What is more important? Sleep or a healthy diet? Obviously, we need both for perfect health, but the answer is sleep, with nutrition coming in a close second.
Seen this way, it’s no surprise that our diet significantly impacts our sleep quality. This article will give you a list of eight scientifically proven nutrients and foods that you can easily find that will naturally help you sleep better.
However, before we jump into my eight favorite foods for better sleep, just a short disclaimer for those who have insomnia.
Why changing your diet may not cure your insomnia
When people develop sleep problems, they often think about whether it’s something like the mattress or the food they’re eating. Both are important for a good night’s sleep, but they are rarely the key to curing insomnia.
I myself had insomnia and know what it means to struggle with sleeplessness caused by stress, depression, worries, and anxiety. On those nights, I felt like I was living in one long day without knowing how a week went by.
I didn’t want to seek help from medications, so I started searching for other natural home remedies or foods, and I tried literally everything. However, at the end of the day, none of these remedies helped me long-term. It wasn’t until I took a mental approach that I was able to cure my insomnia in the long run.
Foods for better sleep don’t solve deep-rooted sleep problems
Think of it this way: Eating the right food will help prevent bad sleep, and if you suffer from poor sleep, you should keep an eye on your diet. Nevertheless, changing your diet alone cannot solve deep-rooted sleep problems. Especially if it’s worry and anxiety that keep you awake, you need to look for a mental solution to your insomnia.
So the foods I’m going to talk about in this article may support a good night’s sleep but aren’t necessarily the solution to cure chronic insomnia. With that in mind, let’s jump in.
#1 – Magnesium
Magnesium is essential to many of the body’s different functions because
- it enables healthy enzyme function
- it plays a crucial role in energy production and fueling the body’s cells
- it regulates the transport of calcium, potassium, and other vital minerals
- it helps muscles and nerves function properly
- it helps maintain a healthy heart rhythm
- it regulates blood pressure
- it aids bone development and guards against bone loss
- it serves as an electrolyte
Now here’s where it’s starting to get a little more connected with sleep; as magnesium also helps control our body’s stress response system, it contributes to stress reduction, mood stabilization, and relaxation.
This is because magnesium decreases the stress hormone cortisol that can disturb your overall nervous system and often causes sleep troubles. Therefore, restless sleep and frequent wakings are common symptoms of magnesium deficiency.
Whereas if you have healthy magnesium levels, you typically experience deep, restful sleep because magnesium plays a role in maintaining healthy levels of a chemical known as gamma-aminobutyric acids, short for GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes deep, restorative sleep.
Magnesium is a natural pain-killer
Another way magnesium helps with sleep is that it can relieve pain from lower back pain, fibromyalgia, and various headaches. Besides, research suggests that magnesium deficiency may cause some instances of restless leg syndrome, and increased magnesium intake may reduce RLS symptoms.
Now, you can easily get magnesium from foods – dark leafy greens, various nuts, seeds, fish, beans, and whole grains are all rich in magnesium. If you’re looking for a supplement option, you can do it internally or using it on your skin through a magnesium lotion.
#2 – Romaine lettuce
Salads might not be your traditional bedtime snack, but lettuce, especially romaine lettuce, contains a phytonutrient called lactucarium which is said to induce sleep, relieve pain and promote relaxation.
If munching on salad before bedtime is not appealing, you can always try brewing some lettuce tea before bedtime. Lettuce tea is said to be at least as effective as lettuce by itself because the extract contains magnesium and higher amounts of lactucarium.
#3 – Turkey
This may surprise you, but turkey meat or ham can help you before bedtime. Turkey meat has a few properties that explain why some people get sleepy after eating it. It promotes sleepiness primarily because it contains the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin, both of which induce sleep and quality rest at night (tryptophan, by the way, cannot be produced by the body and must be obtained through diet, especially from animal or plant protein sources).
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Now that’s not all because turkey is also very nutritious; it’s high in protein, providing almost 8 grams of protein per ounce of serving. This protein type is essential for keeping your muscles healthy and regulating your appetite during the night. Consuming moderate amounts of protein before bedtime is associated with better quality sleep, including less waking up through the night.
#4 – Cherries
Tart cherries are one of the few natural sources of melatonin, the much-touted sleep hormone known for its responsibility in regulating the body’s internal clock and sleep-wake cycle. Scientists believe that the combination of melatonin and the antioxidant properties of anthocyanins in cherries improves sleep quality.
In one study, researchers found that consumption of tart cherry juice improved antioxidant defenses in adults and reduced oxidative damage to nucleic acids. So go ahead and grab a handful of those cherries or a cup of sour cherry juice for some well-deserved good night’s rest.
#5 – Dairy products
The old saying of a warm cup of milk before bed wasn’t a total miss because dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, or a cup of milk contain a lot of calcium that helps your nervous system utilize the tryptophan found in dairy to produce melatonin which induces restful sleep.
In one study, adults who took 30 minutes or longer to fall asleep were given milk or cheese before bedtime, and the study concluded that dairy products effectively helped these subjects fall asleep faster. So listen to what grandma said and grab a glass full of milk before bed.
#6 – White rice
White rice is widely consumed as a staple food in many countries. The major difference between white and brown rice is that white rice has had that bran and germ removed, which are the most nutritious parts of the grain. This obviously makes it lower in fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants.
Although it may be less nutritious than brown rice, white rice has improved sleep quality in many people who take it before going to bed. It’s been suggested that eating foods with a high glycemic index, such as white rice, at least one hour before going to bed may improve sleep quality due to the glucose content. Why? Because our brains function a lot better when they have enough sugar to fuel during sleep at night.
For more details on the link between sugar and sleep, let’s move to my next favorite night food – honey.
#7 – Honey
This is an interesting one, and I’m going to expand a bit on the benefits of eating a tablespoon of honey before going to bed.
Are you trying to avoid carbohydrates in the evening to lose weight or because you think that’s healthy? Here is why this may be a bad idea.
Let’s say you had lunch or a snack in the afternoon, after which the carbohydrate digests into glucose and ends up in your bloodstream. Your pancreas then secretes insulin, sending a message to your liver to get rid of that glucose from your blood.
Later you go to bed without eating any additional carbohydrates. Now, keep in mind that your brain is extremely active while you’re sleeping. In fact, your brain is more active during sleep than during the day because that’s when many things happen in terms of brain function, like memory consolidation. So your brain is consuming a lot of glucose; and because you haven’t eaten carbohydrates in the evening, your blood sugar drops.
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This drop triggers a self-defense mechanism in your body that is thousands and thousands of years old. Our bodies were designed that when blood sugar drops, two things happen; first, the stress hormone cortisol goes up, and second, adrenaline, your fight or flight hormone, goes up as well. Why? Because from an evolutionary point of view, low blood sugar means you have to go hunt for food or find fruit, which means you have to get up and be active, so the exact opposite of lying in bed sleeping.
So your body is designed to increase those two hormones that give you that last bit of energy to go and find food. At night, of course, this means waking up with increased arousal in body and mind.
Honey stabilizes your blood sugar
The trick to avoid that kind of scenario is to make sure that your blood sugar doesn’t drop dramatically during the night – and here is where the tablespoon of honey comes in. It stabilizes your blood sugar throughout the night and prevents cortisol and adrenaline from spiking, allowing you to sleep soundly through the night.
One more thing about honey – make sure it is raw honey and not processed, heated, or pasteurized honey. Honey, in general, has excellent antimicrobial benefits, but those get eliminated if you process or heat honey. So make sure that the honey you get is high-quality, raw honey. I know it’s a little bit more expensive but trust me, it’s worth it – not just for sleep but for your overall health.
#8 – Chamomile
The all-time classic chamomile tea has been used as a natural remedy to reduce inflammation, decrease anxiety and treat insomnia because it is commonly regarded as a mild tranquilizer or sleep inducer.
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Chamomile contains various bioactive phytochemicals that can provide therapeutic effects. They bind to receptors in the brain that cause a relaxation of your nerves and muscles and give you a soothing effect. When I drink chamomile half an hour before bedtime, I generally have an easier time falling asleep.
Also, I love the ritual – turn down the lights, start winding down while sipping some tea, so even if the ingredients in the tea aren’t helping, that ritual prepares your mind for bedtime.
What are foods to avoid that could disturb you from a good night’s sleep?
We all know to stay away from coffee or other caffeinated drinks at night. The following list contains some lesser-known foods you should avoid before going to bed:
- Grapefruit – basically any acidic citrus fruit will be included as these can cause heartburn during sleep.
- Fibrous vegetables such as celery or broccoli – they’re very healthy for you, but since they contain a high level of fiber, they put your digestive organs to work while sleeping
- Heavy proteins such as steaks can also qualify for the same reasons because protein takes longer to digest
Lastly, if you enjoy a nice glass of wine or alcohol, you want to consider skipping the nightcap. Alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but it disrupts you from getting quality sleep because alcohol will distract you from REM sleep. Lack of REM sleep can affect your concentration, memory, and motor skills. So if you want quality sleep, it’s best to stay away or drink the least 4 hours before bed.
Key take away
So there you have it; those were my top 8 nutrients and foods for better sleep, as well as some foods you’re better off avoiding.
None of these things will probably change your life immediately, but they’re worthwhile. They are safe and inexpensive, and easy to access and use. Remember that people have done these simple health hacks for all known human history because lack of sleep has been a problem throughout human history.
Give it a shot and experiment a bit – it’s definitely better than relying on pills. Sleeping pills won’t get you where you want to be and are, in fact, harmful when used longer-term.
And if you’re interested in taking a mental approach to improving your sleep, check out my popular online course The DIY Insomnia Cure.