Eating well can help ensure restful, deep sleep every night. If you have trouble falling asleep or just want to sleep a bit better, there are foods you should incorporate into your diet, and some that you should avoid before bed.
Below we review the best and worst foods for sleep, as well as dietary considerations for gastroesophageal reflux disease and insomnia.
Best foods for sleep
Foods rich in tryptophan, carbohydrates, calcium, magnesium, melatonin and vitamin B6 can all help promote quality sleep.
Nuts (especially walnuts, almonds and pistachios)
Fish (especially salmon, tuna and halibut)
Rice (especially Jasmine)
Kale and other leafy greens
Oats and whole grains (especially bulgur and barley)
Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps the body produce the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin induces deeper and more restful sleep by creating melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep-wake cycles. Foods rich in tryptophan include:
These are protein-rich foods, so they should be easy to remember when you’re deciding what to have for a bedtime snack.
Tryptophan is often pointed to as the culprit for post-Thanksgiving Dinner sleepiness, but many people have debunked this explanation as overly simplistic. While it is true turkey is rich in tryptophan, the large size of the dinner and the plethora of starches in the typical dinner are more likely to cause drowsiness.
Carbohydrate-rich food for dinner helps a lot of people sleep. These include:
Carbohydrates facilitate tryptophan production. Foods rich in carbohydrates or tryptophan itself have both been linked to improved sleep quality. Pairing either of these with a healthy fat can also encourage sleepiness, according to research.
Complex carbohydrates provide energy. Pairing carbohydrates with proteins keeps the blood sugar stable during the night.
Carbohydrate-rich food with a high glycemic index correlate with faster sleep times than those without, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Thanks to its higher GI, jasmine rice reduced sleep onset for study participants significantly faster than the participants who were given a meal with long-grain rice.
Calcium-rich foods also help keep you asleep. Calcium isn’t exclusive to dairy products, and includes:
Kale and other leafy greens
In a study published the European Neurology Journal, researchers reported increased levels of calcium during REM sleep, and concluded that disturbed REM sleep was due to a calcium deficiency, since undisrupted sleep was regained after calcium levels returned to normal.
Melatonin is a hormone released by your pineal gland that signals it’s time to fall asleep. Melatonin is naturally produced by your body, and is also found in foods such as:
One study found that drinking 1 cup of tart cherry juice twice a day helped reduced insomnia.
Not only do walnuts contain melatonin, but they may also increase the blood melatonin levels in your body, according to a 2005 study by University of Texas.
The vitamin B6 helps your body create neurotransmitters. These chemicals help your body produce melatonin, so foods rich in vitamin B6 are also helpful for sleep. Vitamin B6 is commonly found in:
Fish, particularly salmon, tuna and halibut
Maintaining normal levels of magnesium can help you sleep through the night. Foods rich in magnesium include:
Whole grains, especially bulgur and barley
A study published in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine found that even low levels of magnesium deficiency disrupt sleep.
Drinking milk before bed: good or bad?
You might remember your mom giving you a glass of warm milk before bedtime to help you sleep. It’s not another old wives’ tale – studies have shown that a little milk can help you sleep better. Milk is rich in both tryptophan and calcium. Tryptophan helps you fall asleep, and maintaining your calcium levels helps you stay asleep.
It may also be the routine of drinking milk that helps you fall asleep. Establishing a regular bedtime routine helps many people with sleep disorders such as insomnia to fall asleep.
Worst foods for sleep
While some of the foods in the list below should be avoided generally, some of them are only troublesome when it comes to helping you fall asleep, so they should be avoided at dinnertime.
Caffeine from coffee, tea, or chocolate
Overly fatty foods
Sugary junk foods
Caffeine, alcohol, and other beverages
Watch caffeine consumption. This one’s a no-brainer, but not drinking caffeinated beverages several hours before bedtime makes it easier to fall asleep. If you’re sensitive to caffeine (or if coffee makes you feel jittery and on edge), you might want to swear off all coffee and avoid dark chocolate, or at least eight hours before going to bed. Paradoxically, some people seem to sleep better after consuming caffeine, which may explain the popularity of coffee naps.
Avoid alcohol. Some people drink alcohol to get drowsy, but alcohol tends to cause restless sleep. The calming effect of alcohol also wears off after only a few hours, so you’re likely to wake up in the middle of the night.
Don’t drink fluids before going to bed. This might go against the habit of having a glass of milk before bedtime, but if you find yourself getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, it might be a good idea. You could try a glass of chamomile herbal tea, but no studies have definitely proven it aids sleep.
Overly spicy, fatty, and sugary foods
Spicy food may disrupt sleep, according to an Australian study. The capsaicin in child peppers and other spicy food can increase your internal body temperature, which needs to lower in order for you have restful sleep. Additionally, spicy foods tend to have higher fat levels which require more time for your body to process. If you eat these foods too close to bedtime, your body expends energy in digestion rather than helping your brain fall asleep.
Overly fatty foods have also been shown to disrupt sleep and upset your circadian rhythms, according to multiple studies in 2007 and 2012. As a result, you might sleep more during the day, and get hungrier at night. Columbia University researchers found people who eat a diet low in fiber and high in saturated fat are more likely to experience lighter sleep and more nighttime awakenings.
Sugary desserts and junk foods are infamous for causing weight gain any time of day, but they can be especially dangerous at night by triggering late-night cravings and higher caloric intake than the body actually needs.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease and sleep
People with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) usually find their symptoms get worse at night. GERD occurs when stomach acid splashes back into your throat, and is accompanied by other symptoms such as difficulty swallowing, nighttime asthma, and heartburn. Lying down in bed when you have a full stomach facilitates this effect.
Researchers have found ways to manage this, including by adjusting the position of the body in bed for sleeping and eating the largest meal of the day at lunchtime and not eating several hours (at least 3) before bedtime. Heartburn or acid reflux medication and avoiding foods known to cause sleep problems help. Some people have GERD without heartburn and still suffer sleep problems.
Foods associated with poor sleep also trigger GERD symptoms, so it’s recommended to avoid caffeine, alcohol, or hot spices.
Insomnia and diet
If you have trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep during the night, you should take special care to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and overly spicy, fatty, or sugary foods.
Instead, eat a dinner made of foods rich in carbohydrates and tryptophan. A small snack of yogurt or a warm glass of milk may prove relaxing and help you sleep, especially when taken regularly as part of a regular bedtime routine.
Also try to follow good sleep hygiene. Set your bedroom to a cool temperature in the mid-60 degree Fahrenheit range, block out light and noise with a sleep mask or curtain, and consider using melatonin as a sleep aid.
One study found that drinking 1 cup of tart cherry juice twice a day helped reduced insomnia in older adults.
Sleep deprivation makes one hungry and also reduces willpower. It has been shown that sleepiness impairs self-control for rich foods, which in turn are linked to poorer sleep.
How late can you eat before bed?
To sleep better at night, have dinner two to four hours before bedtime. It’s not advisable to go to bed on a full stomach. When your digestive system is in full swing, it’s difficult for the rest of your body to settle down.
The studies are mixed as to whether eating before bed causes weight gain. Some experts say it’s fine and may even help weight loss. On the other hand, conventional wisdom holds that your metabolism slows down during sleep, so any undigested calories will be stored as fat and cause weight gain.
In reality, your metabolism stays the same whether you’re asleep or awake, so that theory doesn’t hold water. However, some studies have indeed linked weight gain with eating before bed.
If your metabolism stays the same, how is that possible? Researchers attribute it to other reasons that are more obvious than you think. Eating a late-night snack often equates to an extra meal, hence more weight gain. Also, it’s not uncommon for people to be hungriest at night (whether from not eating enough during the day or simply having a tiring day), so they might end up consuming more calories than they really need.
However, if you have good self-control, a small snack after dinner can help curb your appetite for snacking later in the night.