Foods That Help You Sleep

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

Recently, one of you asked this question here at HeartMD:

Dear Dr. Sinatra,

Which foods do you suggest for peaceful digestion and a good night’s sleep? —Johanne M.

Oh boy, I could say so much about the importance of regularly getting a good night’s sleep!

In this article, I’ll focus on:

How Food Can Impact Sleep

The foods we eat, particularly those eaten later in the day and evening, can either help us sleep or prevent us from sleeping.

One mistake I often see is reaching for the proverbial glass of warm milk. People think that by drinking milk, they’re benefitting from the tryptophan it contains. To some extent they are, but it’s largely offset by the fact that milk is also high in sugar—a stimulant that revs us up gets us going, not sleeping!

Eating foods with sugar right before bed not only can prevent us from falling asleep, but it can cause us to wake up in the middle of the night. With the initial rise in blood sugar comes the inevitable blood sugar drop. Our bodies need energy, we wake up, open the fridge or turn on the kitchen light, and then our melatonin production is halted, which can make it harder for us to fall back asleep.

Milk is double trouble if you follow a lot of other online advice and combine it with a bowl of cereal. Since most cereals are high-glycemic (cause our blood sugar to quickly rise), you’re setting yourself up for a blood sugar crash in the middle of the night. Plus, this hypoglycemia can cause the heart to race at night, compounding sleep issues.

Focus on Tryptophan Foods to Sleep Better

So what should you do instead? I recommend focusing on foods rich in nutrients that help with relaxation, as well as foods that help the body produce hormones essential for good sleep: serotonin and melatonin. That way, when you’re ready to sleep, your body will be, too.

Specifically, you’ll want to eat more foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan. Turkey is probably the best known tryptophan food—and the reason we feel so drowsy after Thanksgiving dinner!

The brain uses tryptophan to create serotonin, a relaxing, feel-good neurotransmitter. Some of that serotonin is then converted into the sleep hormone melatonin. Since the amount of melatonin your body can make partially depends on how much serotonin is available, upping your intake of tryptophan foods is a good way to boost production.

Here are some specific tryptophan foods to try:

  • Seeds and nuts. Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, pistachios, cashews, and almonds  are especially rich in tryptophan. Almonds are also high in magnesium, which is well known for its ability to promote muscle relaxation.
  • Cheese. This is a good alternative to milk. You’ll still get a tryptophan boost, but the higher fat and lower sugar content of cheese won’t spike your blood sugar as significantly. Cheddar, mozzarella, and Swiss are good options.
  • Half a turkey or chicken sandwich. Both meats have a good amount of tryptophan. Just be sure to limit yourself to a half sandwich, and make sure your condiments don’t include any added sugar. You’ll get additional benefit if you make the sandwich on organic whole-grain bread, which is one of many foods that helps boost magnesium levels.
  • Whole-grain oatmeal. This snack is a good source of vitamin B6, which is useful for offsetting the effects of stress, and it also contains some tryptophan. Just stay away from the instant varieties—they’re too refined to be useful.
  • One poached egg contains about 83 mg of tryptophan, which makes this breakfast favorite a useful bedtime snack. If you don’t feel like cooking late in the evening, the hardboiled variety has 76 mg.

Eating Habits That May Be Sabotaging a Good Night’s Sleep

There are also some definite “food don’ts” when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. Here are three things you should avoid:

  • Really, this should go without saying—but you’d be surprised how many people have a cup of coffee after dinner and then wonder why they can’t sleep. The same goes for chocolate and soda, as both have caffeine.
  • I touched on this at the start of the article when I mentioned milk. Eating sugar before bed stimulates the nervous system, and it can also cause hypoglycemia. This is another reason to say no to nighttime sodas and other sweets, like ice cream, cookies, or brownies.
  • Heavy, fatty meals too close to bedtime. The body’s natural rhythm and propensity for digesting food isn’t as strong at night as it is earlier in the day, so large meals just before bed, at best, can be uncomfortable, and at worst, cause indigestion. This is especially true if you also have problems with acid reflux.

Pair Tryptophan Foods With Other Sleep Tips

If these snack suggestions don’t do the trick on their own, I’d suggest pairing them with some other tips for getting a good night’s sleep. Make sure your sleep environment is completely dark and on the cool side. Don’t sleep near electronic devices, and put away anything with a screen well before bedtime.

You may also want to reflect on your stress level. Often, our worries can keep us from sleeping soundly (or at all). Prolonged stress can lead to elevated levels of the hormone cortisol, which prevents the body from being able to fully turn itself off.  Reducing your cortisol levels and finding effective ways to manage stress can also improve sleep.

Don’t, however, be tempted to turn to prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids. These solutions work, but usually not for long. The body builds a tolerance that can eventually worsen insomnia. Natural remedies are a much healthier alternative.

Sleep Better Naturally: Melatonin Benefits Outweigh Side Effects

Good luck!


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