While getting a good night’s sleep depends on a myriad of factors, including mental and physical health, nutrition undoubtedly plays a role. There are certain foods that may be beneficial when you eat them in the hours leading up to sleep.
“What happens is that typically about an hour or two before bed, our melatonin levels start to rise,” says Dr. Erica Jansen, research assistant professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Michigan. Melatonin is the hormone that initiates the sleep cycle. “A lot of the foods that are really touted as having an impact on sleep are foods that might increase the melatonin levels in the body,” Jansen says.
While eating a full meal before bed can disrupt sleep, eating a light snack of one of the following foods may help bolster melatonin, and in turn, improve your sleep. Nutritionists say you may need to try different ones to see what works for your body and what doesn’t.
Foods rich in tryptophan
Tryptophan is an amino acid that you can only get through food. It helps the production of serotonin, which elevates mood and also makes you tired.
“Turkey is high in tryptophan, which is a precursor to melatonin,” Jansen says, referencing that post-Thanksgiving drowsiness many of us are familiar with.
A common misconception is that turkey is the only food high in tryptophan, which is not a typical go-to evening snack. Other foods like milk and various nuts also contain the amino acid, says Dr. Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Consider: milk, oatmeal, cottage cheese, cashews, pistachios, chia seeds, sunflower seeds
Foods rich in magnesium
Other nutrients, like magnesium, are involved in regulating melatonin, and therefore, may help facilitate sleep, experts say.
Magnesium is found in many dairy products, grains and nuts and most people consume a sufficient amount. Still, if you have a nighttime craving, reach for a food high in this mineral.
Consider: avocado, brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, edamame, almonds, non-fat yogurt
Many nutritionists recommend fruit as an evening snack because eating whole foods that contain a host of nutrients can help facilitate sleep. Kiwi and cherries, for example, may be good alternatives to highly processed snacks before bed. Kristine Dilley, lead outpatient dietitian in nutrition services at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, suggests topping non-fat yogurt with fruit because the addition of fiber and protein in yogurt make for a more satiating snack.
Consider: kiwi, cherries, bananas, pineapples
If you have a craving in those hours leading up to bed, nutritionists recommend eating complex carbohydrates that aren’t highly processed and offer vitamins and filling fiber.
This type of carb can actually make you feel sleepy, says Dr. Katherine Beals, associate professor of nutrition and integrative physiology at the University of Utah.
Consider: whole-wheat crackers, whole-grain cereal, whole-grain toast
“A way to simplify is to focus on eating whole foods such as lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, nuts, or seeds while avoiding processed foods as much as possible,” Dilley says. “Whole foods provide many nutrients that processed foods lack, which can help with both sleep and mood.”
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