It’s the end of a trying day, and you’d like nothing better than to curl up with some Funyuns, maybe a glass of merlot, and the latest Netflix must-see. Sounds ideal, right? Maybe, except you might pay the price of the first two by not getting a solid night’s sleep. What you eat has a major impact on how you sleep, which in turn affects your overall health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, lack of quality sleep can lead to mental and physical problems such as an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke and frequent mental distress.
So we can all agree — good sleep is a great goal. Getting there, however, can be easier said than done. Thankfully, we have many chances during the day to make food choices that support a restful night.
Foods That Promote Sleep
Certain foods contain chemicals that can promote a soporific effect, helping you drift off easier. W. Christopher Winter, MD, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia, advises incorporating the following foods into your diet:
- Melatonin — Found in kiwis, tart cherries, goji berries, milk, fish and nuts. Honey helps the body release melatonin. “Melatonin resets your clock. It’s a chemical that’s important for synchronizing our sleep with our environment,” explains Dr. Winter.
- Magnesium — Found in nuts, grapes, avocados, honey, leafy greens, fatty fish, legumes, tofu, bananas, seeds and whole grains. “Magnesium is a cofactor in a lot of the processes that make the chemicals that make us feel sleepy, and it’s got some muscle-relaxing properties, which creates a calming effect,” he adds.
- Tryptophan — An amino acid found in game meat, chickpeas, eggs, dairy, fish, peanuts, tofu, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and yes, turkey. Again, raw honey can help trigger the release of tryptophan. But the truism that it’s the turkey that makes you sleepy after a Thanksgiving meal is largely untrue. Turkey doesn’t contain that much tryptophan; it’s probably the overeating carbs and drinking alcohol that are knocking you out.
Honey, The Insomniac’s Friend
Honey not only contains magnesium and helps trigger the release of melatonin and tryptophan, but it also blocks the release of orexin (aka hypocretin), the neuropeptide that regulates wakefulness and arousal, says Dr. Winter. A good pre-bedtime ritual could be a drizzle of honey in hot herbal tea or warm milk.
Try the Mediterranean Diet
If you want to follow an overall diet that promotes good sleep, Dr. Winter notes that the Mediterranean Diet can provide balanced nutrition and many other health benefits, such as reduced cardiovascular risks. According to the Mayo Clinic, the Mediterranean Diet includes:
- Daily intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and healthy fats such as olive oil
- Weekly intake of fish, poultry, beans and eggs
- Moderate portions of dairy products
- Limited red meat
Other Pro-Sleep Tips
Whether you get them from your grandmother or the internet, some food-related sleep solutions might merit a second opinion (from an actual doctor this time):
True or False: Warm milk will make you sleepy.
True. “It has to do with two things: First, when you heat up your body, and then your body cools, that cooling process is a natural sleep promoter. Second, there’s a lot of proteins in milk that eventually make their way into that tryptophan pathway,” explains Dr. Winter.
True or False: Lettuce tea is a sleep aid.
Mixed: The latest Tik-Tok fad is boiling lettuce leaves in hot water and drinking the tea to help get to sleep. “There is a chemical in lettuce called lactucarium that used to be called lettuce opium. People have tried to medicalize the property, but there isn’t much science behind it. The hot water alone can be sedating. It can’t hurt to try. If it works for you, why not?” says Dr. Winter.
Foods that Disrupt Sleep
Sometimes it’s what you don’t do that counts. If you want a solid night’s sleep, stay away from or limit your intake of the following, especially when it is close to bedtime:
- Alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol will allow you to fall asleep, but you won’t stay asleep. Caffeine will keep you so wired that you just won’t fall asleep. And caffeine is not just in coffee and black tea; chocolate has a significant amount as well.
- Spicy and high caloric foods, especially late at night. Overeating, in general, is a bad idea because you will go to bed bloated, and it can cause gas, heartburn and indigestion.
- High carbs, such as processed foods, sodas, sugars, and chips. They may be sedating, but your actual sleep quality will be poor.
If you find you aren’t sleeping well, check your diet. You may be eating things that wreak havoc on quality slumber. With some simple changes, you could be back to snoozing the night away.