Eating for Better Sleep

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Sleep: We love it, we crave more of it, and yet, few of us actually get enough of it. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s latest study, Americans sleep an average of six and a half hours on workdays, despite the recommended seven to nine hours most adults need. And the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that as many as one in five adults isn’t getting sufficient amounts of sleep.

While there’s no miracle food that can magically repay your sleep debt, research has shown that certain nutrients can help you in your quest to get more z’s. But it’s still up to you to carve out enough time for a restful night’s sleep.

Before stocking your fridge with sleep-friendly foods, remember these key points:

  • Timing of eating matters. Eating a heavy meal (especially one that’s carb-heavy) close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep, so try to eat your last meal at least a few hours before you hit the sack.
  • Alcohol and caffeine are notorious sleep disruptors. If you’re having trouble sleeping, try eliminating these culprits first. Caffeine can disrupt sleep even a whole day after consumption. You should also avoid doing any kind of vigorous exercise within three hours of your bedtime.
  • “Beneficial” foods aren’t miracle cures. Although the foods in this list may prove helpful, they won’t counteract the effects of drinking caffeine and/or alcohol, and late-night snacking, so be sure to curb these behaviors for best results.

With those caveats in mind, here are some foods that may make a difference:

Turkey (and Other Proteins) 

We’ve all heard the Thanksgiving lore that eating turkey will put you to sleep. The bird contains a substance called tryptophan, which contributes to post-feast sleepiness. But as it turns out, poultry actually doesn’t have much more tryptophan than other meats, and it contains less of the amino acid than other sources of protein like cheese, egg whites, and soy. Thanksgiving drowsiness likely has more to do with overeating and consuming a high volume of carbohydrates than with the turkey itself.

Besides snacking on tryptophan-rich foods alone won’t boost your brain levels of tryptophan. You’ll need to pair those foods with a small snack containing about 30 grams of carbohydrates–like one whole-wheat English muffin or one small baked potato–in order to make a difference.

How It Works: Tryptophan is one of ten essential amino acids that your body uses to make proteins. Tryptophan is required to produce serotonin, a brain chemical that helps regulate mood and relaxation. In turn, the body uses serotonin to create melatonin, a hormone that influences sleep and wake cycles. Turkey, chicken, cheese, yogurt, fish, and eggs are all great sources of tryptophan.

Jasmine Rice

study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that participants who ate jasmine rice four hours before bed fell asleep almost twice as fast as those who ate a different kind of rice four hours before.

How It Works: Jasmine rice ranks high on the glycemic index, a scale used to indicate how quickly foods raise your blood sugar. Eating a moderate amount of a food with a high glycemic load like jasmine rice, potatoes, or pumpkin a few hours before bed might help you get some rest by shortening the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. Researchers speculate this could be a chain reaction due to the rise in insulin that occurs after you eat carbohydrate-rich foods. Tryptophan competes with other amino acids to enter the blood-brain barrier. Insulin reduces the concentration of competing amino acids and allows for increased uptake of tryptophan.

Whole Grains

Whole grains like bulgur and barley, or any of the main ingredients in these whole-grain salads, are rich in carbohydrates and magnesium.

How It Works: As discussed earlier, carbohydrates are  key to helping tryptophan-heavy foods affect serotonin levels. As for the magnesium in whole grains, an article published in The Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine explains that even marginal magnesium deficiency has been associated with difficulty staying asleep.


Many people believe a warm glass of milk before bed is a surefire way to fall asleep fast. A single glass probably won’t put you to bed, but combining the milk with a light carbohydrate-based snack (like dry, unsweetened cereal) can help.

How It Works:  Milk also contains tryptophan, but the amino acid may not be solely responsible for producing that sleepy feeling. It’s the combination of protein-rich milk with carbohydrates that triggers increased insulin production and allows tryptophan to enter the brain more efficiently. Researchers also believe that the simple routine of drinking warm milk before bed can trigger a strong psychological association with sleep.

Tart Cherry Juice

randomized, double-blind study examining 15 participants published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that drinking tart cherry juice improved sleep duration in older adults who experienced chronic insomnia. Notably, the effects were modest but equal or greater than those observed in studies using of valerian and melatonin, two of the most-studied and commonly used natural products for insomnia.

How It Works: The authors of this study suspect the improved sleep duration is due to tart cherries’ relatively high melatonin content, and their anti-inflammatory effect on proteins called cytokines, which are involved in sleep regulation. 


Bananas are carbohydrate-heavy and rich in magnesium and potassium, which has been shown to improve sleep quality. If you don’t like them plain, try blending them into a delicious banana and blueberry smoothie.

How It Works: study published in the journal Sleep found that a low-potassium diet may lead to sleep difficulty, and potassium supplementation can correct the problem. Though the researchers state that the potential theories about why this occurs “remain highly speculative,” a possible mechanism for the study’s findings might have to do with potassium’s impact on circadian rhythms and rest-activity cycles.

Further Reading

For more sleep tips, don’t miss:

6 Yoga Poses to Help You Sleep

7 Habits of Highly Successful Sleepers

Insomnia Relief Without Medication

Natural Sleep Aids: Find Your Fit

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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