It seems we’re a nation of insomniacs. Nearly half of Americans suffer from at least occasional sleeplessness, and 22 percent experience it every (or almost every) night, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). But what if all it took to improve your zzz’s was a few changes in your eating habits? The definitely scientific answer isn’t quite there yet — NSF chairman Christopher Drake, Ph.D. is careful to point out that there’s not a lot of data out there on how and what you eat might encourage sleep.
That said, nutritionist Stephanie Middleberg, R.D., says there’s evidence that adding the following foods to your daily repertoire could help.
1. Protein-rich foods.
Turkey, chicken, cottage cheese, eggs, and milk may help you board the sleepy train, says Middleberg. Tryptophan, an amino acid (amino acids = building blocks of proteins) that these foods contain, helps release the hormones serotonin and melatonin, which in turn helps regulate circadian rhythms. By eating these foods combined with carbs (see below) throughout your day, you’ll prime your body for that melatonin rush in the evening, typically around 9 p.m., and set yourself up for a better night’s sleep.
2. Whole grains.
“Who doesn’t love a pro-carb tip?” Middleberg says. Whole grains help convert our friend tryptophan into serotonin and melatonin, so they should accompany your protein. “It can be a good idea to include a fistful of brown rice, squash, or legumes, or a baked potato with your dinner,” says Middleberg. Plus, these complex carbs are a good source of Vitamin B, which may also help with sleep.
3. Tart cherries.
Nicknamed “natural Lunesta,” tart cherries are high in melatonin and may help tryptophan cross the blood-brain barrier to stimulate your body to produce more of its own melatonin. Middleberg suggests snacking on thawed-out frozen cherries in the evening.
4. Nuts and seeds.
Nuts, seeds, and nut butters contain both tryptophan and magnesium, which may have a calming effect. Eaten just before bed, they may help you get to sleep faster. “But keep it to an ounce!” says Middleberg. “Overeating will upset your stomach, making it tougher to drift off.”
5. Warm drinks.
Sipping on a comforting pre-bedtime cup of herbal tea, such as chamomile, a cup of warm water with lemon, or warm milk helps reduce tension before bed to prep your body for sleep, says Middleberg. One thing to avoid drinking, however, is alcohol, a depressant. “It willhelp you to doze off,” confirms Drake. “But once metabolized, alcohol disrupts and fragments sleep.” He notes that you may not recognize these brief awakenings, but they dramatically affect sleep quality.