Aside from counting sheep, no sleep remedy is more famous than drinking a glass of warm milk before bedtime.
While it’s generally regarded as an old wives’ tale, the medical validity of warm milk for sleep hasn’t really been explored.
So, we decided to tap into the expertise of Leah Reitmayer, registered dietician and owner of nutrition counseling company Lettuce Eat Dessert, to explain if a mug of warm milk can, indeed, help us nod off quicker. After all, a trip down the dairy aisle could be a quick — and nostalgic — solution to tossing and turning. Here’s what we uncovered.
Does warm milk before bed actually help you fall asleep?
The answer, which may be surprising, is that yes warm milk can help people fall asleep quicker. In fact, it is doubly beneficial, thanks to both the temperature and the actual milk.
“Milk is an excellent source of tryptophan, an amino acid that promotes relaxation and sleepiness and from which melatonin is synthesized,” reveals Reitmayer. “Studies have shown that consuming milk before bed can help with sleep due to these high levels of tryptophan and melatonin.”
Reitmayer says temperature is also an important factor in obtaining the desired sleepy feeling, as warm beverages have a soothing, calming effect.
“The temperature of the milk can also play a role, with warm milk being more effective at inducing sleep than cold milk,” claims Reitmayer. “Hot beverages before bed, such as
There is not enough scientific evidence to suggest an ideal temperature, though anything above your average body temperature (97-99°F) should suffice. Warm liquids typically range from 105 to 110°F.
When and what type of milk to drink
For those with lactose intolerance or simply a preference to follow a more plant-based diet, there may be questions about using nut, soy, or oat milk to relax before bed. Unfortunately, these non-dairy varieties, such as oat, soy, almond, coconut, and cashew, don’t serve the same purpose.
“As for the type of milk, it doesn't necessarily have to be full fat, but it should be dairy milk rather than non-dairy alternatives like almond or soy milk,” advises Reitmayer, noting that while certain nuts like almonds contain sleep-promoting hormones and minerals like tryptophan, they don’t rival the levels of dairy milk (i.e. one cup of almond milk has around 80 grams while one cup of dairy milk contains around 183 grams).
“It's [also] recommended to consume the milk about 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime to allow time for digestion and absorption,” she adds.
All hope is not lost for those who avoid milk, though. Aside from the aforementioned non-caffeinated herbal tea, Reitmayer is a huge proponent of tart cherry juice (which we tested here) as an evening beverage substitute.
“Tart cherry juice contains Montmorency cherries, which contain melatonin and tryptophan,” she says. “The Montmorency cherry also contains different enzymes than other cherries that help the tryptophan stay in your cells for longer, contributing to not only falling asleep quicker but also staying asleep longer.”
Your sleep-promoting diet shouldn’t be limited to the minutes before bedtime, though — it’s also important to maintain a well-rounded diet throughout the day that can support healthy sleep habits.
“Foods that are rich in magnesium, such as leafy greens, nuts, and whole grains, can help regulate the body's natural sleep cycle,” recommends Reitmayer. “Additionally, foods that are high in tryptophan, such as turkey, chicken, and bananas, can increase the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and sleep.”
Other magnesium-heavy foods include dark chocolate, avocado, tofu, and fatty fish. Foods high in tryptophan include peanuts, quinoa, and eggs. Keep these in mind as you’re preparing meals later in the day and are in need of a little Zzz-catching inspiration.
Tryptophan in cheeses and other dairy products
Unsurprisingly, consuming milk-based products such as cheeses and yogurts may also have the same sleep-inducing effects due to their high tryptophan and melatonin levels. Those with the highest content of each include cheeses like mozzarella, cheddar, and parmesan. Cottage cheese and yogurt also round out this list.
Remember that any dairy product, especially when eaten in excess, can cause indigestion and defeat the purpose of achieving quality sleep.
The spread of misinformation
While it’s fun to discuss and even go along with old wives’ tales without proper experimentation, evaluating their credibility before accepting them as true or sharing misinformation is equally important.
“There are some tales that have scientific basis behind them, however many others are completely false,” reminds Reitmayer, who suggests consulting a medical professional before integrating any type of diet or sleep treatment into your daily routine. “Spreading misinformation can have serious consequences, so make sure to fact check with legitimate credentialed health professionals before trying them.”
That said, warm milk has just enough clout to earn the backing of Reitmayer and other health experts. And if you find yourself tossing and turning at night, what do you have to lose? Time to start pouring.