This article was written by registered dietitian – Maeve Hanan
A number of foods are promoted as boosting sleep. Read on to find out whether this is backed by good evidence.
The amount and timing of food consumed close to bedtime can impact sleep in different ways. For example, going to bed hungry can lead to difficulty sleeping or waking up overnight. Whereas, some people find that eating a big meal too close to bedtime disrupts their sleep. However, research related to this is quite limited and conflicting (1, 2, 3).
Just like light and other cues from our environment influence our circadian rhythm, so do our mealtimes. Importantly, eating at unusual times, which often occurs during shift work and travelling through different time zones, is a major cause of body clock disruption (4). Lack of sleep can also disrupt our hunger and fullness hormones, ghrelin and leptin, which can cause you to feel hungrier the next day and less satiated which may lead to consuming more calorie-dense foods to compensate (5).
Those who suffer with reflux or heartburn may be more likely to struggle with this, as lying down soon after eating can trigger reflux. A recent systematic review found that eating within 3 hours of bedtime is linked with increased reflux (6). As being too hungry can also be a reflux trigger, this can be a balancing act. Those with other digestive issues like pain and bloating might also be more likely to experience symptoms when a large amount of food is consumed close to bedtime.
There’s a popular belief that eating certain foods before bed impacts our dreams. Although there isn’t strong evidence to support this, a self-reported study of 396 university students from 2015 found a possible link between certain foods, especially dairy, and bizarre or disturbing dreams (7). But it can be difficult to pin this on food specifically as many factors could be playing a role include beliefs about certain foods and dreams, emotional state (particularly as nighttime eating can be more common when feeling emotional), food intolerances impacting sleep quality and variation between different people.
So currently the link between meal timing and bedtime isn’t very clear and there are lots of individual factors to consider.
Non-caffeinated hot drinks
A compound that clearly impacts sleep is caffeine. Drinking caffeinated drinks like coffee too close to bedtime is linked with delayed sleep and reduced sleep quality — particularly for those who are more sensitive to caffeine (8, 9).
Checkout this article for more information about caffeine.
However, a number of caffeine-free hot drinks before bed have been linked with improved sleep.
Based on limited evidence, the following teas have been linked with improvements in sleep:
- camomile tea (10, 11)
- passionflower tea (12, 13)
- low-caffeine green tea (14)
Hot milk is a classic bedtime drink which is backed by some evidence that it promotes sleep (as discussed in the next section).
Including dairy products like milk as part of a balanced diet has been associated with improved sleep quality across a variety of age groups, from toddlers to older adults (15). This is thought to be due to the fact that milk and dairy products contain tryptophan.
A study from 2019 also found that drinking more milk has also been linked with better sleep quality during training periods in Japanese elite female athletes (16). Another Japanese study of older adults found that engaging in physical activity for leisure coupled with consuming milk or cheese may help with falling asleep (17).
There’s evidence related to different types of milky drinks as well. For example, having a milk and honey drink twice per day for 3 days was found to improve sleep in patients undergoing coronary care (18).
A small study from the 70s also found that consuming a hot malted milk drink before bed was associated with less restlessness overnight in young adults and longer, less broken sleep in older adults (19).
Carbohydrates can help tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier which is why malted milk or milk sweetened with honey are recommended as sleep aids (i.e. the added sugar may help to increase the availability of tryptophan in the milk).
Foods that contain tryptophan
Tryptophan is an amino acid that’s linked with good sleep because it’s needed to create the sleep-inducing chemical messengers serotonin and melatonin (20).
Tryptophan supplements may have a beneficial impact on sleep quality (21). However, the evidence related to tryptophan-containing foods isn’t particularly strong.
We get tryptophan in most high-protein foods. For example, tryptophan may be part of the reason why dairy is linked with better sleep.
Fish is another tryptophan-containing food that has been linked with sleep improvements (22, 23). But the vitamin D and omega-3 in fish may play a role as well.
Glycemic index is a measurement of how quickly a carbohydrate-containing food spikes blood glucose levels, with a higher GI indicating a faster rise in blood glucose.
Although there’s some conflicting evidence related to this, but consuming high GI foods, and white rice specifically, has been linked with sleep improvements and falling asleep more quickly (24, 25).
This may be related to the increased availability of tryptophan in the body that occurs in response to consuming carbohydrates (26).
Foods containing melatonin
There are a number of foods that contain the sleepy hormone melatonin, however there’s limited research into these individual foods (27).
Tart cherry juice contains a significant amount of melatonin and a handful of studies have linked drinking this with better sleep quality (28, 29, 30).
Almonds also contain melatonin and one study found that eating 10 almonds per day was linked with reduced insomnia (31). However, almonds contain a number of other nutrients that may impact sleep, including magnesium.
This mineral has been found to promote relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. ‘rest and digest’ mode) (32).
Magnesium may also impact melatonin levels (33).
Some studies have found a link between magnesium levels and sleep quality, and a possible link between magnesium supplements and improved sleep (34). But more well-designed, long-term studies are needed to look into this.
So foods containing magnesium like nuts, seeds and oats might impact sleep, but more research is needed.
A small study from 2014 that lasted 4 weeks found that eating 2 kiwis an hour before bed led to a 42% faster sleep onset as well as improved sleep length and sleep quality (35).
This could be related to the antioxidant or serotonin content of kiwis.
Of course this is only one small study, so more research is needed to look into this possible connection.
As always with nutrition, it’s important to zoom out to the bigger picture of overall diet rather than individual food or nutrients.
An analysis from the US between 2005 – 2016 also found that those who slept for shorter periods were less likely to consume a diet that meets average adult nutritional requirements (36).
A Mediterranean-style diet is seen by most nutrition experts as a balanced and healthful diet. This eating pattern, including a high intake of fruit, vegetables and legumes, has been linked with better sleep (37, 38).
A similar diet called the DASH diet (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) is also linked with sleep improvements (39, 40).
Furthermore a recent systematic review that included 29 studies found that although consuming nutritious foods was associated with better sleep quality, but the authors concluded that the current overall standard of evidence due to study design isn’t strong enough to assume any cause and effect links between foods or diet and sleep (41).
Although a number of foods are linked with improvements in sleep, the evidence supporting these isn’t very strong.
Working on sleep hygiene, relaxation and consuming a balanced and varied diet is likely to be better for improving sleep than focusing on individual foods.
The timing of meals before bed may also play a role and this is likely to vary between different people. Most people get a better night’s sleep if they avoid going to bed hungry or too full.
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- Zhang, M., Hou, Z. K., Huang, Z. B., Chen, X. L., & Liu, F. B. (2021). Dietary and lifestyle factors related to gastroesophageal reflux disease: a systematic review. Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management, 17, 305. [accessed July 2022 via: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33883899/]
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Can certain foods help you sleep better? was last modified: August 1st, 2022 by