Medically reviewed by
Dacelin St Martin, MD
Triple board-certified in Sleep Medicine,
Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics.
If only falling asleep was as easy as pressing a button, like in the sci-fi movie Inception; however, we have a long way to go before this is possible.
Millions of Americans put up a nightly fight against insomnia while experiencing an endless loop of daytime fatigue, hypertension, weight gain, and irritability.
Stress from various sources can rob us of sleep, leaving us to seek out tactics to overcome our insomnia.
The good news is that there’s a relatively long list of good, old-fashioned dietary options that are chemically proven to help us sleep.
In no particular order, here are the top ten sleep-inducing foods and the science behind them.
Bananas are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that produces melatonin and serotonin [¹] — both of which induce sleep. Bananas are also rich in magnesium and potassium, the latter of which serves to stabilize one’s heartbeat.
2. Warm Milk
You cannot go wrong with a glass of warm milk right before bedtime.
Milk also contains the tryptophan acid [²] with the melatonin factoring in more heavily.
Milk is also rich in calcium and vitamin D. Calcium, as is well known, aids muscle contraction and heartbeat. Essentially, a reduced intake of calcium translates to reduced bone strength and irregular muscle contraction, which do not go well with a good night’s rest.
3. White Rice
White rice brings melatonin [³] and a high glycemic index to the bedroom. It might not seem as perfectly suited for consumption right before bedtime as bananas and warm milk are, but it is definitely worth the shot.
4. Fatty Fish
Be it salmon, tuna, or mackerel, fatty fish (as opposed to deeply fried fish) is a top-tier food option for better sleep. In addition to having tryptophan, fatty fish also contain vitamin B6 (which produces melatonin), vitamin D (which speeds up serotonin production), and omega-3 fatty acids.[⁴]
Oatmeal is another major carbohydrate which is excellent for sleep. It contains a good amount of melatonin and an insulin spike, which aids both sleep and weight loss.
A great source of protein and rich in melatonin, almonds contain tryptophan and magnesium, and unsaturated fat calcium. Generally, they boost mental functioning and relax the heart. This state puts the body in a better position to sleep comfortably.
7. Tart Cherries & Cherry Juice
Tart cherries can be eaten in their whole form, or juice can be extracted and consumed. Either way, it is rich in fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin E. It also contains the familiar sleep-regulating compounds: tryptophan, potassium, serotonin, melatonin, and flavonoids. As a fruit or juice, it is best consumed in substantial amounts for maximum effect.[⁵]
Nuts are natural sources of melatonin, while walnuts are of a cardiovascular benefit.[⁶] Melatonin production associated with the consumption of nuts is linked to high amounts of magnesium and omega-3.
9. Herbal Teas
Herbal tea, like chamomile, can have a soothing effect on a weary mind. One study shows that chamomile tea would be superior to placebo in reducing generalized anxiety disorder symptoms, which can help with delayed sleep latency.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Thanksgiving, and its ceremonial turkey, comes right after sugar-fueled Halloween. Turkey is high in tryptophan, which helps produce melatonin and serotonin, key in regulating sleep, mood, and appetite.
Beware of These Foods
The effects of the consumption of dark chocolate on sleep are debatable. To its credit, it contains serotonin, theobromine, magnesium, and antioxidants. It serves to boost mental functioning, as well as relax the heart and nerves; however, dark chocolate also contains caffeine, which is a stimulant known to interfere with sleep. We recommend that you consume this “sleep-inducing” food with caution.
Deeply fried fish takes relatively more time to digest than fatty fish, mostly when consumed at night. Cookies, cakes, and other foods with high sugar content, including French fries and potato chips high in fat, also negatively affect serotonin.
Food like burgers and pizza, which also have high-fat content, take longer to digest and may lead to indigestion. It would also be counterproductive to consume alcohol and coffee close to bedtime, as they are stimulants.
If you feel that your sleeplessness is interfering with your quality of life, do not hesitate to speak with your doctor. You may have an underlying condition that’s affecting your sleep. Changing your diet and adopting a healthy nighttime routine known as sleep hygiene, which includes eating sensibly, is a great start for improving your sleep.
There are treatments for sleeplessness that incorporate the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. They give you the tools you need to relearn how to sleep.
- Zeng, Y. et al (2014). Strategies of Functional Foods Promote Sleep In Human Being. Current Signal Transduction Therapy, 9(3), 151. Kunming, PR China: Bentham Science Publishers. Retrieved from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4440346/>
- Pereira, N., Naufel, M.F., Ribeiro, E.B., Tufik, S., and Hachul, H. (2019). Influence of Dietary Sources of Melatonin on Sleep Quality: A Review. Journal of Food Science, 85(1), 10. Chicago, USA: Institute of Food Technologists. Retrieved from <https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1750-3841.14952>
- Yoneyama, S., et al (2014). Associations between Rice, Noodle, and Bread Intake and Sleep Quality in Japanese Men and Women. PLOS ONE, 9(8), 6. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0105198
- St-Onge, MP., Mikic, A., and Pietrolungo, C.E. (2016). Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality. Advances in Nutrition, 7(5), 946. New York, USA: Institute of Human Nutrition and Department of Medicine, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University. Retrieved from <https://academic.oup.com/advances/article/7/5/938/4616727>
- Peuhkuri, K., Sihvola, N., and Korpela, R. (2012). Diet promotes sleep duration and quality. Nutrition Research 32(5), 311. Helsinki, Finland: Institute of Biomedicine, Pharmacology, Medical Nutrition Physiology, University of Helsinki. Retrieved from <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0271531712000632>
- Korkmaz, A., Reiter, R.J., Tan, DX., and Manchester, L.C. (2011). Melatonin; from pineal gland to healthy foods. Spatula DD 1(1), San Antonio, USA: Department of Cellular and Structural Biology, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Retrieved from <pdfs.semanticscholar.org>
- Amsterdam, J. D., Li, Y., Soeller, I., Rockwell, K., Mao, J. J., & Shults, J. (2009). A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of oral Matricaria recutita (chamomile) extract therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of clinical psychopharmacology, 29(4), 378–382. https://doi.org/10.1097/JCP.0b013e3181ac935c