Sleep issues affect most of the population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three Americans don’t get enough sleep (1), (7).
To be healthy, you need a good night’s sleep ideally every night or at the very least most of the week. Insomnia creates a marketplace for many different sleep aids like Ambien and a countless number of other prescription sleeping pills. But these pills can often make quality sleep worse (2). That’s because many sleeping pills negatively affect long-term hormonal health, which can throw off sleep (10).
Insomnia often happens because of stress (8), (9). When your body is ready for bed, melatonin in the brain naturally activates to put you to sleep. However, if you are too stressed out, the stress hormone cortisol competes with melatonin and can keep you awake (3). Lack of sleep affects every aspect of your health from energy and stress to immunity and metabolism control, as well as much more (11).
Adults should get between seven to ten hours of sleep each night for optimal health (12). Everyone is different in how much sleep they need to feel rested. While one person may feel rested with seven hours, another may need 10. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one is healthier than the other; they’re simply different in their needs (13).
Summary: It’s important to get adequate sleep for optimal energy, immunity, metabolism, and much more. Stress impacts sleep which can affect your health long-term.
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Foods that Help You Sleep
So how can we get to sleep without relying on pills? One way is to manage your eating habits and diet (14). There are many natural alternatives to sleep like melatonin, valerian, and magnesium, but the food is a great place to start. If you suffer from insomnia, now’s the time to see if your diet is lacking in sleep-inducing foods.
Check out the list below to see if you need more of these powerful foods to help you sleep better each night.
1. Some Fruits and Vegetables
Melatonin is a hormone that’s essential for the best sleep possible. There’s good news for those with insomnia. There are many foods healthy foods high in melatonin (4), (15). If you are struggling with sleep, try one of these food groups to get some quality sleep.
- Tart cherries
Most other fruits and vegetables are typically exceptionally lower in melatonin, compared to the ones listed above (15), (16). But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily bad for sleep. Read below to learn more. Try to eat all the foods mentioned at least a few hours before bed. A full stomach can negatively affect sleep due to the digestion process (17).
Tip: Sip on tart cherry juice with dinner, add tomatoes and peppers to salad or soup, or have a snack of grapes and walnuts before dinner to boost melatonin levels in the evening.
2. Animal Protein
Tryptophan is another powerful hormone necessary to get adequate sleep (18). Tryptophan and melatonin are particularly high in animal-based foods. Here are some foods you may be missing out on to get more sleep in your life.
- Turkey: There’s a reason Thanksgiving dinner can make everyone sleepy; it’s the high amount of tryptophan.
- Chicken: This low-fat meat is high in tryptophan.
- Salmon: Salmon is a healthy part of a balanced diet made for sleep due to high melatonin.
- Tuna: Packed with tryptophan, tuna is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, too.
- Eggs: Eggs are full of melatonin, unlike most meat.
- Sardines: Sardines are a heart-healthy food full of melatonin, tryptophan, and magnesium.
These animal proteins are also rich in protein and essential amino acids, which are necessary for optimal health and wellbeing. A nutrient-dense diet is a critical part of getting a healthy night’s sleep (19).
Tip: Add protein to your meals and snacks to make sure you’re getting enough protein and amino acids, especially tryptophan, which will help promote better sleep.
Spirulina is extremely high in the crucial hormone of tryptophan and melatonin. For these reasons, this superfood can be a powerful sleep aid for many. For the proper function of the circadian rhythm, melatonin is essential (20).
Melatonin also helps to reduce oxidative damage in the body, making it a necessary component to quality sleep. Several studies confirm that spirulina can be a potent sleep aid due to its high content of vital sleep hormones (20).
Spirulina is also a potent health food for many reasons. One study shows spirulina intake creates higher levels of melatonin in the muscle tissue, and even promote weight loss among participants (5).
Tip: Toss some spirulina powder into a smoothie, muffin mix, or even pasta sauce to get more sleep-supporting tryptophan and melatonin into your diet.
4. Nuts and Seeds
Many nuts and seeds are high in melatonin, magnesium, and tryptophan (6). Check out the list below to see what nuts and seeds you can start incorporating into your diet today. Nuts and seeds are also high in vitamin B6, which helps convert tryptophan into melatonin in the body more efficiently (21).
- Brazil nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Mustard seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Use these nuts and seeds as a snack, or add them to your favorite breakfast like oatmeal, cereal, or yogurt. Or, you can simply add it to smoothies for easy consumption. Nuts and seeds are full of many essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, such as fiber, vitamin E, selenium, and more (22). They are an easy way to get in more nutrition and to sleep faster.
Tip: Incorporate a handful, or about 1/4 cup, of nuts and seeds into your daily diet. Pistachios are especially high in melatonin, which can support good sleep habits.
5. Oats, Whole Wheat & Grains
Whole wheat like wheatgerm can be exceptional food to help you get more sleep. That is because it is high in melatonin and tryptophan (23), (24).
- Rolled oats
- Steel-cut oats
- Rice and Barley
Whole Wheat & Grains:
- 100 percent whole-grain bread
- Whole grain pasta, bread, cereal
Whole grains that are 100 percent grain are also helpful for sleeping for their high melatonin content. Not all whole grains and whole wheat are equal, though. Wheat bread doesn’t have the bran and germ, which hold most of the melatonin (24).
Be sure to limit your intake of refined carbohydrates and traditional whole wheat if you’re having a hard time getting to sleep at night.
Tip: Have a small cup of hot oatmeal with cherries and pistachios before bed for a melatonin-boosting snack.
Chocolate fans rejoice in the benefits of this delicious treat. It’s not only great for inducing sleep, but it’s also an effective antioxidant that can help with many other health struggles (25), (26).
Traditional cocoa and cacao are full of sleep-inducing hormones and minerals like magnesium, tryptophan, and melatonin (27). The combination of these three can generate a faster sleep onset and help promote a better, more restful sleep throughout the night. That’s because a lack of these essential nutrients and hormones can affect your overall sleep quality (28).
Aim for dark chocolate that’s at least 50 percent dark or higher for the best health benefits. Stay away from extra sugar-laden chocolates because they can spike blood sugar, leaving you hyper instead of sleepy.
Tip: Add 70% dark chocolate or cacao to your dessert menu after dinner to boost magnesium, tryptophan, and melatonin.
Calcium helps the brain make more melatonin, so it ultimately helps you sleep better. Since melatonin releases at night, eating calcium-rich foods helps ensure that it can happen (29).
Dairy is also a naturally relaxing food, widely known in ancient Ayurvedic medicine. That’s because of its filling and satisfying nature, and it’s a direct association with a mother’s cultivating milk (29). Many dairy products are great to start if you are having trouble sleeping. Some of the healthiest options are below.
Healthiest Dairy Products:
- Unsweetened yogurt
- Organic milk
- Cottage, mozzarella, and cheddar cheese
- Feta, goat, and Manchego cheese for those with cow’s milk allergies
Tip: Try a glass of warm milk before bed to jumpstart melatonin production, or add it to some hot chamomile tea.
8. Beans and Legumes
Legumes are another food especially high in tryptophan (30), the essential hormone that helps create initial sleep and deep sleep. There are many different legumes you can add to your regular diet for easy consumption.
- Kidney beans
- Garbanzo beans or chickpeas
- Black beans
Add these easy-to-eat beans to many dishes as you normally would with meat. You can swap out meat occasionally for beans and legumes. That way, you still get a heart and satisfying protein-rich meal, full of the strong sleeping hormone, tryptophan.
Tip: Incorporate tryptophan-rich beans and legumes into your daily dinner, such as black beans in tacos or lentils in chili or soup.
9. Dark Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens are an effective dietary staple that can help you sleep better. These vegetables are naturally high in calcium, vitamin B6, and more. Although they don’t have much melatonin, they have nutrient-dense components that help the body create more melatonin and tryptophan (23).
- Dandelion greens
- Bok choy
- Swiss chard
- Collard greens
Try to vary these vegetables as much as possible to get more nutrients and minerals that vary within each dark leafy green. Some have more B6 than others, while some have more calcium. Pay close attention to what your body may need more of. Dark leafy greens are a helpful dietary staple for those who can’t get calcium from milk, too. Everyone can benefit from the health benefits of dark leafy greens (31).
Tip: Make it a goal to add a serving of cooked or fresh green leafy vegetables to your lunch and dinner to help stimulate production of melatonin.
Quality sleep each night is essential for optimal health and wellbeing. There are many ways to get more sleep. Try some of these foods if you suffer from insomnia or even more subtle sleep issues. Another thing you can try is deep relaxation techniques. This can calm down the stress response and help to release more melatonin in your brain when it’s time for sleep (32).
Sleep affects many areas of your health, and it can help create more energy, stamina, and much more. Lack of sleep over a long period is dangerous for your health. It can lead to chronic health conditions that affect the heart, liver, and more (33).
Make sure to get adequate sleep of at least seven hours each night. If you find it hard to get that, make sure to consult a healthcare professional to see how you can improve your sleep naturally.