Ever wonder why some nights you can’t make it 10 minutes into your latest Netflix obsession without falling asleep, while other nights, you fall down a rabbit hole of cute puppy pictures at 2 a.m? (We've all been there.) Sure, there are a number of psychological conditions associated with sleep disruption, but it could also be linked to what you eat. Before we dive into the unsettling truth on how your diet impacts your sleep, let’s tackle some of the most common assumptions about sleepy-time food.
1. Do I need to eat Thanksgiving-level amounts of turkey to get better rest?
It’s reasonable to assume that passing out after your favorite large meal is linked to the generous portion of overcooked meat you just inhaled, but research suggests this might not be the case. We’ve all heard about tryptophan—the magical amino acid found in abundance in so-called sleep-aids like turkey. Tryptophan is known to increase the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin, which in turn is converted into sleepy-time hormone melatonin.
A variety of studies have found that tryptophan supplementation may help improve sleep at doses as low as 1 gram, while 2.5 grams may help improve obstructive sleep apnea. So turkey dinner = naptime, yes? Well, not so fast.
A typical 3-ounce serving of turkey only contains 250-310 milligrams of the stuff, which is a far cry from the 1-gram standard to show a significant effect. It also appears that when tryptophan is present with other competing amino acids in protein-rich foods (yes, like turkey), it tends to get overridden, and very little of it actually gets to the brain. The bigger coma culprit? That carb-laden marshmallow topped casserole, mashed potatoes, rolls, and pie—all of which elicit an insulin response that helps our friend tryptophan do its job. Sorry, turkey, you’re no longer the star of our Thanksgiving slumber dreams.
2. Does a nightly tea ritual help induce a deep slumber?
There’s something inherently calming about sipping on a warm cup of tea in bed, but research is inconclusive about its clinical effects. While one small study found chamomile tea helped women improve their sleep quality, another found no difference between drinkers and non-drinkers. Similarly, Valerian root tea has been used as a natural insomnia remedy for centuries, but a review of the literature suggests the research has been riddled with inconsistency, inconclusiveness, and poor methodology.
What about the lavender your grandmother swore by? Again, the research is spotty at best. While two studies found the herbs to provide modest improvements in nervousness and relaxation, after four weeks it seems they had little impact. We say grab a cup for the soothing, cozy factor and douse your pillow in a lavender spray if that seems to help you, but don't bank on that every night to knock you out.
3. Should I take a cue from a newborn and sip warm milk before bed?
While a glass of warm milk may be emotionally comforting, like the turkey situation, it’s physiological role in sleep is likely just not strong enough to make an impact. Milk has even less of that sleep-inducing tryptophan than turkey, just about 100 mg per cup. It’s also rich in protein which may, again, decrease the amino acid’s effectiveness at inducing sleep. Still, people have been downing (and swearing by) the dairy drink for years, so do what works for you.
4. Should I forgo the chocolate and cheese after dinner to avoid disruptive dreams?
Research has found that when asked, people cited dairy products and chocolate as the most common causes of vivid, bizarre, and disturbing dreams, but these findings were based on perceptions, not actual causation. Sure, if you find that certain foods disrupt your slumber, maybe indulge a little earlier in the day, but there’s little evidence to suggest they actually have an effect. Chocolate does contain small amounts of caffeine but not likely enough to keep you tossing and turning.
Best Foods for Sleep
OK, so if turkey and milk aren't surefire solutions, what the heck can you eat to lull yourself into a sweet slumber? Here's what you need to know about the best foods for sleep.
- Tart Cherries
Strange as it sounds, drink some tart cherry juice before bed. Tart cherries contain significant amounts of anti-inflammatory substances and melatonin. One pilot study found that drinking tart cherry juice may improve the sleep in insomniacs, while another study found that they could even benefit already good sleepers (you lucky dogs, you). If you’re looking to indulge, opt for a juice without any added sugar like the options from R.W. Knudsen, Stoneridge Orchards, or Eden Organic.
- Jasmine Rice
While most nutrition recommendations urge you to cut back on the high-glycemic index (GI) carbs, restless nights may warrant a legit exception. White rice, like jasmine, is higher on the GI scale, triggering a release of insulin which drives the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan into the brain. One study found that consuming jasmine rice within four hours of bedtime helped significantly improve sleep quality for participants. Make sure you’re enjoying your rice with a source of protein and without too much soy sauce or other sodium-laden condiments to prevent you from chugging down water before bed and getting up to pee all night long. Sushi date, anyone?
Packed with vitamins C, E, folate, and the happy-happy brain chemical, serotonin, kiwis are a surprisingly powerful bedtime fruit. One study found that four weeks of eating kiwi two times per day improved the sleep onset, duration, and efficiency of adults with sleep disturbances. If you’re more a fan of sweet than sour, try switching the classic greens with the Sungold variety, which have a flavor somewhere between a mango and strawberry.
Known as the nut with the most melatonin for sleepers struggling with an anxious mind, a modest ounce of pistachios also contains about 10 percent of your daily magnesium needs to help ease any physical tension too. One study found that supplementing with the natural muscle relaxant, magnesium, improved the sleep time, efficiency, and levels of melatonin in elderly participants. We love the No Salt Wonderful Pistachios flavor for a low-sodium mindful bedtime snack.
It wouldn’t be a nutrition article if we weren’t singing the praises of omega-3s somewhere. As if you need another reason to up your fish game, research suggests it may help your bedtime routine too. One study found that taking an omega-3 supplement helped children get an extra hour of sleep each night. Not sure where to start? We love all of these seven simple salmon recipes you can’t screw up.
Vegans know how to get a good night’s sleep. As the richest source of the plant-derived compounds isoflavones, tofu makes for some serious bedtime eats. One cross-sectional Japanese study found that people with higher intakes of isoflavones tended to report longer and better sleep. For an easier-to-digest vegan meal, opt for a sprouted tofu product like the one from Sol Cuisine or Trader Joe’s.
Worst Foods for Sleep
While you would likely need to eat a fair bit of the aforementioned foods to see a marked improvement in your sleep, the opposite might be true for these sleep inhibitors. In fact, depending on your sensitivity to certain foods, it’s not uncommon for even small amounts consumed too close to bedtime can throw a wrench into your nighttime routine. Consume these with some caution.
OK, so this is a bit of an obvious one, but it still likely warrants a reminder. A standard cup of coffee contains about 100 milligrams of the stimulant caffeine, which research suggests has a dose-dependent impact on sleep. Think you’re in the clear with post-dinner decaf or tea? Maybe not (?!). Depending on your tolerance levels and how much you drink, a cup of decaf can pack around 15 milligrams of caffeine, and a black tea has about 50 milligrams per cup. While everyone’s experience is different, try limiting your cup of joe to before noon and to keep your intake to no more than 400 milligrams of caffeine each day.
- Porterhouse Steak
TBH, there are a lot of sleep roadblocks going on here. One is the portion size. We all know that lying down after wolfing down a big meal never feels great, as our digestive tract struggles with the load. Two, we’ve got a heck of a lot of fat to deal with in a steakhouse meal. Fat is tough on our digestive system and stimulates heartburn-inducing acid to help break things down. There’s also research linking saturated fat, the type found in well-marbled beef, with lower-quality sleep. Yikes. And three, talk about a massive dose of protein. Our bodies are really only able to utilize about 30-40 grams of protein per meal so there’s no need to eat a 16-ounce piece of meat with more than 100 grams in one sitting. Research suggests that a protein-heavy meal can actually reduce the availability of tryptophan in the brain for conversion into the relaxing hormone serotonin. We suggest sticking to modest 3-4 oz servings of meat and choosing leaner cuts like tenderloin and sirloin whenever possible.
- Candy Crush
We know straight-up sugar isn’t great for us in general, but more and more research suggests that it can also impact our sleep. Early research has found that consuming super high-sugar, low-fiber foods (like candy) shortly before bed may be associated with lighter, less-restorative sleep with more evening arousals (and no, not the sexy ones). And this really isn’t surprising. Sugar spikes our blood sugar, giving us a massive jolt of energy while sending us crashing down shortly later and desperate for a snack mid-sleep. If you need your bedtime candy fix, we love innovative gummies Smart Sweets, which rock an impressive 24 grams of fiber and only 2 grams of sugar per bag (no artificial sweeteners either). Side note, you should also stop playing Candy Crush before bed too.
- Chili Peppers
Go ahead and spice things up in the bedroom but keep the heat out of your food. Early research has found that spicy foods consumed with dinner markedly increased participants’ total wake time and the time it took to fall asleep. Spicy foods like chili peppers contain the heat-inducing compound capsaicin, which can irritate your digestive tract and promote acid reflux and sleep-impairing indigestion. It’s also speculated that chili peppers may slightly increase body temperature, which may also play a role in poor shut-eye.
- Pepperoni Pizza
You might want to re-think your 3 a.m. post-bar snack if you’re hoping to sleep off those drinks. Like the steak, downing a greasy pizza often means a heavy dose of saturated fat, which takes its toll on your digestive system while you sleep. Not to mention, a lot of pizza toppings like olives, cheese, and pepperoni are loaded with salt, increasing your thirst and, in turn, you need to get up to pee. We say skip the nightly takeout and make these healthier pizzas instead.
- Salt and Vinegar Chips
Alas, another bedtime triple threat. Loads of salt cause the regular bedtime bathroom visits, while the heavy dose of fat can cause indigestion and heartburn. Finally, acidic foods like vinegar can aggravate acid reflux, keeping you uncomfortable all night long. Need your chip fix? We love the low-salt Food Should Taste Good sweet potato tortilla chips.
Keep these tips in mind when it comes to planning your evening meal and you’ll be on your way to Sleepyville in no time.