Is there something to the old tradition of drinking warm milk to help us get to sleep, or have we been poured a tall mug of myth? There is, in fact, truth to the nostalgic advice. Science tells us that there’s a correlation between our overall diet, from foods we consume and when we consume them, and the quality of our sleep.
Though there are no sleep-inducing foods or drinks that will instantly cause sleepiness (we’ve debunked lettuce tea for you), there is the magic of comfort and nostalgia to consider: What you had as a child before bed could still trigger a relaxation response as an adult. That is, a cup of warm milk may make you feel sleepy because of the long-standing ritual, not because it’s the purported opposite of caffeine.
In fact, the best diet for sleep is one that focuses on science and pleasure. If you find a sleep-enhancing food to be unpleasant, its cons likely outweigh the pros for you.
As you read our list of foods for sleep below, focus on what you like and won’t get sick of eating week after week. Consistency, like sticking to the same sleep and wake times, in the nutritional sense could be the food formula you need for sleeping through the night.
10 foods to help make you sleep
1. Turkey and other white meats with tryptophan
Tryptophan. It’s a word we commonly associate with Thanksgiving because of turkey-induced food comas, but science tells us we should pay attention to it when it comes to the other 364 days of sleep, too.
Tryptophan is an amino acid found in proteins; lean white meats — such as chicken and turkey — have a high level of it. This amino acid helps the body produce serotonin, a major player in stabilizing moods and sleep cycles. Furthermore, serotonin is needed to create melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles.
Pro tip: Older adults with impacted sleep/wake cycles due to age should take special note. Studies have shown that eating tryptophan-rich foods can help increase sleep efficiency and decreased sleep fragmentation for adults ages 55 to 75.
2. Milk and other dairy products
Like chicken and turkey, dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese are high in tryptophan. Besides tryptophan, dairy products also contain vitamin D, and melatonin — both of which are shown to support sleep quality. There is also some research on calcium and sleep. A 2016 study in mice found that calcium helps with neural activity during slow-wave sleep. So warm milk is both calming and sleep-enhancing.
Pro tip: Pair proteins with carbs. Eating carbohydrates with proteins allows tryptophan to more easily enter the brain and help serotonin production, so snack on cheese and crackers, or top Greek yogurt with nutty granola or try one of these other healthy late-night snacks.
3. Fatty fish with omega-3 acids
Fatty fish — such as salmon, trout, tuna, and anchovies — are loaded with vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA.
Lucky for fish-lovers, both vitamin D and omega-3 acids have been shown to support healthy sleep cycles, decrease inflammation, and increase serotonin production.
One study examined men who ate Atlantic salmon three times a week for six months compared to men who ate equivalent portions of chicken, beef, or pork. The men who consumed the fatty fish had higher concentrations of vitamin D and omega-3 acids, and experienced a positive impact on sleep quality and daily functioning.
Pro tip: Two disorders with one supplement? Research shows omega-3s may also help improve depression and mental health, as several disorders are linked to an omega-3 deficiency. But talk to a doctor before adding supplements to your diet as more studies are needed.
4. Nuts and seeds
Adding nuts like walnuts, almonds, and pistachios to your diet is an excellent idea. While more research is needed to prove the direct correlation between improved sleep and noshing on nuts and seeds, nuts are an excellent source of magnesium, zinc, and melatonin. These nutrients and hormones have been shown to be important for a healthy sleep cycle. Plus nuts are full of heart-healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants.
Walnuts and pistachios, for example, are one of the best sources of melatonin. They also contain serotonin-producing omega-3 fatty acids and linoleic acid.
Almonds are an excellent source of magnesium, providing 19% of the adult daily requirement in just one ounce. Since research suggests magnesium can help improve insomnia and reduce inflammation, almonds are another smart snack.
Pro tip: Don’t eat nuts? Seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin, and flax possess similar hormones and minerals.
5. Kiwi fruit
Nutritious and antioxidant-packed fruits like kiwi are a great addition to any balanced diet. And even better, they may help you snooze more soundly.
This may be due to the fruit’s high levels of anti-inflammatory antioxidants, such as vitamin C and carotenoids, in addition to serotonin-producing compounds.
Pro tip: Consider consistently having two kiwis an hour before bed and see if there are any changes. One study examined 24 adults (aged 20-55 years old) who consumed two kiwis an hour before bed for four straight weeks. At the end of the study, participants who ate kiwi before bed fell asleep 42% faster and slept for 13% longer than those who did not.
6. Tart cherries and tart cherry juice
In addition to kiwi, tart cherries are another sleep-supporting fruit to keep on your radar. Besides antioxidants, magnesium, and potassium, tart cherries have above-average concentrations of melatonin.
Several studies have examined the effects of drinking tart cherry juice before bed. One study found that adults suffering from insomnia who drank eight ounces of tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks reported better sleep quality. The participants slept 84 minutes longer on average when they drank the juice compared to when they did not.
Pro tip: Does the taste of straight, tart cherry juice make your mouth or stomach pucker? Mix with sparkling water and lime for a refreshing and delicious spritzer.
The herb chamomile has been touted as a sleep aid for centuries. But there’s some science behind this popular “sleepy time” tea ingredient.
Science suggests that apigenin, a flavonoid compound, is responsible for the herb’s sleep-inducing properties. This antioxidant activates GABA receptors — which work with the amino acid GABA to block certain brain signals and decrease nervous system activity — in the brain, providing sedative-producing qualities and stimulating sleep. A 2020 systematic review of GABA supplementation in humans notes that GABA may be helpful for inducing sleep rather than maintaining sleep.
Pro tip: Sweeten it with honey, which may help the brain to release melatonin. If you prefer the power of aromatherapy, you can also use chamomile essential oils before bed. A small 2013 study found that aromatherapy with lavender, chamomile, and neroli oil helped reduce anxiety and maintain sleep quality after a stressful surgery.
8. Whole grains
Whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice are beneficial to a healthy sleep cycle. Whole grains stimulate insulin production, which helps the neurons within the brain process tryptophan. If your diet is lacking whole grains, incorporating more of this may also help lower blood sugar. High blood sugar is associated with poor sleep quality.
Quinoa is high in sleep-supporting magnesium and tryptophan, while brown rice contains GABA, calming the nervous system. Rice, barley, and oats all provide a natural source of melatonin.
Pro tip: Cook large portions of brown rice or quinoa for an easy base to your meal. Brown rice can stay in the freezer for up to 3 months while quinoa can be kept in the freezer up to 8 to 10 months.
9. Leafy greens
While lettuce tea had its viral moment of people espousing the benefits of the phytonutrient lactucarium for relaxation and sleep, you’d need to consume 80 romaine lettuce heads to trigger a sleepy response.
So “lettuce” tell you exactly how to use leafy greens for sleep: Eat a variety in the recommended amounts!
Besides lettuce, greens such as spinach and kale are full of magnesium, calcium, and antioxidants, all of which (as we know by now) are essential to sleep cycles. In fact, magnesium deficiency is a common cause of insomnia. Good thing that a single cup of cooked spinach packs an impressive 39% of the daily recommended value!
Pro tip: In general, you won’t go wrong by adding more leafy greens to your diet. Greens are a nutrient powerhouse, packed with fiber, antioxidants, and essential vitamins and minerals (such as folate, iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, E, and K.)
Like many of the foods on this list, bananas are rich in multiple sleep-supporters, including tryptophan, magnesium, and potassium.
Both potassium and magnesium play important roles in muscle relaxation throughout the body, and potassium has been shown to significantly reduce sleep disturbances (i.e., waking up in the middle of the night).
Pro-tip: Pair bananas with your favorite breakfasts or have bananas and nut butter on hand for an easy, healthy snack. If you’re a fan of milk before bed, try blending banana and milk together.
What else can I eat to help my sleep?
The list above contains the most research-backed foods for sleep, but suppose you’re not fond of any of those foods? Not to worry — a sleep-supporting diet wouldn’t be effective if you didn’t like the foods you’re eating. And it’s always wise to be cautious about getting attached to the idea of a nutritional hierarchy.
Here are some additional foods that contain the sleep-supporting nutrients, enzymes, amino acids, and hormones:
- Kidney beans
- Tart cherries
Omega-3 fatty acids
- Chia seeds
- Dark chocolate
- Brazil nuts
Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
- Adzuki beans
- White tea
- Brown rice
- Sweet potatoes
- White beans
- Butternut squash
- Brussel sprouts
Eating a Mediterranean diet may help you sleep better
Not ready to create a sleep-inducing meal plan from scratch? Save yourself some effort by taking cues from the well-established Mediterranean diet, which is inspired by the cuisines of Italy, Greece, and the countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. Several studies have shown that people who follow a Mediterranean diet are likely to have better sleep quality.
This heart-healthy approach is also associated with higher sleep efficiency (the ratio of sleep time to time spent in bed), fewer sleep disturbances, and reduced stress. It is also shown to improve blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. One study found that more people with higher blood sugar levels experienced poor sleep compared to those with normal blood sugar levels. found that more people with higher blood sugar levels experienced poor sleep compared to those with normal blood sugar levels.
Stick to the basics of the Mediterranean diet to reap its incredible health benefits:
- Build your meals around plant-based foods, such as vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, beans, legumes, and fruits.
- Include healthy fats, such as avocado, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
- Flavor foods with herbs and spices.
- Eat fish at least twice per week.
- Eat dairy and poultry in moderation.
- Limit red meat, refined sugar, and refined grains.
Foods to avoid before bed
While several whole foods have been shown to support sleep cycles and improve sleep quality, others have been shown to do the exact opposite. Eating before bed is known to worsen sleep quality, but the following foods are known to really interrupt your sleep cycles.
Consider eliminating or reducing your intake of the following foods before bed:
- Caffeine: Avoid consuming food and drinks that contain caffeine too close to bedtime, which can disrupt your circadian rhythms. Popular culprits include coffee, tea, soda, hot cocoa, and chocolate.
- Alcohol: That nightcap may throw off sleep cycles and reduce REM sleep.
- Fried foods: One population-based study showed that consistently high consumption of fried foods could increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea.
- Foods with a high water content: Natural diuretics such as watermelon, celery, or cucumbers may lead to waking up in the middle of the night for a trip to the bathroom.
- Foods with a high sodium content: Limit high sodium foods such as soy sauce, processed meats, and frozen meals before bed, as they could make you thirsty enough to wake up in the middle of the night.
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes are high in tyramine, an amino acid that stimulates brain activity and can impact sleep quality. Tomatoes can also interfere with sleep by causing heartburn and acid reflux.
- Broccoli: Though it contains tryptophan, broccoli is slower to digest and can cause gas, making sleep unpleasant. Try to avoid it close to bedtime.
Food is just one way to help you sleep through the night
The bottom line is that both sleep cycles and diet are very complex, but the foods you eat on a daily basis can have an impact when it comes to being ready for bedtime, especially if you focus on a variety of different foods on a consistent basis.
But if the idea of changing your diet causes more stress than excitement, focus on the foods that are most appealing to you and slowly incorporate those first. Small consistent changes — like a handful of leafy greens for dinner or whipped banana milk at night — will help you see whether food can improve your sleep quality.
Keeping a sleep diary and logging meal changes can help you see if there is a pattern between food and sleep quality as well. Other factors you may want to take into consideration while logging your lifestyle habits and sleep include managing stress and establishing a consistent bedtime routine.