There’s no shortage of good sleep hygiene tips from experts that can send you off to dreamland faster. But there’s another suggestion you’ve probably grown up hearing about but may never have given much attention to: drinking warm milk before bed.
Whether you’re a big milk fan or not, giving a simple sleep aid method a try might not sound so bad. But does it actually work?
Not only do the nutrients in milk stave off hunger and build strong bones (like the commercials always told us), they may actually have an effect on sleep.
“There are different theories on specific nutrients related to milk and sleep,” says Terri Verason, MS, RDN, FAND, VP of nutrition education for the Dairy Council of Arizona. One popular theory has to do with milk’s content of tryptophan, the compound you probably associate with Turkey Day naps.
“Tryptophan is a precursor for serotonin and may be the effective compound in milk that helps promote relaxation and sleep,” says Verason. “But whether there’s enough in milk to make much difference is not really known.”
If there is enough tryptophan in milk to boost serotonin, it could affect yet another sleep-inducing chemical: melatonin.
“Serotonin aids in the production of melatonin,” says dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES. “Having milk in the evening may help aid the body to produce melatonin, which prepares the body for a quality night’s rest.”
Another possible explanation for milk’s sleepy-time vibe? Its impressive protein content of 8 grams per 8 ounces. Some research has found that eating a higher-protein diet could improve sleep. However, Verason notes that milk proteins have not been specifically studied.
It might seem logical that fat content would also play a role in milk’s impact on sleep, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
“The fat content of milk should not impact the sleep benefits since the levels of tryptophan and calcium would not change,” says Palinski-Wade — so go ahead and choose anything from skim to whole.
Scientific explanations aside, incorporating a soothing mug of warm milk can be an effective part of a nighttime wind-down ritual. Because there’s really no wrong way to chill the heck out after a stressful day.
For a lot of us, there’s a je ne sais quoi relaxing quality to the sensation of warmth, while we often associate the feeling of cold with energy and wakefulness. (Just think of how a cold shower wakes you up no problem.)
Science says the same may apply to the effects of having warm versus cold drinks before sleep.
“Although there has been no research comparing milk temperatures and the impact on sleep, warm beverages can have a calming and soothing effect on the nervous system, which may make warm milk more effective for helping you fall asleep,” says Palinski-Wade.
As for other nighttime drinks, like tea, temperature matters more. One study found that antioxidant levels were highest in white tea when steeped hot for a lengthy stretch, in green tea when steeped cold, and in black tea when steeped briefly in hot water.
While antioxidants may not be the ticket to quicker sleep, they reduce inflammation, which can lead to better sleep.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of tea, you may prefer to alternate your milky nightcap with a brewed cuppa. Research shows that some teas, like chamomile and ashwagandha might help fight insomnia.
As nightly habits go, you could do a lot worse than drinking milk before bed, especially as part of a calming evening routine. But you may wonder if having a glass every night has unintended consequences, like weight gain.
“A glass of milk at night should not lead to weight gain if it’s balanced within your daily calorie needs,” says Palinski-Wade. “If this is a concern, try adjusting the portions of your evening meal slightly to accommodate the additional glass of milk as a snack later in the evening.”
Also, if you’re going to make milk a regular nightcap, there’s one other important habit to keep up with: brushing your teeth! Even though the sugar in milk (aka lactose) is naturally occurring, it can still lead to tooth decay if it sits on your pearly whites overnight.
If you’re in the sizable slice of the population who have lactose intolerance, a bedtime glass of milk may sound like a recipe for digestive disaster. But never fear! There are plenty of nondairy options for sleep-inducing nighttime drinking (no, not that kind of nighttime drinking).
In addition to stress-relieving teas like chamomile, ashwagandha, and valerian, consider a cup of cherry juice. A large scientific review found that cherries were associated with improved sleep in four out of four studies.
Or, if you’re craving that signature milky texture, swap the dairy for a higher-fat alt-milk like cashew or soy. Bonus: a serving of cashew milk can contain 20 percent daily value of magnesium, known to help promote relaxation and improve sleep.
These drinks may not contain tryptophan, but their creaminess and warmth might be just as soothing as milk for winding down (plus you can blend in things like powdered ashwagandha for a delicious moon milk.)