and with difficulty falling asleep. People with both of these sleep issues generally had lower levels of lycopene in their blood than “normal” sleepers.

How to Up Your Lycopene Intake to Sleep Better

Just look for fruits and veggies that are red: watermelon, red peppers, papaya, grapefruit, and my favorite, tomatoes. You can also take lycopene in supplement form.

I have to admit that whenever medical research meets up with my own personal history, I get extra excited. Being Italian, red sauce is practically religion. My grandfather and father were both amazing cooks who would spend entire days picking tomatoes and preparing wonderful meals for me, my siblings, and our friends. Everything I know about cooking, I learned from them!

You’ll get the benefits of lycopene from any type of tomato, raw or cooked—though cooked tomatoes will be best, since heating them makes the lycopene easier to absorb.

Don’t think you have to eat more pasta, though, to get more lycopene. There are plenty of great recipes—made with tomatoes and other lycopene-rich foods—that you can take advantage of. If you do eat pasta, choose a high-protein pasta 

Here are a few of my favorite get-your-lycopene recipes:

Though cooking a red sauce isn’t as difficult as it sounds, I know some people prefer the convenience of jarred sauce. That’s why I’ve developed a new sauce. It’s based on my family’s recipe and is made with the finest organic, non-GMO tomatoes from Italy. I love it, and I think you will, too.

2 More Tips for Maximizing Lycopene Benefits

To get even more lycopene out of your diet, follow these two bits of advice:

1. Buy organic whenever you can.

Organic fruits and vegetables tend to be richer in nutrients and have a higher vibration, which makes them the healthier choice. But more importantly, conventionally produced tomatoes and bell peppers rank high on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of foods that contain pesticide residues. You’ll want to steer clear of them if you can find and afford organic options.

2. Combine your tomato dish with some broccoli.

It’s a bit of an odd combination, I’ll admit—but the nutrients in broccoli combine with the lycopene in tomato sauce to enhance absorption. When you eat both foods together, the synergy between them helps boost their overall health benefits. In fact, a perfect meal for me is high-protein pasta topped with red sauce, olive oil, and some freshly grated cheese, with a side of broccoli.

Keep in mind that lycopene won’t make you sleepy in the same way that, say, the tryptophan in a Thanksgiving turkey will. Lycopene works in a longer term way, and your sleep will improve as your blood levels increase over time.

As for how much lycopene is enough, research doesn’t specify—but eating red sauce 1–2 times a week is a great start. Just gradually increase your intake until you begin seeing results. You’ll know when you’ve hit your sweet spot.

I would also recommend looking at your diet overall, to see how much variety it includes. The researchers also noted that better sleep was associated with eating a wide range of foods. So if you’re partial to a few go-to dishes, you can help yourself by broadening your menu. 

Foods That Help You Sleep

Getting better sleep is one of the keys to better energy, better health, and a better life. Take it seriously—and take this one small step today, to get on a path to greater wellness!


© 2017, 2019 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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