‘I’m a Sleep Expert, and Here’s What I Wish Everyone Knew About the Most Effective Way To Eat for Restful Sleep’

Photo: Stocksy/Susan Brooks-Dammann
After endless hours of tossing and turning, checking the clock repeatedly, and losing count of way too many sheep, winding down for the night to catch some Z’s can quickly become a stressful event. We know all too well how frustrating this can be. Aside from tried-and-true ways of getting in the right headspace—like listening to a guided meditation or practicing lengthened breathing exercises—to achieve a solid state of relaxation, knowing what to eat before going to bed can also play a role in how sweet your dreams will be.

To learn more about how to eat for restful sleep, we spoke with Shelby Harris, PsyD, a sleep expert and the author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia, about her bedtime routine, the best foods for sleep, and common misconceptions about how foods impact the way you’ll sleep. Plus, for an extra relaxation-inducing recipe, she shared her favorite smoothie featured in the Well+Good Cookbook to help you sleep like a baby and wake up feeling as refreshed as ever.

Experts In This Article

A sleep expert’s bedtime routine

According to Dr. Harris, getting a good night’s rest depends a lot on what you do before you even go to bed. Although the ideal nighttime routine will naturally vary from person to person, Dr. Harris shared her own step-by-step recipe (no pun intended) with us for winding down in the evening and preventing waking up once you finally fall asleep.

“I have two kids, ages six and 12, so we tend to eat dinner a bit earlier than some people would," Dr. Harris says. "Dinner is usually around 5:45 or 6 p.m., and we eat pretty simply, [like] roasted vegetables, seafood, or meat that’s grilled. I then have a snack about one hour before bed, and that often is some Greek yogurt with low-sugar granola." She explains that the carbohydrates from the granola and the protein from the yogurt are a great combination for bedtime. To ensure she sleeps soundly through the night, Dr. Harris says she opts for a small snack about one hour before bed, which helps keep her stomach feeling settled throughout the night.

What common misconceptions do people have about eating and sleep?

Ever heard that eating before bed isn't good for you? Dr. Harris says this is a myth she's had to debunk time and again, and that you should actually avoid going to bed on an empty stomach. Of course, every now and then, we can get too wrapped up in a new Netflix show, and the next thing you know, it’s well past midnight and your stomach’s rumbling. But before you flip the light switch off and hit the hay, she recommends nibbling on something light before dozing off.

This is because, according to Dr. Harris, going to bed hungry can make it harder to sleep throughout the night. “I’m a fan of a small snack that’s a balanced mix of carbs and protein—that mix is what’s best for sleep, not simply a carb-heavy food,” she says.

When picking between the snack options in the pantry, Dr. Harris says that it isn’t just the carbs that make you sleepy, but rather the combination of a lean protein and a low-sugar complex carbs that really hits the sleep-inducing sweet spot. However, she does emphasize not to have a huge snack before going to bed that can make you feel overly energized or restless as you try to drift away. "Instead, eating something small is generally all you need to feel relaxed and ready for bed," Dr. Harris says.

Dr. Harris also notes that while a pre-bedtime snack can certainly help you sleep, eating during the night generally does the opposite. "Your digestive system slows down once you go to sleep at night, as it is conserving energy. A small snack an hour before bed is great, but try to avoid anything in the middle of the night,” she says. According to Dr. Harris, eating a mid-sleep snack once you’ve already slowed your digestion can lead to heartburn and restlessness when you go back to bed.

So what are the best foods for sleep?

Dr. Harris says her own go-to pre-bedtime snacks are nuts, seeds, eggs, bananas, cherries, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products that are high in protein (like low-sugar Greek yogurt). Foods high in protein like yogurt and nuts help keep you from getting hungry in the middle of the night, which lessens your tendency to wake up throughout the night. Meanwhile, fruits like cherries are loaded with melatonin, which has been associated with improved sleep duration and quality in healthy adults. Plus, potassium-rich bananas also have high levels of magnesium (which can help muscles relax as you rest) and tryptophan (yes, like turkey) for an even more comfortable sleep.

Aside from the previously mentioned snacks, Dr. Harris recommends making her favorite Sweet Dreams Shake featured in the Well+Good Cookbook. It’s a luscious combination of bananas, oats, and chocolate protein powder that will help prime you for the most restful sleep you’ve ever had.

Sweet dreams shake recipe

Yields 1 serving

1 cup unsweetened almond milk, chilled
1/4 cup mashed ripe bananas (about 1/2 banana)
2 Tbsp instant oats, softened in 2 Tbsp warm water for 2 minutes
2-3 Tbsp chocolate micellar casein protein powder

1. In a blender, combine the almond milk, banana, oats, and casein powder. Blend until smooth and creamy.

2. Pour into a tall glass and enjoy.

In the need for even more restful sleep-inducing recipes? Check out this herbal tea recipe to help calm you for a great night's rest:

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