Getting enough sleep can affect how well we think, learn, act, and feel, and it is crucial for maintaining good physical health. But sleep does not always come easily. Insomnia can affect anyone, and people who work swing shifts can have difficulty adjusting their sleep to their changing schedule. Based on recent studies, some foods can positively impact sleep. By integrating some of the following foods into your diet, you may be able to achieve more consistent sleep patterns and wake feeling more rested.
Almonds are a good source of melatonin and magnesium, which are reported to promote sleep. The body produces melatonin naturally in response to darkness to help with the timing of circadian rhythms and sleep, but exogenous melatonin can have the same effects. Studies show that melatonin supplements can improve the onset, duration, and quality of sleep. As for magnesium, research has shown that a moderate magnesium deficiency can contribute to disrupted sleep; eating foods rich in magnesium, like almonds, can help correct any deficiencies. Studies into almonds' effect on sleep are sparse, but one study in rats found that almonds may have "significant sedative and hypnotic effects", showing that they may be a possible treatment for insomnia.
Eating foods rich in tryptophan improves sleep quality. Turkey has been widely said to make people sleepy, but you would have to eat an entire turkey breast to get about 400 mg of tryptophan. Research shows that amounts of tryptophan greater than one gram can help improve sleep quality, which means you would have to eat more than two turkey breasts to get the soporific effects. If you want to take in some tryptophan to help you sleep, turkey may not be the best choice: a quart of whole milk has about 730 mg, a quart of 2% milk about 550 mg, and canned tuna about 470 mg.
Chamomile tea has traditionally been used to treat insomnia due to its calming effects. Researchers believe this to be because chamomile contains a chemical called apigenin, which binds to the benzodiazepine receptors in the brain. While there aren't many clinical trials on how effective chamomile tea is, one small older study resulted in ten cardiac patients reporting they fell into a deep 90-minute sleep immediately after drinking chamomile tea. Another study from 2011 found that people who consumed 270 mg of chamomile twice a day for 28 days woke up less often at night and fell asleep 15 minutes faster than the control group.
Research shows that kiwi can significantly affect sleep. In one study, people who consumed two kiwis an hour before bedtime for four weeks fell asleep 42% faster than when they did not eat anything before bed. There were also slight improvements in how well they slept through the night and total sleep time. Kiwis have many other health benefits, too. They are low in calories, may reduce inflammation, and are a good source of vitamin C, folate, and potassium.
Tart cherry juice can impact sleep length, likely due to its melatonin and tryptophan content. An older 2010 study found that study participants drinking 240 ml of tart cherry juice twice a day reported statistically significant improvement in insomnia and a 62-minute improvement in waking after falling asleep. A more recent study revisited the effects of tart cherry juice on sleep and found it led to a 84-minute increase in sleep time.
Fatty fish, like herring, anchovies, salmon, mackerel, or sardines, is essential to a healthy diet. Some research at Harvard shows that eating one or two servings of fatty fish a week reduced the chances of dying from a heart attack by a third, primarily due to the high omega-3 fatty acid content. Fatty fish are also a a great source of vitamin D. Both omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D are known to help regulate serotonin, which may help with sleep quality.
Walnuts are a great snack that may help regulate sleep. They are loaded with healthy fats and contain melatonin. One study involving undergraduate college students found that eating walnuts for 16 weeks had a positive effect on sleep as well as self-reported levels of depression, stress, and overall mental health. At the third and final study visit, participants reported significant improvements in the ease of getting to sleep, sleep quality, and awakening from sleep.
Although there are few studies into the effects of passionflower, there is some research that suggests it may be an effective sleep aid. One double-blind placebo-controlled study found that low doses of passion flower teas can produce short-term sleep benefits for healthy adults with some fluctuation in sleep quality. Research shows that passionflower may increase GABA or gamma-aminobutyric acid. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that blocks specific signals to the nervous system and has a calming effect that can encourage sleep.
The effects of high glycemic index (GI) foods like white rice on sleep are not completely clear, but some research suggests that they may improve sleep quality. Researchers theorize that foods with high GI could change the ratio of tryptophan to other amino acids circulating in the body as a result of increased insulin after eating high-carbohydrate foods. That said, studies into the effects of carbohydrates have mixed results. Some studies found that participants who had a high-GI meal four hours before bed had a 48.6% reduction in how long it took them to fall asleep, while other studies found that high GI foods may be a risk factor for insomnia.
Some research has indicated that the quality of carbohydrates can impact sleep quality; specifically, higher-quality complex carbohydrates have been linked to better sleep quality and a lower risk or insomnia than simple carbs. Carbohydrate intake can influence the synthesis of melatonin and serotonin, which can affect sleep quality. Complex carbohydrates include nuts, seeds, and whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain breads.
Lean proteins, like chicken, tuna, and pork, may contribute to better sleep. One study used dietary intervention to investigate how macronutrients affect sleep. Researchers found that study participants on a high protein diet (56% of energy from protein) over four days had fewer waking episodes and fell asleep faster than those on the control diet. Scientists speculate that this may be due to the tryptophan content in protein, but more research is needed.
Healthy, unsaturated fats have been found to be beneficial for heart health and have anti-inflammatory properties, improving overall health. These healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids, may help regulate serotonin, which can contribute to sleep quality. Serotonin is involved in switching the brain between REM and non-REM sleep, so it can affect sleep quality. Foods high in these heart-healthy fats include seeds, nuts, avocados, eggs, fatty fish, and dark chocolate.
Studies have found that moderate magnesium deficiency can contribute to disrupted sleep. Eating foods that are good sources of magnesium, like spinach, nuts, seeds, and peas, can help correct any deficiencies and help you get a better night's sleep. A recent analysis of studies about magnesium and sleep found there is an association between magnesium and sleepiness, snoring, sleep duration, and falling asleep during the day, but a well-designed randomized clinical trial is needed to examine the relationship better.
It may sound almost cliche to recommend a cup of warm milk before bedtime, but milk contains tryptophan, which, as we've covered, can help with sleep duration and quality. Various herbal teas also make a suitable evening drink, including chamomile, passionflower, lavendar, and valerian tea. If you are concerned with getting a good night's sleep, avoiding caffeinated drinks before bed, including coffee, caffeinated soda, and black or green tea, can also be beneficial.
There is no clear answer to how long before sleep you should stop eating. Avoiding large meals before bed can contribute to obesity and other health issues, but some recent research found that small, low-energy, nutrient-dense foods less than 200 kcals before bed may have positive effects on sleep. If you are looking for a nighttime snack, try something small that may help you sleep better, like a handful of nuts or seeds, a kiwi, or a hot cup of chamomile tea.
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