What to eat to improve your sleep according to the experts
There's a clear relationship between nutrition and sleep and making the right food choices is the first step. We asked some nutritionists to explain what to eat when you can't sleep. Additional reporting by Sarah Orme
When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep we don't normally think about what we eat for dinner. The general consensus is: don’t eat too late, don’t eat anything too rich or sweet because your body won’t have time to digest it properly, having a post-dinner coffee is probably a bad idea unless your body can process caffeine efficiently and alcohol is also a stimulant, so best to avoid too much of that. And as the old wives tale goes, don’t eat cheese before bed because it will give you nightmares (there is actually some truth in this one, but more on that later).
What we eat and drink has a direct effect on how we sleep and there are lots of foods that help you fight insomnia. But we should actually start thinking about it a lot earlier in the day because what we eat for breakfast is, in fact, already preparing us for bedtime. “Sugar is the main culprit for the highs and lows that we can experience throughout the day,” explains Charlotte Watts, author of Good Mood Food (Nourish Books). “We crave sugar enormously because it gives us an instant energy fix and it’s also self-soothing. But then we are sent into a cycle of highs and lows, in sugar levels and in mood, which can continue through the day and into the evening.”
The key is to start the day with what Charlotte calls a “sustainable breakfast,” that will leave us feeling fuller for longer. “Something with a good amount of protein,” she says. “If someone isn’t vegetarian or vegan I would be looking to have eggs or fish or even some meat, if it’s good quality or well sourced. If you’re vegetarian that might be Greek yogurt, which is protein high and lots of nuts, or if someone’s vegan then definitely lots of nuts and protein sources like quinoa. Starchy carbs and grains tend to fill us up so we feel physically full but they are not as sustaining.”
Fatty food isn’t off the menu – as long as it’s healthy. “Choose healthy fats containing Omega 3,” says Charlotte. “For dairy options, try to choose goat or sheep’s milk as they’re actually easier to digest than cows’ milk. Things like avocado and coconut are a good form of healthy fats too. The brain is a very fatty organ and it is satisfied by dense fats.” If we eat a sustainable breakfast and lunch, we’re also less likely to experience the dreaded 4pm energy slump. “Often when we have cravings around then, whether it’s junk fats or sugars and salty foods, it’s a reflection of what’s happened earlier in the day,” says Charlotte.
So what can we do to stop ourselves grabbing a quick fix? “Protein rich foods like nuts and seeds are really good,” Charlotte says. “Metabolically, our bodies start to prepare for bed at about 4pm.” So if you feel yourself fading at that time, try to reach for a snack that will both soothe and sustain you, rather than one that will keep you on a sugar rollercoaster ride for the rest of the day. It’s also not just what you eat but when you eat.
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There is a new wonder word on the sleep scene too: magnesium. “Magnesium is deemed as the calming mineral that works alongside calcium in the nervous system,” says Charlotte. “Modern stress is psychosocial by nature and rather than a bear coming at you in a cave, there is now a lot of worry and rumination. When we’re up in that constant level of survival mode, we use up a lot of nutrients and minerals and the one that is absolutely key is magnesium. Anyone who has anxiety or anxiety-related issues can really benefit from eating magnesium-rich food and perhaps also taking a magnesium supplement.”
Foods that will give you the magical magnesium shot include nuts and seeds (those again), fish, green leafy vegetables, lettuce and dill. “Dill comes from the Norse word ‘to lull,’” says Charlotte.
Many of us have no problem going to sleep – it’s the staying asleep part that we struggle with. If you’re prone to waking up in the middle of the night, again it could be a result of that long-forgotten chocolate fix you had at 11am the previous day… “Blood sugar highs and lows during the day also set up waking-in-the-night tendencies,” Charlotte explains. “If we can’t sustain even levels during the day, we are on a steep downward trajectory when we go to bed. This means we can hit a low before morning and this hypoglycaemia prompts a release of adrenaline to prevent us dropping into a low blood sugar coma. This is when we can wake suddenly in the small hours of the night with worries, fears or even thinking something is in the room, as we are waking to this immediate stress-fear hyper vigilant response where our senses are suddenly ramped up on alert.”
And let’s face it, imagining there’s an intruder in the house or magnifying a work call that didn’t go well into a horror show of career-ending proportions isn’t going to see anyone waking up the next morning feeling refreshed and ready for the day ahead. If you are prone to waking in the night, Charlotte advises a small ‘sleep snack’ before bed to sustain blood sugar levels. Oatcakes, apples, celery sticks with peanut butter or even a cup of soup are all good choices.
When choosing the right foods to help you get to sleep, think about the neurotransmitters they contain. “Serotonin has a central role in sleep-cycle regulation, so basing a light supper around tryptophan-containing foods – such as bananas, chicken, milk, sunflower seeds, tuna, turkey and yoghurt – from which we produce serotonin – can help to promote sleep,” says Charlotte. “Serotonin levels rise to calm us down in the evening and then we produce the sleep hormone melatonin from serotonin, which governs our circadian rhythm. Melatonin is also an important antioxidant, one of the reasons why getting enough sleep is anti-ageing. Celery soup is the perfect sleep-inducing supper.
“Research has shown that celery is also known to soothe the nervous system and has sleep and anti- anxiety remedies,” she explains. “Celery activates the parasympathetic nervous system and it also helps to produce a neurotransmitter called GABA,” Charlotte says. “We also produce GABA when we meditate or do a mindful practice like yoga.”
But if you want a night of uninterrupted sleep, stay away from cheese. “Cheese has high levels of something called tyramine, which can disrupt levels of sleep. So those old wives tales are built on something!” Charlotte says.
“If you feel agitated in the evening or struggle to get to sleep, it may be worth eliminating foods that are high in tyramine,” she adds. “This amino acid (protein building block) increases the release of norepinephrine, a brain stimulant that interferes with the ability of the nervous system to calm and move towards sleep states. Foods that contain tyramine include cheese, chocolate, aubergine/eggplant, potatoes, sauerkraut, sugar, processed meats and fish (such as smoked or cured), tomatoes and red wine. Essentially anything aged, dried, fermented, salted, smoked or pickled can be high in tyramine, so if you struggle with sleep, it may be a good idea to save the sourdough bread, sauerkraut and Parmesan for breakfast or lunch!”
What drinks help you sleep?
Rob Hobson, who is a nutritionist and the author of The Art of Sleeping, says that we should also consider adding a sleep-inducing drink into our bedtime routine. Drinks that help you sleep include warm milk with honey or valerian tea. "Valerian has often been used to treat anxiety and I find it helps me to sleep. There's one I've got this just pure hops and valerian and it is really strong, but you could also get it in a tincture. That's quite good. It's really really smelly. It's like old socks but it really does the job to get you to sleep! Passionflower is another one to look out for and lemon balm. There are some preparations that use all of these in the same tea. They work on your olfactory system to help calm the mind so they're all worth a go."
If you like herbal teas, it's worth trying chamomile before you go to sleep. “Drinking chamomile tea or sleep teas that include this herb help to keep us asleep by raising levels of the neurotransmitter glycine,” says Charlotte. “It is effective not just before bed but has an accumulative effect when chamomile is regularly ingested, reducing anxiety and allowing us to sleep through the night.”
Milk with honey is another great choice, according to Rob: "Milk and honey is quite quite a good one because there's a an amino acid called tryptophan that goes up into the brain helps to make melatonin. So you get tryptophan in milk. To help tryptophan up into the brain, you need to eat carbohydrates, because there's a lot of competition between the amino acids so they all go and leave tryptophan to make its way up freely. So if you add your honey, it could be a good combination to instigate melatonin production." A hot chocolate may also be a good option, but Rob warns that it might not be beneficial if it's too sugary.
But what about drinks we should avoid at bedtime? Caffeine should be high up on the list. It generally takes around four hours for our bodies to metabolise caffeine, but Rob says that for some people it could take eight to ten hours to get it out of their system. "If you're struggling with your sleep, it's a good idea to avoid caffeine after midday. And it's not just in coffee – you find caffeine in lots of other foods and it's even in chocolate. Tea is another one. And even decaffeinated coffee still contains a little bit of caffeine."
If you're a tea drinker then green tea is a better choice than black tea, but Robs says it still contains some caffeine.
He also recommends avoiding alcohol at bedtime: "People think that they're going to sleep really well if they drink, but it can have the opposite effect. Alcohol can dehydrate you, which can lead to you getting up in the night. It can also affect your REM sleep, which is the part of your sleep where your brain is processing thoughts – it's the part of the sleep cycle where you dream."
Read on to discover what foods can help your sleep and try some of Charlotte's recipes…
Looking for more ways to improve your sleep? Check out our collection of sleep meditation apps, learn how to beat insomnia, listen to our Sleepy Time meditation podcast for children or try our pick of the best sleep masks.
What are the best foods for sleep?
Looking for foods that help you sleep through the night? Adding these sleep-inducing foods to your diet could help you get more rest. Opt for magnesium-rich foods including green leafy vegetables, legumes, broccoli, nuts and seeds, bananas, figs and citrus fruit.
- Greek yoghurt
- Leafy green vegetables
- Citrus fruit
3 recipes to help you sleep
Carrot soup recipe
Sometimes we feel we can only digest a light dinner in the evening – soups make a great comforting meal. Make your own homemade carrot soup.
Warm noodle salad recipe
An easily digestible dish reduces the energy needed for this process overnight. Find out how to make your own nourishing noodle salad at home.
Turmeric and chamomile hot milk
Combine calming chamomile with reassuring warm milk. Make yourself a cup tonight using Charlotte's recipe.
About our sleep experts
As a nutritional therapist with over 10 years experience, Charlotte says that we must look at the whole body in order to understand the connections between what we eat, how we live and our health. Drawing on her own expertise and practices of yoga, mindfulness and meditation, Charlotte aims to help others with busy lives and quick brains who often find it difficult to switch off. Discover Charlotte's nutrition tips to help you cope with stress and anxiety.
Rob Hobson is a nutritionist with over 15 years’ experience and is a regular contributor to newspapers, magazines, TV and radio in the UK. After years of struggling with insomnia, he began researching different approaches to achieving the best possible sleep. Listen to our interview with Rob Hobson on the In The Moment Magazine podcast.
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Featured image by Unsplash/Nadine Primeau.
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