If you’ve ever had trouble falling asleep at night, you know firsthand the feeling of hopelessness and frustration that washes over you as you wish for just a moment of shut-eye. While there are plenty of methods out there that can help you fall asleep, there’s another technique that can also work, and it’s as simple as eating certain foods to help you fall asleep faster.
If sleep deprivation is keeping you from getting a good night’s rest and having plenty of energy for the rest of the day, look no further. This list details perfect bedtime snacks or dinners that could be key foods to help you fall asleep and improve your sleep quality.
The Science Behind Sleep
The body has a natural wake and sleep cycle, meaning that at different points in the day, the brain knows when to signal to the rest of your body what state it needs to be in. These “signals” are transmitted through neurotransmitters, and they act on behalf of the brain to keep you alert while you’re awake – and consequently, asleep when it’s time to rest.1
An important chemical that’s involved in this process is melatonin, which is released in the brain in the evening. It increases well into the night, and then decreases in the early morning to let us know it’s time to wake up.2 When the body is sleep deprived, it’s possible that it may not be making enough melatonin or other chemicals like serotonin, thus making it harder for your body to stay balanced.
Serotonin is another important sleep chemical, as it’s often a precursor to the creation of melatonin. It also largely affects the brain’s mood, which is why some mental health problems like anxiety or depression can lead to sleep disorders.3
A big regulator of the body’s ability to release the correct hormones and chemicals is food. For example, the caffeine found in coffee blocks the brain’s ability to produce a chemical called adenosine, which can make you drowsy (hence why so many coffee lovers need that cup first thing in the morning).4 This makes your diet crucial when it comes to producing the correct amount of melatonin and serotonin so that you can get some sleep.
Foods To Help You Sleep
What you put in your body has the ability to help or hinder your biological processes and sleep patterns, so it’s important to make sure that what you’re eating is always as helpful as possible when it comes to supporting your health and helping you get a good night’s sleep.
Here’s a list of some foods that may help:
1. Nuts and Nut Butters
Certain nuts like almonds or walnuts are a great bedtime snack to get your eyes drooping before dozing off. (They’re also a great snack in general, as they contain plenty of health benefits.) Almonds and walnuts are a great source of magnesium, which is another sleep-inducing chemical.5
If you find your pantry lacking in the nut department, various nut butters (like those made out of almonds, walnuts, or cashews) can also work. Almond butter is a great alternative and can be enjoyed alongside a cup of hot decaffeinated tea to help aid in sleep. Peanut butter is also a great sleep snack, as it contains a chemical called tryptophan, which helps support the body’s metabolism as well as signal to the brain it’s time to sleep.6
Like peanut butter, turkey also contains the chemical tryptophan, and is part of the reason why nothing sounds better than a good nap or night’s rest after a delicious Thanksgiving dinner.
Tryptophan helps signal to your brain to start creating the sleep chemical melatonin. So, the next time you’re having trouble sleeping, try making a turkey sandwich for dinner. Not only will you find that it’s a great source of protein, you may find yourself sleeping fitfully in a matter of minutes.7
Again, if you find yourself short on turkey products in your kitchen, another great source of tryptophan is chickpeas, the key ingredient in hummus. If you’re feeling extra tired, there may be a delicious recipe out there that combines hummus on a turkey sandwich. Add some leafy greens and you have yourself a delicious meal – don’t knock it ’til you try it.
3. Herbal Tea (decaffeinated)
Herbal teas are a wonderful sleep aid if you’re trying to avoid eating foods too close to bedtime. There are plenty of sleepy time teas you can find at the grocery store; however, chamomile tea is one of the better sleep aids.
Chamomile contains an antioxidant called apigenin, which can reduce insomnia and inflammation, and even boost your immune system. Studies have found that those who take chamomile extract or drink it in its herbal tea form reported better sleep and improved mood.8
4. Tart Cherry Juice
Tart cherry juice is another sleep aid on this list that is also a great source of melatonin.9
It’s definitely worth mentioning that more research must be conducted to further understand the effects of cherry juice on sleep, but it’s worth a try if you’re having trouble falling asleep.
5. Dairy Products
Foods like cottage cheese and milk are other known sources of tryptophan and calcium. Additionally, cottage cheese contains plenty of calcium along with a milk protein called casein, which helps aid muscle repair and growth while you sleep.
It’s important to note that a glass of warm milk seems to have more success when it comes to helping signal the brain that it’s time for sleep. If done consistently, it also becomes a very soothing nighttime routine, which can help the brain and body relax and become drowsy.10
Bananas are another great source of magnesium and pair well on a piece of toast with nut butter as a bedtime snack. Bananas also contain plenty of fiber, potassium, and protein, making it another great healthy snack option in general.11
Other Honorable Mentions
This list is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a bedtime snack that doubles as a sleep aid. Here are some more honorable mentions if you’d like to expand your snacking list:
- Foods high in fatty acids, like salmon or tuna (also another great source of magnesium, tryptophan, and vitamin D)
- Jasmine rice or white rice
- Sweet potatoes
- Carbs (like whole-grain cereals, breads, or popcorns)
- Oranges (a great source of vitamin C)
- Low-fat yogurt (another great source of calcium)
- Eggs (another great source of tryptophan)
- Soybeans (another great source of tryptophan)
Foods To Avoid
It’s also worth mentioning that foods that appear to aid sleep are not always the best for your body. A heavy meal may make you feel sleepy after ingesting it, but could ultimately lead you to lie awake at night due to increased inflammation or other uncomfortable side effects on the body.
Here’s a list of certain foods that should be avoided as a late-night snack so you can fall asleep faster:
1. Spicy Foods
It’s long been said that spicy foods can lead to weird dreams or just general insomnia. That’s because these foods aren’t always great on the digestive system, and can lead to things like acid reflux, heartburn, or indigestion, causing you to lie awake at night uncomfortably.
However, some experts have found that spicy foods can also elevate the body’s temperature, which in turn affects sleep cycles.12 So, next time you find yourself reaching for that bottle of hot sauce, maybe think again, or at least plan on eating spicier meals only at lunchtime.
2. Dark Chocolate
While it may also contain tryptophan and not be as caffeinated as a cup of joe, dark chocolate still carries a good amount of caffeine that can keep you up at night if you’re not careful. It also contains the same amino acids that many cured meats and cheeses do to keep you alert.
If you find yourself enjoying a sliver of dark chocolate after dinner, try eating it early or after lunchtime and save yourself the trouble of not being able to fall asleep.13
This one seems obvious, but it’s important to mention nonetheless. It’s been discussed earlier in this article that the caffeine in coffee blocks a certain chemical that makes you feel drowsy, so it stands to reason that drinking coffee right before bed (or even earlier in the afternoon or evening) doesn’t seem like a great idea.
It’s best to keep your coffee consumption to the mornings and swap out that mid-afternoon or evening cup for a cup of chamomile tea to help you get to sleep faster.
4. Red Meat
While red meat can be a good source of protein and tryptophan, the body has a hard time digesting it if eaten too closely before bed. This is because red meats are harder to break down, and can even lead to more inflammation in the body.14
This is where turkey becomes a great alternative. Not only does it have more sleep benefits, the health benefits are endless, too. If you’ve been hankering for a burger, try whipping up some turkey burgers instead. Your brain and gut will thank you later.
That’s right, wine lovers. That glass of red you drink alongside dinner may have to become a thing of the past if you’re struggling with sleep. While you may find your eyes drooping after a glass of two of wine or beer, alcohol actually disrupts your circadian rhythm and can lead to insomnia.
This is because alcohol has similar effects on the brain and body as coffee does, meaning that it blocks the drowsy chemical adenosine from being produced, which in turn inhibits REM sleep from happening.15 Alcohol can even exacerbate things like sleep apnea or trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
6. Fruit Juices
You may have seen that citrus fruits like oranges made the honorable mentions list of foods that aid sleep. Why are fruit juices any different? One reason: sugar content.
Too much sugar can mess with your blood sugar, hormones, and serotonin levels, and can throw off the signals to your brain that it’s time for sleep and rest, so fruit juices like apple or orange juice should be avoided before bed. That’s because the sugar content is too high, and these sugary drinks can cause similar side effects like extra trips to the bathroom or disrupted sleep, just like alcohol and spicy foods.16
While there are certain benefits to fruit juices (they can be adequate sources of vitamin C and fiber, if you drink the no added sugar added kind), drinking them too close to bed can be as disruptive as drinking coffee due to the effects on your blood sugar levels.
Other Honorable Mentions
As with the sleep-inducing foods, this is also the tip of the iceberg. Here are a few other foods to avoid just before bedtime:
- Ice cream
- Foods high in saturated fat
- Pizza and other fatty foods, like burgers or burritos
- Other sugary drinks or snacks, like soda or certain cereals
*Staying hydrated is absolutely necessary. However, it’s important not to drink too much water right before sleeping or else you’ll be getting up every so often for a trip to the bathroom and disrupting your sleep quality. Keep drinking water throughout the day – just watch how much you drink before you hop in bed.
Eat Well And Be Well
You may have heard the saying your body is a temple, and it rings pretty true when it comes to eating foods that can help you fall (and, most importantly, stay) asleep. Avoid sugary food and drinks just before bedtime, and try to stick to the snacks listed above for improved sleep quality.
The way you feel after a good night’s rest is crucial to your body’s ability to function throughout the day. If you’ve found yourself getting night after night of restless sleep, it may be time to reevaluate your diet.
You may find that some foods on this list work better than others, and that’s okay. The most important takeaway from this article is that you find the foods that work best for you and your body’s sleep schedule. After all, you can’t put a price on an improved mood due to feeling well-rested.
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