Best foods for helping you to sleep
What are the best foods for sleep? From lavender pillow mists to sleep-inducing apps, there are a lot of things we can do to help our sleep, yet we rarely consider our diet.
If you’re struggling to nod off at night, it could be worth looking at the foods you’re eating. Nutrition can play a surprisingly big part in our sleep quality, as we explain here.
How to eat for sleep
Before we look at the best foods for sleep, there’s something to be said for how and when we eat. Big dinners are traditional, but they’re often not the best way to wind down at the end of the day. While being full may make you feel drowsy, this is only temporary. Your body has to work harder and longer to process your supper. This means our digestive systems will continue to work, even while we’re asleep.
There are several ways to fix this. The first of which is to eat earlier. Try bringing your dinner forward, giving your body time to fully digest before you go to bed. It can take around six hours for food to pass through your stomach. Eating earlier can be healthy in several ways. It may also give your body longer between meals and help it to burn fat.
We can also reimagine the size of our meals. Most of us will save our biggest meal for dinner time, having had a small lunch and breakfast. In reality, it might help with our sleep to reverse this entirely. Eating more filling meals earlier in the day gives us energy when we really need it and means our bodies do the digestive heavy lifting while we’re still awake.
Best foods for sleep
As well as eating at the right time, we should also be aware of what we’re eating. When eating for sleep, there are certain compounds to look out for. The best food for sleep are the ones that help to produce our sleep-regulating hormones, such as melatonin and serotonin. Foods rich in magnesium are also great for falling asleep faster and improving sleep quality.
Cherries, particularly tart ones, contain a good amount of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone released by your brain that helps to regulate your sleep cycle, making you drowsy at night.
A small study in 2012 found that individuals who supplemented with cherry juice were more likely to have better sleep. The researchers say that this effect could be due to the melatonin content of cherries. Further research in 2018 also found that cherry juice improved sleep in individuals struggling with insomnia.
The ritual of a warm, caffeine-free drink is a great way to wind down at the end of the day. The contents of chamomile may help to support our sleep too. Chamomile teas and extracts contain a flavonoid called apigenin. It’s thought that these antioxidants may bind to receptors in the brain, easing anxiety and helping us to feel sleepier.
Passionflower tea may be another good option before bed. It also contains apigenin, the same compound found in chamomile that makes us feel drowsy.
Serotonin, one of our happiness hormones, is also a chemical that plays a role in helping us to sleep. Research suggests that vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids work together to regulate our production of serotonin. Eating oily fish is rich in both vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, making them a great option for supporting your wellbeing.
Some nuts may also play a role in helping us to drift off. Walnuts, like oily fish, also contain important omega-3 fatty acids to promote our sleep chemicals. Nuts – such as Brazil nuts – can be helpful sources of magnesium, which studies show may contribute to better sleep.
It’s thought that magnesium helps with sleep by activating the parasympathetic nervous system – the system that helps us to feel relaxed. It also helps to regulate melatonin.
What to avoid
Needless to say, caffeine can be one of the worst offenders when it comes to staying awake. Caffeine is a natural stimulant. It’s great for keeping you alert in the morning, but not so good when you’re trying to nod off.
As we explain in our seven step plan for better sleep, set a caffeine curfew six hours before bedtime. The effects of caffeine can last for a lot longer than we think. Look out for secret sources of caffeine too, like chocolate.
Spicy foods tend to be high in a compound called capsaicin. It’s found in everything from chillies to mustard. The hot sensation of eating spicy foods is actually raising your body temperature.
Our body temperature falls when we’re about to fall asleep. By artificially raising your body temperature, you fend off the drowsiness.
Very sweet foods before bed can be a problem as they give us an energy boost and spike our blood sugar levels. Even if we’re able to fall asleep with all this energy, it’s likely that your sleep will be disturbed. Having sugar before bed could reduce your deep sleep and increase the amount of times you wake up in the night.
Similarly, salty foods may impact our sleep too. High salt content can make us feel dehydrated and also cause water retention. This disturbance can compromise the quality of our sleep, not least if we’re getting up in the night for a glass of water.
A study found that those who ate salty crisps and nuts before bed were more likely to feel fatigued the following day.