Wondering whether certain foods can affect your sleep patterns – or if eating certain things could actually help improve your sleep?
The relationship between diet, sleep and overall health is two-sided, says Gabi Zaromskyte, registered nutritionist and founder of Honestly Nutrition. “Meaning what we eat and drink affects our sleep, but also, the quality and duration of sleep can affect our food choices,” Zaromskyte explains.
“Scientific research has increasingly shed light on the significant impact of dietary choices on cognitive function, mood, and overall physical and mental health,” she adds.
Certain dietary patterns and specific nutrients have been found to influence the sleep-wake cycle, sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep), and sleep architecture (the different stages of sleep), notes Zaromskyte.
She continues: “And the quality and timing of our food and beverage intake can impact the production of sleep-regulating hormones, such as melatonin, which plays a critical role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle.”
However, as Dr Maja Schaedel, co-founder of The Good Sleep Clinic points out, it’s important to understand that most research done so far shows that even though certain foods may be higher in melatonin, that does not necessarily equate to falling asleep quicker.
“You may have higher levels of melatonin, but if you’ve got stuck in a bad habit of tossing and turning for two hours before drifting off, or waking at 3am and not being able to return to sleep, foods high in melatonin are not going to solve your problem,” says Schaedel.
She suggests that generally, it’s best to eat your evening meal at least two hours before bed, to avoid any indigestion, spikes in blood sugar and increase in body temperature that can occur while digesting.
“If you tend to get peckish later in the evening, then plan a snack an hour or two before bed,” Schaedel adds. “It’s best to have something high in protein, like Greek yoghurt or nuts, and low in complex carbohydrates to avoid any spikes and falls in blood sugar.”
Also, it might be wise to avoid the usual culprits which can trigger discomfort. “Fatty and spicy foods can cause heartburn and indigestion which can hinder good sleep, as well as alcohol, caffeine and tobacco,” says Lisa Artis, deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity.
Here, experts share their go-to foods for supporting healthy sleep…
“Cheese gets a bad reputation as it’s commonly believed to give us nightmares, but actually it’s the opposite,” says Artis. “Cheese, and other dairy products, contain tryptophan, an amino acid which helps us to nod off more easily, and calcium which helps to reduce stress.”
To find out if foods with naturally occurring melatonin make a difference for you, Artis suggests giving cherries a go – particularly tart cherries, which have been found to naturally boost the production of melatonin.
Zaromskyte says several studies have shown significant improvements in sleep quality and duration when consuming Montmorency cherries or tart cherry juice, where the concentration of naturally occurring melatonin and phytochemicals is higher compared to whole cherries.
3. Low-sugar cereals
“Cereal can also help us to sleep – but we must be mindful of the type of cereal,” says Artis. “There are lots of sugary options on the market, so try to avoid these.”
She says complex carbohydrate-rich foods increase the availability of tryptophan in the bloodstream which, in turn, may help us to nod off.
Bananas are an excellent source of magnesium, potassium and tryptophan, says Artis. In other words, a great choice when it comes to supporting sleep.
“While bananas have lots of great qualities for sleep, all fruit contains sugar too, so be mindful of this in the run-up to bedtime,” she notes. “Try blending one banana with one cup of milk or soya milk to make an ideal evening drink.”
“Almonds are a brilliant source of calcium and magnesium, which promotes both sleep and muscle relaxation,” says Artis. “Magnesium also helps to regulate melatonin levels and keep blood sugar levels stable overnight.”
6. Magnesium-rich foods
Magnesium, an essential mineral, has been found to play a crucial role in sleep regulation – and can influence sleep quality and duration, says Zaromskyte.
“It acts as a co-factor in more than 300 enzymatic reactions in the body, including those involved in the production and regulation of neurotransmitters and hormones that impact sleep.”
Some magnesium-rich foods cited to help improve sleep quality include pumpkin seeds, spinach, almonds and dark chocolate (which is packed with health-enhancing antioxidants too).
7. Omega-3 rich foods
Although research is limited, some evidence suggests foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids may promote better, longer sleep, says Zaromskyte.
“For example, walnuts are a source of melatonin and other sleep-regulating compounds, such as an amino acid tryptophan and omega-3 fatty acids,” she says. “Other omega-3-rich foods include oily fish, like salmon, trout, mackerel and sardines, chia seeds and flaxseeds.”