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.