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?
Science tells us that there is a correlation between our overall diet and the quality of our sleep. The foods we consume — and when we consume them — can help us sleep or keep us awake.
While no food is a magic elixir to get you to sleep — we’ve debunked lettuce tea already — there are ways to eat better for your sleep, starting with incorporating various nutrient-packed foods that help you sleep into your daily diet.
The many ways food impacts your sleep habits
How exactly does food act as one of the best natural sleep aids? Nutrients, enzymes, amino acids, and hormones all work to regulate sleep cycles. Some of these are found within the foods we eat, and others are produced by the foods we consume.
The way you eat can also affect sleep. Several studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet, in particular, is very beneficial to sleep. The diet is heavy in vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and whole grains, which aids in better sleep quality, higher sleep efficiency, fewer sleep disturbances, and reduced stress.
The same way foods can give us energy, foods can assist with our sleep. Here are a few ways in which how and when we eat affects sleep:
Certain nutrients, enzymes, and amino acids in foods can aid sleep. Some of these sleep supporters include tryptophan, antioxidants, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids, GABA, and magnesium. There are also sleep-disrupting components in food, notoriously caffeine, acid, and sugar, which can all negatively affect sleep and wake cycles.
Some foods stimulate the body to produce sleep-enhancing hormones, such as serotonin and melatonin, or sleep-disrupting hormones, like cortisol.
When it comes to sleep, when you eat is just as important as what you eat. Consuming large or heavy meals or eating too close to bedtime can make it difficult to sleep. Eating small portions of certain foods at night (such as almonds or cherry juice) can aid in sleep. However, your best bet will always be incorporating a variety of these foods into your daily diet.
Spikes in blood sugar, caused by added sugar or refined carbohydrates or going too long between meals, can increase cortisol and adrenaline levels and make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Certain foods, when combined, can exponentially increase impact, sometimes in a way that improves sleep. One example is combining protein and complex carbs, which allows tryptophan to enter the brain and produce serotonin more easily. On the contrary, combining a sleep-supporting food with a sleep disruptor will cancel out any benefits.
As you read our list of foods that aid sleep below, focus on what you enjoy and can easily incorporate into your daily meal plan and lifestyle. Consistency, like sticking to the same sleep and wake times, could be the food formula you need for sweet dreams.
The top foods to eat to help you sleep
Incorporate these foods throughout the day, or reach for an evening snack to help you sleep soundly:
Tart cherry juice
Tart cherries have above-average concentrations of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles, so drinking tart cherry juice can promote better sleep quality. Sip tart cherry juice before bed or try a cup of soothing cherry moon milk (which also contains sleep-promoting honey, chamomile, and almond).
Honey raises insulin in the body, which helps the brain to produce melatonin. Enjoy it in the cherry moon milk, or sweeten a cup of chamomile tea (below) with honey for double the bedtime benefits.
There’s a reason chamomile has been touted as a sleep aid for centuries: The herb contains antioxidants that activate receptors in the brain within the GABA complex, providing sedative-producing qualities.
Kiwi, rich in anti-inflammatory antioxidants and serotonin-producing compounds, is one of the best fruits to help you sleep. Try snacking on kiwi an hour before bed, which may help you fall asleep over 40% faster.
Turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that helps the body to produce serotonin and melatonin and is abundant in lean white meats. The serotonin-melatonin combination may be particularly helpful to older adults experiencing issues with their sleep/wake cycles.
Dairy products, including milk, yogurt, and cheese, are high in tryptophan, calcium, vitamin D, and melatonin — all shown to support sleep quality. Eating carbohydrates with proteins allows tryptophan to enter the brain and stimulate serotonin production, so try pairing cheese with whole-grain crackers or topping Greek yogurt with nutty granola.
Fatty fish like salmon are loaded with vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, both shown to support healthy sleep cycles, decrease inflammation, and increase serotonin production. Trout and tuna provide these same benefits. Enjoy them as dinner fillets, or try smoked salmon or a tin of tuna on whole-grain bread.
Whole grains are filling and sleep-enhancing. Protein-rich quinoa is high in sleep-supporting magnesium and tryptophan. Brown rice contains GABA, calming the nervous system. Rice, barley, and oats are all natural sources of melatonin.
Greens such as lettuce, spinach, and kale are each full of magnesium, calcium, and antioxidants, all of which are essential to sleep cycles. If you’re concerned about magnesium deficiency, a common cause of insomnia, take note that one cup of cooked spinach packs an impressive 39% of the daily recommended value!
Bananas are rich in tryptophan, magnesium, and potassium, which can promote muscle relaxation throughout the body and reduce sleep disturbances (for example, waking up in the middle of the night). If you’re a fan of milk before bed, try blending banana and milk.
Sleep disruptors: Foods to avoid if you want great sleep
Some foods can negatively affect sleep cycles. Here are the top offenders to avoid at night, especially if you’re having trouble sleeping:
- Caffeine can interfere with sleep by stimulating the nervous system and disrupting circadian rhythms. Avoid consuming caffeine after lunchtime, and beware of hidden caffeine in foods (such as some chocolates). Certain medications contain caffeine, so time your usage accordingly.
- Alcohol may initially help with falling asleep due to its sedative properties, but despite giving initial drowsiness, it can eventually throw off sleep cycles and reduce REM sleep.
- Acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus can cause acid reflux and heartburn, which interrupts sleep.
- Spicy foods can also cause acid reflux and heartburn, which can impact falling asleep or staying asleep through the night.
- Fried foods and heavy, indulgent meals take longer to digest and could interfere with sleep by causing discomfort.
- High-sodium foods such as soy sauce, processed meats, and frozen meals can elevate blood pressure when your body is trying to wind down. These foods could make you thirsty enough to wake up in the middle of the night.
- Beans are slower to digest and can cause gas, making sleep unpleasant if consumed too close to bedtime.
- Simple carbs, including white bread, white rice, and desserts, can spike blood sugar, making it harder for your body to wind down.
The bottom line is that both sleep cycles and diet are very complex, but the foods you eat daily 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.
If you suspect that your diet is affecting your sleep, start a sleep diary where you log meals. Over time, you’ll be able to see if there is a pattern between food and sleep quality. 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.
If the idea of changing your diet causes more stress than excitement, focus on the changes that feel most manageable, including adding foods that appeal and removing offenders you won’t miss. 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.
Need more inspiration? Check out our favorite recipes to create a sleep-supporting diet.
Answers to popular questions about food for sleep
Does eating food help you fall asleep?
Eating food can help you fall asleep if you focus on foods that contain sleep-supporting nutrients. This is because nutrients, enzymes, amino acids, and hormones found directly within the foods we eat or created from them all work to regulate sleep cycles.
Tryptophan is an amino acid most famously found in lean white meats such as turkey. Tryptophan helps the body to produce serotonin, a major player in sleep cycles and mood. Furthermore, serotonin is needed to create melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate sleep and wake cycles.
In addition, other nutrients found in food that aid in sleep include omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), potassium, antioxidants, and vitamin C.
Remember that when and how much you eat is important, too. Eating a small snack before bedtime, such as a kiwi or handful of almonds, may help promote a restful night’s sleep. However, eating a meal that is too heavy or indulgent can make it difficult to sleep since your body is working to digest a large meal.
Can a lack of food stop you from sleeping?
Hunger can be a disruptor of sleep.
Hunger pangs trigger a stimulating response in the brain, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep during the night.
Low insulin negatively affects sleep as it impacts the hormone of leptin and ghrelin.
To prevent this, eat high-fiber foods that will keep you full. If you’re hungry before bed, grab a small, nutritious snack from the list above of foods that help you sleep.
Which food has the highest melatonin?
While few foods contain a natural source of melatonin, many foods contain amino acids and nutrients that the body needs to produce melatonin, such as tryptophan and B vitamins.
Here are some foods that may help increase melatonin levels:
- Tart cherries and tart cherry juice
- Whole grains such as rice, barley, and oats
- Goji berries
- Turkey and lean white meats
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
- Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna
- Nuts, especially walnuts, pistachios, and almonds
What vitamins help with a lack of sleep?
If you’re having trouble sleeping, these vitamins and minerals may help:
- B vitamins such as B6 and B12
- Vitamin D
What helps you fall asleep naturally?
Here are some home tips and remedies for natural sleep aids:
- Consistent sleep schedule: Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day supports the body’s natural circadian rhythm.
- Exercise: Science shows that regular physical exercise positively impacts sleep quality.
- Limit naps: If you take naps during the day, limit them to 30 minutes to avoid disrupting sleep cycles.
- Keep your bedroom dark and cool: Research finds that a temperature around 65°F is best for sleep. Hot sleeper? Try some of our favorite cooling products
- Create a relaxing environment: A cluttered space can lead to a cluttered mind. Find our best tips to create a serene and relaxing bedroom here.
- Limit screen time: Blue light exposure before bed can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep.
- Relaxation techniques: Meditation, yoga, breathing techniques, or mindfulness practices can promote calmness and better sleep.
- Monitor your sleep: Keep a sleep diary or try our smart sleep tracker to understand and improve your sleep patterns.
- Try other supplements: Besides our list of foods that help you sleep, natural remedies such as lavender, valerian root, and passionflower have been shown to support sleep. Do your research on these herbal remedies, or try a sleep spray.
For more helpful tips, check out our A-Z Guide for Getting Better Sleep. If you’re still having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor, as an underlying medical condition may be the cause.