Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

Foods That Soothe You to Sleep

When you eat right, you sleep better, research shows.

whole grains
National Cancer Institute
“You are what you eat” is as true when you turn in at night as it is the rest of the day. The foods you choose may improve sleep quality and help prevent insomnia.

Research shows that sleep affects diet and weight. In particular, lack of sleep may wreak havoc with your eating habits, amp up your appetite, alter your metabolism, and increase your odds of becoming obese. Emerging evidence suggests that the reverse may also be true: Diet affects sleep. In particular, smart food choices may help you get a longer, sounder slumber.

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What the Research Shows

In a 2012 article in Nutrition Research, scientists from the University of Helsinki concluded that a sleep-promoting diet should be balanced, varied, and rich in:

  • Fresh fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Lean proteins

This type of diet provides plenty of B vitamins and the amino acid tryptophan—two things the body needs to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. To make the best use of tryptophan, the body also needs ample carbohydrates.

What It Means for You

So what does that mean for everyday food choices and eating habits? Recently, I chatted about this with Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, RD, a registered dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Below are her tips on how to choose foods that boost serotonin levels and get your brain and body ready for a restful night’s sleep.

Q: Are all carbs created equal when it comes to sleep?

Amy Jamieson-Petonic: No, different types of carbs affect sleep differently. Choose complex carbohydrates—the type found in 100 percent whole grain breads and pastas, oatmeal, brown rice, and dried beans and peas. On the other, avoid simple carbohydrates—the type found in pastries and other sugary foods, white breads and pastas, and white rice. When you eat these foods, you get big spikes and dips in blood sugar, and that doesn’t promote healthy sleep.

Q: What are some good choices for a bedtime snack?

Jamieson-Petonic: I recommend pairing a little protein with a complex carbohydrate; for example, natural peanut butter on a few 100 percent whole grain crackers, low-fat cottage cheese with a few 100 percent whole grain pita chips, or a little turkey or chicken on a mini whole wheat roll. Remember: This is meant to be a snack, not a meal, so keep it small.

Q: Why does the size of a late-night snack matter?

Jamieson-Petonic: You don’t want to add too many calories, of course. In addition, you don’t want your body busy digesting a big meal while you’re trying to sleep. It’s best to finish your last full-sized meal of the day at least three hours before going to bed.

Q: Does warm milk, herbal tea, or an alcoholic nightcap help?

Jamieson-Petonic: Just like Mom said, the combination of protein and carbohydrates in milk may soothe you to sleep. There’s also some evidence that chamomile tea may combat insomnia. But drinking alcohol close to bedtime can backfire. Although alcohol may help you nod off initially, it may also wake you up in the middle of the night and keep you from feeling rested and refreshed in the morning.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a writer who specializes in health, psychology, and the intersection between the two. Follow her on Twitter. Like her on Facebook.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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