After a couple of hours of laying in bed restlessly tossing and turning, frustration can start to run high. That said, there are tons of simple ways to boost your sleep—like sipping on a cup of tea or meditating. We recently spoke with Nilong Vyas, MD, a sleep expert at Sleepless in New Orleans and a medical review expert at SleepFoundation.org, who delved into the powerful role food can have on the quality of your sleep. What’s more, Dr. Vyas gave us the low-down on what to buy when at the grocery store to ensure a good night’s rest is only a bite away.
- Nilong Vyas, MD, founder of Sleepless in NOLA and a medical review expert for SleepFoundation.org
Fact: The three most important compounds that regulate sleep can be boosted by what you eat
According to Dr. Vyas, our chances of getting quality rest are affected by various compounds found in the body, many of which are highly impacted by the foods we eat. “Many hormones and chemicals in the body regulate the sleep-wake cycle, and certain foods can help augment those regulatory hormones for optimal sleep,” Dr. Vyas says. That said, there are three essential compounds to remember when picking the best foods to promote better sleep. “The substances that aid with sleep are the sleepytime hormone melatonin, an amino acid tryptophan, and the mineral magnesium,” she says. Fortunately, foods with these compounds are not only great for sleep but also beneficial for a well-balanced diet.
1. Foods that boost melatonin levels to support circadian rhythms
You may already be very familiar with melatonin—a hormone produced in your brain that can affect sleep—especially in the form of supplements. Melatonin regulates your circadian rhythm, aka the natural sleep-wake cycle that tells your body to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. As light decreases, your levels of melatonin increase, helping you fall asleep.
Occasionally, some may look to gummies and other supplements for an extra boost of melatonin to achieve better rest. That said, Dr. Vyas notes that melatonin is likely prevalent in many popular foods. This includes two grocery staples: eggs and fish. “Eggs and fish are both responsible for increased serum concentrations of melatonin,” she says. However, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, Dr. Vyas says other foods, like tomatoes and bell peppers, are great melatonin-rich options, too. Nuts (especially pistachios and walnuts) have some of the highest melatonin levels available in food, too—and are easy to keep on hand to snack on before bedtime.
Nuts (especially pistachios and walnuts) have some of the highest melatonin levels available in food, too—and are easy to keep on hand to snack on before bedtime.
2. Foods rich in magnesium to promote relaxation
Along with melatonin-rich foods, Dr. Vyas recommends stocking up on foods with high levels of magnesium when on the quest to achieve a deep slumber. “Magnesium is a mineral in the body that aids in muscle relaxation, which is essential for achieving restful sleep,” she says. Foods high in magnesium include dark leafy greens and nuts, like almonds and cashews.
“Also on the list to boost magnesium levels are avocados and dark chocolate. However, be mindful not to consume dark chocolate within three hours of sleep as it also contains caffeine and theobromine and may keep those sensitive to it awake,” Dr. Vyas adds.
3. Foods filled with tryptophan for increasing sleep hormones
Of course, after a big Thanksgiving meal, it’s not surprising that many folks fall into a gentle food coma. That’s partially because some foods, like turkey, are high in the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the body’s relaxation hormones—serotonin and melatonin. In addition to turkey, Dr. Vyas also recommends tryptophan-rich foods like chicken and chia seeds. What’s more, research also suggests that foods high in tryptophan can simultaneously help fight against inflammation and promote gut health—a win-win.
When should you consume these foods for the best sleep benefits?
According to Dr. Vyas, giving your body at least three to four hours to digest a heavy meal before hitting the hay is important. As a rule of thumb, she suggests consuming these foods one to two times per day for at least five days and up to two hours before bedtime to help increase circulating levels of these chemicals in the bloodstream. However, she notes that more research needs to be conducted to know the precise amounts for each food group to increase the levels in the blood of the hormone or mineral.
As a rule of thumb, she suggests consuming these foods one to two times per day for at least five days and up to two hours before bedtime to help increase circulating levels of these chemicals in the bloodstream.
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