How Eating the Right Foods Can Help You Sleep Better
Did you know that according to research, one-third of adults suffer from insomnia? This is bad news. When you don’t sleep well, you’re more likely to consume high sugar, fat, and calories. This contrasts with being on a healthy diet, which can help boost your sleep duration and quality. Diets that encourage good sleep tend to include lots of whole-grain foods, fruit, vegetables and the consumption of a lot of protein. If portion sizes are smaller and you eat few or no high-sugar or high-fat foods each day, you’ll also find it easier to sleep.
This article looks at the foods you can include in your diet to help you sleep easier, the nutrients within foods that help us sleep, and things to avoid to sleep well at night.
The importance of melatonin
Sleep occurs when our bodies produce melatonin, the hormone which regulates our circadian rhythm (our sleep-wake pattern). When we reach a natural time of day to go to sleep, our melatonin levels are higher. They then return to lower levels by around 9:00 am.
Some foods have a natural melatonin content. These include:
- Grains (barley, rolled oats, rice)
- Fruit (grapes, tart cherries, pomegranates)
- Vegetables (asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, cucumber, olives)
- Seeds and nuts (sunflower seeds, flaxseed, walnuts, peanuts, mustard seeds).
Getting the right nutrients to sleep well
Several key vitamins and minerals in food promote sleep. These are tryptophan, calcium, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6. They help the body to produce melatonin. Some foods contain large amounts of these minerals and vitamins, which gives them a natural potential to improve our sleep quality. Although it’s possible to buy vitamin and mineral supplements, it’s better to obtain them by eating the right foods. Below is a more in-depth look at these nutrients:
Tryptophan is an amino acid and helps produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which promotes wellbeing and happiness. This nutrient works with calcium to produce melatonin. To assure yourself of a tryptophan intake, you should eat the following foods:
- Poultry (turkey, chicken).
- Grains (rice, barley, corn, wheat, oats).
- Fruits (bananas, peaches, apples, avocado).
- Dairy products (low-fat yoghurt, milk, cheese).
- Seafood (salmon, halibut, tuna, shrimp, sardines, cod).
- Legumes (lima beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, split peas).
- Vegetables (broccoli, turnip greens, spinach, asparagus, onions, seaweed).
- Nuts and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, flax, sesame, almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts).
- Soy products.
Magnesium is an essential mineral and relaxes the muscles (as does the mineral potassium). It supports deep restorative sleep, and a lack of magnesium can lead to insomnia and fragmented sleep. Since the body doesn’t produce magnesium, we must acquire it through our diet, which we can do so from:
- Whole grains (buckwheat and brown rice).
- Legumes (lentils).
- Dark leafy greens (chard and spinach).
- Fruits (melons, bananas and berries).
Potassium is a mineral and electrolyte and helps the muscles to work, including the muscles that control breathing. Just like magnesium, the body doesn’t produce potassium naturally, so we must acquire it by eating the right foods. The following foods are good sources of potassium:
- Leafy greens (spinach).
- Vegetables (cauliflower, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers, peas, courgettes, squash).
- Fruits (avocado and banana).
Calcium is a mineral and reinforces the circadian rhythm by helping the body to produce melatonin. Disturbances in rapid eye movement (REM) are a sign that your body might not be getting enough calcium, as is waking up regularly during the night and then struggling to get back to sleep.
The following foods are all good sources of calcium:
- Dairy products (cheese, yoghurt, low-fat milk).
- Vegetables (broccoli, green snap peas).
- Fortified cereals.
- Dark leafy greens (such as spinach and chard).
- Fortified orange juice.
- Citrus fruits.
- Sesame seeds.
The mineral vitamin B6 helps the body to convert tryptophan into melatonin. We have lower serotonin levels and sleep poorly when we don’t get enough vitamin B6. We may also feel depressed.
Below are some of the highest sources of vitamin B6:
- Dried prunes.
- Pistachio nuts.
- Sunflower seeds.
- Fish (salmon, halibut, tuna)
- Meat (lean pork, chicken, lean beef).
Some of the best foods to help you eat and sleep better
Some foods have a special sleep-boosting prowess because of their properties. We’ve picked out a few and discuss what it is about them that does work so well:
Almonds are a good food to help you sleep, not just because of their natural melatonin content; they also contain magnesium and protein, which helps keep our blood sugar levels stable. The protein also aids sleep by switching us from the alert adrenaline cycle to the rest-and-digest one. A mere tablespoon of almond butter each day is enough to help the body relax.
Oatmeal is easy to prepare and can make you sleep well if you eat it before bed. It’s rich in magnesium, silicon, calcium, phosphorus and potassium, all of which support sleep. Don’t, however, sprinkle too much sugar over the oats. Otherwise, you’ll cancel out the calming effects. Slice a banana or other fruit over them instead.
Bananas high potassium
Bananas are an ideal food to help you sleep because they contain potassium, magnesium and tryptophan. Blend one banana with a cup of soy milk or regular milk. Add some ice if you wish to. It’s simple and nutritious and can put you on the way to a good night’s rest.
Eat to sleep better with cereals
Low-sugar and whole-grain cereals would be the better option. Cereals contain carbohydrates, which boost the presence of tryptophan in the bloodstream. Add a sprinkle of dried cherries to your cereal, and you can bolster your sleep even further.
Broccoli, choose foods with high fibre content
Researchers have linked fibre to deeper, more restorative sleep. Eat food that contains too much fat, however, and it’s either harder to sleep well, or you don’t experience as much of the deep-sleep stage of sleep. Choose foods that are high in fibre, such as broccoli, beans, and raspberries, and cut down on foods that are high in saturated fat.
Drinks that can help you to sleep better
Not only food can help you to sleep well. Some drinks are packed with vitamins and minerals that can impact sleep quality for the better. Here are a few suggestions:
Herbal tea reduce your caffeine intake
Often, the best option is to avoid drinks that contain caffeine in the evening. Some drinks have little or no caffeine in them, though, and these can help you get off to sleep quickly, including tea. The following herbal teas could help you sleep better:
- Valerian tea.
- Camomile tea.
- Peppermint tea.
- Passion fruit tea
- Decaffeinated green tea.
Cherry juice, could help you sleep faster
According to researchers from the University of Rochester and the University of Pennsylvania, a glass of cherry juice could help you sleep faster and longer. They found out that cherries (especially tart cherries) can help the body to produce melatonin. Drinking a glass of cherry juice or eating a (small) portion of fresh or dried cherries will be okay if you’re not sure how much to consume before bed.
If neither herbal tea nor cherry juice takes your fancy, you could always drink warm milk or almond milk instead. These can help you to sleep, too, thanks to the tryptophan in them.
Foods to Avoid When You Want to Sleep
If you have trouble sleeping at night, you might not be getting enough protein. You might also be eating the wrong types of food before you go to bed. Here are some that you should avoid close to bedtime:
Foods and drinks with a high caffeine content
Drinks that are high in caffeine, such as coffee, or energy drinks, including Red Bull and Monster, can alter your sleep pattern by keeping your mind awake and overactive. Be aware that some foods contain caffeine, too. Dark chocolate is one of them. Avoid consuming caffeine late in the day and before you go to bed.
Spicy foods might be delicious, but it’s better not to eat them close to bedtime because they may cause indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux. If the food triggers heartburn, lying down will make this even worse. The acids will move up to the oesophagus and burn the sensitive lining more.
Alcohol might appear to promote sleep because it makes you drowsy, but it’s better not to drink alcohol before going to bed. Alcohol prevents you from having a good quality sleep by disrupting it when your body starts to clear the alcohol from your system. It obstructs deep sleep.
Foods high in fat
Research has found links between foods with high-fat content and sleep deprivation and interrupted sleep. When the body starts to digest food, the stomach produces digestive juices, and this can cause us discomfort when we’re lying down.
Food containing too much water
Foods with lots of water in them, such as celery and watermelon, are excellent for the body but aren’t recommended when you’re about to sleep. They’re natural diuretics. Eating them too close to bedtime will deprive you of good quality sleep because you’ll have to make lots of trips to the bathroom during the night to relieve your bladder.
Things to Avoid Before Going to Bed
There are some things we choose to do before we go to bed that can really impede sleep. Eating heavy meals is one of them. The food could be heavy, or you could eat too much, even of the right things, forcing your body to focus on digestion instead of winding down to sleep. If you have to eat just before you go to bed, keep it to a light snack, such as crackers, cereal or peanut butter on toast.
Other things you should avoid doing before bedtime include:
- Watching TV or using the computer right before going to bed.
- Sleeping with any light on. Darkness stimulates melatonin production.
Still struggling to sleep?
Follow the tips above and make changes necessary to your lifestyle to be more healthy and sleep easier at night. Try to eat foods that contain tryptophan, magnesium, potassium and or vitamin B6. Make foods that have natural quantities of melatonin in them part of your diet, too. Stay away from alcohol, fatty foods, spicy foods and foods with lots of caffeine or water in them before you go to bed.
If you follow these tips and adhere to recommended sleeping practices but still have trouble sleeping, there may be a more serious issue. You could be suffering from a sleep disorder. The best thing to do would be to speak to your GP or visit a sleep centre to discuss the issue and find out how you can solve it.