Ask the Diet Doctor: Foods for Better Sleep


Q: Are there any foods that can help me fall asleep?

A: If you have trouble sleeping, you're not alone. More than 40 million Americans suffer from insomnia, a terrible condition brought on by stress, anxiety, medication interactions, and overconsumption of caffeine (which helps you stay awake due to lack of sleep, creating a vicious cycle). Recent research has also linked inadequate sleep to metabolic disease, as it increases hunger hormones and reduces the release of two major fat loss hormones, leptin and adiponectin.

Fortunately there are in fact some foods that can help you catch more shuteye without reaching for a bottle of pills.

1. Tart cherry juice: A 2010 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that drinking two glasses of tart cherry juice helped people suffering from insomnia sleep better. Participants fell asleep faster and spent less time awake during the night compared to their sleep patterns before they enrolled in the study. While the specific mechanism that aids in insomnia relief is not fully understood, researchers think that it has to do with the potent anti-inflammatory effects of tart cherry juice as several inflammatory compounds play a role in regulating sleep.

2. Warm milk: This classic cure for bedtime woes may be more of a psychological "trick" to fall asleep than a physiological fact. Initially it was thought that tryptophan, the amino acid found in milk, helps you fall asleep by converting into serotonin, a powerful modulator of sleep. However, new research shows that other amino acids found in milk hinder this process. Still, many people swear by its use as a sedative, so it's likely the effects are all in our heads. Since two of the major driving forces that keep people up at night are stress and anxiety, the comfort associated with the nightly ritual of warm milk may help quell these stressors to help people fall asleep better.

3. Nuts: Magnesium, a mineral found in high levels in nuts, can help control blood pressure and blood sugar, but it can also serve as a relaxant to help you catch more zzzs. In fact, one of the symptoms of magnesium deficiency can be insomnia. Toss pumpkin seeds in soups or salads-just 1 1/2 ounces will give you more than 50 percent of your daily value for magnesium.

In the end, keep in mind that these are merely quick fixes. The real key to optimizing your sleep habits is to find out the root problem. Maybe you're simply not getting in bed early enough? If so, an easy fix is to aim to get between the sheets 15 minutes earlier each week-compounded over six weeks, you'll be in bed for 90 minutes longer each night. If your problem is more that you can't fall or stay asleep once in bed, it may be a little more complicated. Try limiting your caffeine intake later in the day or talking to your doctor about changing medications that could be interfering with your sleep.

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