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The 7 Best Foods for a Better Night’s Sleep, Say Dietitians

September 4, 2022
Photo by pure julia on Unsplash

For as long as we can remember, folklore has held that eating certain foods will influence your dreams. For example, legend says eating the Welsh cheese dish rarebit will cause strange and bizarre nighttime visions. Or avoid spicy food if you don’t want nightmares. While science hasn’t nailed down the exact effects of your dinner on the content of your dreams, one thing’s for sure: certain foods can be considered the best if you want a quality night of sleep.

Considering how many of us suffer from insomnia, we’d say that’s a very good thing. Research shows that up to one-third of the adult population has trouble getting a good night’s rest. Fortunately, there are plenty of edible options for better shuteye that are far more pleasant than popping a sleeping pill. (We’re not just talking turkey! Though the Thanksgiving bird contains the famous tryptophan, it’s actually not the highest source of this sleepy-time amino acid.)

Here are the best foods for sleep that will improve your nighttime rest.

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1. Warm milk

Grandma may have been onto something with the warm-milk-before-bedtime routine.

“Milk is one of the few foods that has shown promise when studied for its role in sleep promotion, so if you struggle with falling asleep at night, you may want to try adding it to your nighttime routine,” says Kris Sollid, RD, senior director of Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council.

The reasons for milk’s sleep-inducing effects are, like the drink itself, a bit cloudy. Cow’s milk contains high amounts of tryptophan, which is a precursor of serotonin. This feel-good hormone is known for promoting relaxation, which could be instrumental in helping you nod off. Or it may be that milk’s high protein content of 8 grams per 8-ounce glass contributes to better rest. Plus, a higher-protein diet has been linked with more solid sleep.

As for the advice to heat up your milk for nighttime sipping, this appears to be more folk wisdom than nutrition science.

“While drinking warm milk before bed may be calming for some people, the temperature of the milk itself does not appear to alter its sleep-inducing potential,” says Sollid.

2. Chamomile tea

You can just about guarantee that every tea sold with “sleep” in its name will feature one common ingredient: chamomile. So does a warming cup of tea really help you unwind? Research shows it may be worth a try.

Numerous studies have investigated this herbal remedy’s impact on sleep—some with encouraging results. In one experiment, nursing home residents who received a large dose of chamomile extract slept better than those in a control group. (It’s worth noting, though, that the dosage was larger than you’ll probably get from a cup of tea.)

In another study from 2015, postpartum women with poor sleep were instructed to drink chamomile tea for two weeks. After this period, they had better measures of nighttime rest and fewer symptoms of depression.

3. Tart cherry juice

Pucker up! Tart cherry juice is another potential answer to tossing and turning.

“Several small studies have found that tart cherry juice does improve sleep time and quality, most likely related to the high antioxidant content and melatonin in tart cherries that can help the body produce more of its own melatonin to aid sleep,” says Kelsey Lorencz, RDN, nutrition advisor for Zenmaster Wellness.

Tart cherry juice comes in several forms, including capsules, powders, extracts, and of course, straight-up juice.

“The juice and its concentrate have been studied and shown to be effective, while supplements have varying levels of effectiveness,” Lorencz says. If you don’t enjoy the pungency of this beverage, you do have options. “Try mixing the concentrate into a smoothie with other fruits or cocoa powder to help mask the sour taste,” she suggests.

4. Fatty fish

We’ve all heard fatty fish touted for their heart and brain health benefits. You can add another potential positive to the list of fishy bonuses: better sleep. Is there anything salmon can’t do?

“The omega-3s and vitamin D in fatty fish like salmon and tuna benefit our bodies in many ways, including the potential for improved sleep,” says Lorencz.

A large study from 2016, for example, found that oily fish consumption was associated with better sleep quality. Even when people went overboard, eating more than the recommended amount of oily fish, they experienced even more dramatic improvements to nighttime rest.

Can’t stomach the high price of salmon? Lorencz recommends opting for more budget-friendly fatty fish like canned sardines and smoked whitefish.

Related: 5 Canned Tuna Fish Recipes That Aren’t Sandwiches

5. Tree nuts

When you’re scrounging for the best bedtime snack, don’t be afraid to go nuts! Tree nuts like walnuts, pistachios, and almonds have been associated with sleep improvements because of their ample amounts of melatonin. Nuts are also superstars of magnesium, a mineral lauded for its ability to help you chill. One clinical trial found that supplementing with magnesium improved multiple measures of insomnia in older adults.

6. Kiwi

Kiwi’s zippy flavor profile and jazzy green color might make it seem like more of an upper than a downer. But research shows that the fuzzy fruit is actually a smart choice for inducing sleep. In a small study from 2011, 24 adults who ate two kiwis an hour before bedtime for four weeks reported falling asleep significantly faster (and sleeping significantly longer) than before this intervention. Kiwi’s serotonin and antioxidant compounds are likely responsible for its calming effects.

For some folks, though, kiwi’s acidic nature might disrupt, rather than promote sleep.

“Kiwi is a potential trigger for acid reflux,” Lorencz points out. “If you want to try kiwi to improve sleep, but are worried about heartburn, eat it a couple of hours before bed and be sure to sit upright for one to two hours after eating it.”

7. Oats

This one gives new meaning to overnight oats! The fiber-rich whole grains in oatmeal not only help keep you full all night long, but your favorite breakfast staple is also high in melatonin and magnesium to send you to dreamland. It’s one of the few foods that double as both a healthy breakfast and a midnight snack!

No matter what time you spoon up to a bowl of oatmeal — or any other sleep-inducing nibbles — just don’t forget that food is just one factor in the big picture of better rest.

“While eating some foods high in melatonin a few hours before bedtime may promote better sleep, your non-food evening routine (e.g., consistent bedtime and avoiding blue light, alcohol, and caffeine) is likely to have a more positive impact on sleep quality,” says Sollid.

Read next: 9 Totally Natural Ways You Can Fall Asleep Faster

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