How did you sleep last night? I hope you effortlessly drifted off to dreamland and clocked around 8 hours. But if you didn’t, you’re certainly not alone. My restless nights creep in when I spend too many long, stressy hours at the computer and not enough time noodling and decompressing. Since I know how frustrating these nights can be and how crucial sleep is to our overall well-being, I wanted to continue the sleep conversation I started here.
There are many approaches we can take to improving our sleep, from creating a cozy snooze nest and reducing caffeine, to blocking out light leaks and exercising at the right time (here’s a refresher on my top ten tips). But today, I want to talk about how food can help our slumber. To start, it’s important to understand how our inner master clock works to help. This internal timepiece wakes us up in the morning and allows us to hit the hay at night.
The Circadian Rhythms
Sleep is regulated by two body systems—sleep-wake homeostasis and the circadian biological clock. These two systems come together to create our circadian rhythms, which are the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. They govern our sleepy and wakeful periods throughout the day. Here’s how each of them operate:
- Sleep-wake homeostasis: This system causes your need for sleep to increase the longer you’re awake. Basically, it’s a science-y way to explain that the longer you’re “up and at ‘em!” the more tired you get and the sooner you’ll feel the need to sleep.
- Circadian biological clock: This system is controlled by light and dark, causing you to be most awake during the day and sleepier as the sun sets and the day grows darker.
Here’s how these two systems work together to regulate your sleep:
- As dawn approaches, light triggers the brain to produce adrenalin, cortisol, and serotonin. These hormones help us wake up, feel energized, and regain consciousness.
- As the morning progresses, cortisol production drops and adrenalin and serotonin production continue to rise along with body temperature, helping us stay active and full of energy—zoom!
- In the late afternoon, our body temperature, metabolism, and energetic hormone production starts to drop helping us wind down in the evening. As light fades and evening progresses, the circadian biological clock signals the brain to convert serotonin to melatonin. As melatonin levels rise we feel more lethargic and sleepy (this is where melatonin-rich foods can be especially helpful). Off to dreamland we go!
- Throughout the night, melatonin continues to be released until the brain senses dawn’s gradual increase in light. That’s when melatonin production drops and the wake-up cycle begins again.
What does all of this have to do with food? Well, some foods promote serotonin production, while others promote melatonin production—both of which are critical to keeping this sleep system in balance. These foods are especially helpful to people who have trouble winding down, those who have insomnia, and those who have trouble staying asleep. In addition, melatonin levels decrease with age or even in summertime when it’s light out longer in the evening.
The Melatonin-Serotonin Connection and Your Food
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter made mainly in the walls of the GI tract, and it’s a big player in our sleep-wake cycle since it powers the production of melatonin. As I mentioned above, light increases the production of serotonin, while darkness triggers serotonin to produce melatonin. So it makes sense that serotonin levels are highest during the daylight hours and lowest or nonexistent during REM sleep.
Here’s where food comes into the picture. Even though serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, food can still have an effect on serotonin levels. How is this possible you ask? The key is actually tryptophan, an amino acid that’s needed to make serotonin. By eating more carbs, we effectively shuttle more tryptophan into the brain, which boosts serotonin production and therefore melatonin production. It’s a chain reaction. Whole grains, legumes, fresh fruit and other healthy, carb-y foods like baked oatmeal with berries, 100% whole grain bread with nut butter, baked sweet potato wedges, and brown rice with black beans will promote healthy serotonin production if eaten throughout the day.
Top 5 Food Tips for Better Sleep
In addition to trying these healthy sleep tips to promote balanced melatonin levels, you can eat certain foods to help your body make the right amount of melatonin and serotonin. Try integrating some of these plant-based superstars into your diet to see if they help you zzz.
1. Enjoy tart cherry juice, goji berries, and raspberries in the evening. These red wonders are loaded with natural melatonin. Try 4 ounces tart cherry juice, 1/4 cup dried goji berries, or 1/2 cup raspberries an hour or two before bed.
2. Snack on almonds and walnuts in the late afternoon or as a bedtime snack. Chock full of melatonin, a quarter-cup serving of these nuts can help your body wind down as the day draws to a close. A tablespoon or two of almond butter is also an awesome nighttime snack.
3. Get tropical for dessert. Bananas, pineapple, and oranges not only contain melatonin but also boost the body’s innate production. A scrumptious post-dinner fruit salad or green smoothie with these tropical delights can help your body easily get ready for dreamland.
4. Enjoy balanced meals throughout the day. An overall balanced diet that includes complex carbs and plant protein will promote healthy serotonin levels for optimal melatonin production. Make sure your diet includes whole grains (including millet, quinoa, and brown rice if you’re gluten-free), plant protein, and some healthy fats throughout the day.
5. Eat a healthy carb-rich dinner to get back on track. If you’re extra droopy or have a big day tomorrow, enjoy a high-carb dinner such as beans and rice with roasted veggies for an extra boost of serotonin and melatonin production.
thanks for all the tips!
I find that Rooibos (Redbush) tea helps me stay asleep. It’s not a sleeping aid but if I drink it (just half a cup as more it will have me waking up to go to the bathroom!) a couple of hours before bed it helps me relax through the night.
Yes Celia, Roiboos is one of my favorite things to drink and at night too. It is great for your liver and my integrated doctor once told me that your sleep meridian runs over your liver/gallbladder so anything that makes for a happy liver will make for happy sleep :-). Cheers to that.
Love your article! Just one question, with the tropical fruits such as oranges and pineapples, I thought due to their high vitamin C content, that we should avoid eating them later in the day as vitamin C increases energy rather than calming one’s senses before bed time.
Curious what your response is.
Hi, Tara. I had the exact same thought. Thanks for asking. I love the information here though. 🙂
Hi Tara! Megadoses of vitamin C can cause insomnia (2,000 mg or more). An average navel orange and 1 cup of pineapple chunks have about 80 mg vitamin C each. So, the energizing effect of those fruits shouldn’t be a problem. Hope that helps! xo, kc
I do not agree with your advice recommending anyone eat a high carb meal. Or anything that is high carb.
Read Dr.David Permutter’s book “Brain Grain”, work by Prof. Steve Phinney or Jeff Volek and by Prof. Tim Noakes and many other scientists and you soon see the affects that carbohydrates have on raising blood glucose levels and inflammation in the body. Conditions we should all be trying to avoid. Carbohydrates are the one macro-nutrient the human body does not need.
I read and know from experience that you must eat something containing carbs in the evening otherwise you feel hungry and end up waking up at night. I don’t think it has to be something very fatty but rather something small and filling and it really works
His book is more about grains than carbs. You can still have carbs at night – ideally complex carbs which don’t have to come in the form of grains, if you are trying to follow his plan.
“Carbohydrates are the one macro-nutrient the human body does not need.”
Can you cite your sources for this declaration, and hopefully more than one? I have heard nothing but the opposite from MANY well-known and respected professionals in the fields of medicine and nutrition.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, David. Too many simple sugars can certainly have negative effects. However, a balanced diet that includes whole grains, healthy high-fiber fruits, beans, and legumes can have a lot of nutrition benefits, including better sleep. Without healthy carbs, the high fat and high protein content of certain diets can raise blood sugar levels as they make your cells more insulin resistant. I’ve found balance to be most helpful when it comes to a diet that promotes sleep, so I’m suggesting to try having a meal that includes healthy carbs (the equivalent of 2 pieces of whole grain bread) in the evening for someone who is experiencing insomnia. Hope that helps! Kris
I agree, David. I have read Perlmutters book and other similar books regarding carbs, and grains, and how our bodies react.
Personally I have been low carb for almost four years, getting my carbs from vegetables and minimal fruit. I sleep great, moods are always good and no swings & concentration is right on. I swim, hike and multi-day backpack, mountain and road bike, do triathlons (sprint distance) – a 50 mile road bike race yesterday – all without a carby diet or pre-race (event) carb loading. My health checks and blood work come back better then they ever have in my life. I eat a delicious and varied diet. I used different veggies as a substitute for pasta (spaghetti squash or zuchinni for example). I bake goodies using different nut flours. If I happen to get into something carby, I will feel it. No matter the source.
I’m very excited to try out some of these foods to help me get better sleep! Ever since having my baby 5 months ago, I have a hard time falling asleep at night. I’ve also been hesitant about trying anything too aggressive since I’m still nursing her too. Thanks Kris!
Hope these tips help, Kimberly! Sweet dreams. xo
If I have a small amount of green juice at night it helps me sleep. The interesting thing is when I drink some in the afternoon it also perks me up. And, it’s all the same juice blend!
I always knew taking carbs with tryptophan supplements helped it be absorbed but i hadn’t thought about how carbs can help INNATE tryptophan be absorbed!
I had a client who said she couldn’t fall asleep if she had meat at night, and this makes sense now too since the high protein would compete with her tryptophan absorption.
I’m going to send her this link! Thanks oodles:)
Thanks for sharing, Ana! 🙂
I would add pumpkin seeds as an after dinner snack. They are full of magnesium which will help relax you before bedtime.
Can you please elaborate on the science behind having carbs at night and how they affect your cortisol, serotonin and melatonin? Also, can you please give an example of the “perfect” nighttime carb and the ideal time to consume them? Thank you!
Hi Pam, Here’s a great study discussing all these things! http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/85/2/426.full
Good info for other insomniacs:)
Thanks for this great information. I too can have difficulty getting to sleep. As someone dealing with cancer myself, the brain just starts to race sometimes. When I’m staring at the clock at 2 a.m., I get up and have a drink of warm almond milk with a bit of honey. It almost always helps.
Great tip, Rita-Anne. 🙂 I love a dash of cinnamon in my warm almond milk. xo, kc
I always find that drinking chamomile tea in the evening is perfect for winding down.
Love all the information you write, Kris! I’m a big fan xxx
Good tips, Kris–
I also give Vit. B some credit, as it helps nerves to relax.
What foods would you recommend in addition to legumes, yellow vegges, etc.?
Thanks, Portia. Yes, the B vitamins are all helpful when it comes to relieving anxiety and depression, as well as boosting mood. So they could certainly be helpful for sleep if it’s anxious thoughts keeping someone awake. And you’ll notice that many foods rich in natural melatonin are also good sources of B vitamins: almonds, pecans, whole grains, lentils, green peas, and dark green leafy veggies. xo, kc
Woot woot! Thank you for explaining the tryptophan – serotonin – melatonin relationship in such an elegant way. I feel that I “get it” now…sweet!
Thank you for shining your gorgeous light and smarts!
I have recently started running and I have found I am falling asleep so quickly at night and staying asleep all night. I love all your suggestions also!!! Really enjoyed the article, hope to make the conference in the summer. 🙂
I enjoyed your article. Although your chose of diet works for you Kim it’s not for everyone.
For example I was a vegetarian for over 20 years. Organic oatmeal w organic fruit in the morning, no protein. Some protein at lunch and usually high carbs for dinner. After 20 plus years my diet rendered my body type into exhausting adenral fatigue. My dietician pointed out for example the oatmeal and fruit I was eating without protein was quickly processing into sugar in the morning causing me to crash. I became familiar with the glycemic chart–listing what foods turn into sugar. I’ve needed to incorporate high amounts of protein and lose the bulk of my carb intake to heal my adenral fatique. To see if my health would improve I chose after careful thought and deliberation to break my vegetarian lifestyle one that I did without aid of a dietician.
What I am trying to say is many, many people are hailing vegetarianism and vegan diets as the healthiest diets we can be on without stating this way of eating needs proper instruction usually from a dietician so people with my body type insure they have enough protein. I have increased energy, mental clarity, I’m not experiencing highs and lows from carbs turning into sugar and don’t need my iron pills from increased protein in my diet.
Most of the foods you listed to eat for melatonin are high on the glycemic chart. If one’s health doesn’t do well with a carb dinner they can ingest melatonin and magnesium supplements 2 hours before bedtime.
Thanks for your input, Mphoenix. Before I dive in, I just want to clarify that my name is Kris, not Kim. Also, this article was never intended to act as a guide for how to go vegan.
I agree that a diet that’s out of balance in any way can negatively affect sleep, whether it be too little or too much protein, too many or too few carbs, too many simple sugars or high glycemic index foods, and even too few essential fats. And yes, if you’re following a plant-based diet, you may need to pay extra attention to protein—in fact, I’ve put together 2 blogs listing the best protein-rich foods and how to calculate protein needs here (http://bit.ly/1FZApMp) and here (http://bit.ly/1BvZ2vh) because I know this is often a concern. Same goes for iron—check out my blog on that here (http://bit.ly/1oXuVK1). But I’d also like to reinforce that including melatonin-rich foods will not put you over the edge on sugar as long as they’re part of a balanced diet.
Hi Kris thanks for this feature, was interested reading it. As many of your other articles! Do you recommend the same foods for toddlers or are there other things we can try? My three year old has just made he transition from cot to bed and he eventually gets to sleep but wakes up at 5am every morning! Eek! Before that he used to go to bed around 8pm and wake around 7am, and sometimes still have an afternoon nap. He has limited dairy intake and drinks oat milk. So probably more filling and lasting than dairy.
He is a picky eater at the moment but we try and give him a broad veggie and some fish in his diet.
Any tips that can help would be appreciated! Thanks very much
Great question! I checked in with my Crazy Sexy RD, Jen Reilly (also mom of 4!) about your question and here’s what she had to say. I hope it helps! “Like adults, kids need lots of exercise and a balanced diet throughout the day (including sufficient healthy plant protein to ensure fullness) to get a good night’s sleep. Your son may be starting to need less sleep, but the melatonin-rich foods should help him fall asleep more easily. If he’s picky, see if he’ll drink 2 or 3 ounces of tart cherry juice after dinner. You may also try a higher-carb dinner (like pasta, beans, and steamed broccoli) and then start the bedtime routine a tad earlier. I wouldn’t encourage melatonin supplements as studies have shown them to stunt growth in kids. Hope that helps!” – Jen Reilly, RD
Thanks so much for the explanation and the food info to help with sleep. My sleep practically stopped about 5 months ago and I couldn’t figure out why. I’ve tried so many things to get back on track and recently found that taking Melatonin pills was the only thing that worked. Now I know why.
I drink powered Magnesium before bed and it not only relaxes me but keeps me in a deep sleep. It seriously is the BEST! You can find it at any whole foods based store. There is a brand Calm and many others.
I for one, am totally confused. There are many studies that cite that the Paleo and like diets have cured many ailments. Joan Borysenko wrote a book about how she went on a plant based diet and had better health. However, at first she was on a vegan diet with lots of grains and she and her husband became overweight and ill. When they gave up all grains and legumes, they lost weight and lowered cholesterol etc….
I am curious, Kris, about what you think about her new book, and how to reconcile these opposing view on diets…..Paleo vs Vegan….Seems each one works for different people…
thank you so much for this Kriss – I experience insomnia a lot – so this is fabulous – you are so kind thank you for finding the time to write this – I love you xxx