Eating for Sleep: 5 Ways a Healthy Diet Can Treat Insomnia

( - Can’t sleep? You’re in good company. One in three adults suffers from occasional insomnia, according to the American Sleep Association, and one in ten has chronic sleeplessness. That’s a big problem, especially since insomnia can lead to all kinds of mental and physical health problems — from headaches to mood swings to high blood pressure.

Pharmaceutical companies are quick to respond to the growing need for sleep by introducing more drugs to help lull you into dreamland. But while they may work short-term, sleeping pills come with a slew of health risks, including daytime drowsiness, memory problems, and sleepwalking.

Plus, sleeping pills can be addictive. People don’t just come to rely on sleeping pills for sleep; the body builds up a tolerance to sleep medication, requiring higher, potentially dangerous doses to be effective.

So what’s an insomniac to do? How about treating this natural human function with another natural human function — eating. Proper nutrition is not only a safe way to treat insomnia; it can do wonders for the sleep cycle. In fact, what you eat, when you eat it, and how often you take a meal can turn regular tossing and turning into a restful night, every night.

Here’s how:

1. Include Sleep-inducing Foods

You’ve probably heard about tryptophan, an amino acid known to cause sleepiness. Sleep experts have long touted the benefits of tryptophan-rich foods, like turkey, beans, cheese, nuts, and seeds, for increasing serotonin levels and inducing sleep. But while foods high in tryptophan help promote sleep, they aren’t the only nutritional remedy for the sleepless. Some of the best sleep-inducing foods are those you may have never considered.

Ever thought a kiwi fruit would put you to sleep? Kiwi is especially high in vitamin C — which, like tryptophan, plays a role in serotonin production — and packs another punch as a sleep aid. According to one study, eating kiwi an hour or two before bed helped people fall asleep quicker, stay asleep longer, and sleep more soundly.

If you like fish, eating salmon or tuna can also bring on the Zs. That’s because these fish contain vitamin B6, a nutrient needed for the production of melatonin. Melatonin regulates the sleep-wake cycle and helps you fall asleep. Other melatonin-boosting foods include chickpeas, tomatoes, cherries, corn, pineapple, and walnuts.

Loaded with sleep-inducing magnesium, dark, leafy greens help you fall asleep, too. Top them with tryptophan-rich almonds or pumpkin seeds, and you’ll likely nod off even quicker. Or, add a side of jasmine rice to your meal. According to research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who ate jasmine rice — thanks to its high glycemic index that increases tryptophan levels — fell asleep faster than those who consumed other types of rice.

For something simple and cheap to help you sleep, try a bowl of cereal with milk. The carbohydrates and calcium have properties that trigger shut-eye, plus the snack is about as convenient as it gets.

2. Follow a Restful Eating Pattern

Ever notice how drinking a glass of wine before bed disrupts your sleep? A study published in Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research found that alcohol, while initially sedating, has stimulating effects than can cause restlessness and disruptive sleep. For slumber purposes, keep alcohol to a minimum and imbibe early on. One drink before dinner is a good rule of thumb.

Even drinking water too close to bedtime can interrupt sleep due to a full bladder, so avoid drinking anything at least two hours before hitting the sack. Caffeinated beverages are the worst — they can actually reset your body clock by delaying a rise in melatonin levels, according to research published in Science Translational Medicine.

It’s not just liquids you have to worry about. Eating a meal, especially a heavy one, late at night can lead to heartburn and other stomach troubles that interrupt sleep. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that men and women who ate high-fat or high-calorie foods too close to bedtime had disrupted sleep. Instead, aim for eating dinner at least two to three hours before bed.

Finally, steer clear of sugary sweet desserts, which spike blood sugar and cause wakefulness. Salty snacks aren’t much better because they elevate blood pressure and lead to dehydration, which also keeps you up at night.

Don’t ignore a growling stomach, though. Going to bed hungry can be just as disruptive as going to be on a full stomach. Instead of hitting the freezer for ice cream, choose a light carbohydrate snack to help you drift off, like a banana, cup of yogurt, or bowl of low-fat granola. Carb-rich foods eaten before bed react with the stored tryptophan in your body and boost serotonin levels.

3. 3 or 6 Meals a Day?

If you’re a regular three-meals-a-day eater and you suffer insomnia, it might be time to rethink your eating routine. Many nutritionists suggest eating five or six small meals for better pacing and digestion, which results in easier sleeping.

Sleep expert Michael Breus, in his book The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan, goes a step further. Breus advises consuming nutritious food every few hours to help stabilize blood sugar and maintain the proper balance of hormones and neurotransmitters key for sleep.

Of course, not everyone has the flexibility to eat frequently throughout the day, and some sleep experts recommend sticking with the traditional three-meals-a-day plan. No matter what eating routine you choose, here’s an important guideline: eat when you’re truly hungry and then only to the point of being comfortable, not full. This will aid in proper digestion and regulated body rhythms, making sleep easier and more sound.

How do you know when you’re truly hungry? Learn to recognize the signs, which include irritability, lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, and stomach gurgling. For some people, three meals a day will be sufficient and for others, more small meals spaced throughout the day work best. A steady meal pattern will help ensure balance in your body and avoid any digestive trouble at night that can lead to wakefulness and discomfort.

4. Supplements for Sleep

When food and eating habits don’t bring on slumber, a nutritional supplement might help. Certain supplements — especially vitamin D, magnesium, and calcium — have sleep-promoting effects that can help you drift off and stay asleep.

Studies have shown that people with inadequate levels of vitamin D are more susceptible to sleep-related health problems, like sleep apnea and nighttime pain and inflammation. In one study, researchers discovered that a vitamin D deficiency is closely connected with daytime sleepiness, something typical of insomniacs. Experts advise taking a vitamin D supplement early in the day since it can cause a drop in melatonin levels.

Another important reason to take vitamin D for sleep is that it helps the body absorb calcium, which has a sedative effect on the body. Calcium taken with magnesium, also a useful sleep aid, can make your likelihood of restful sleep even better. Magnesium helps calm the brain and alleviate leg cramps and other body aches so you can prepare for sleep. Take magnesium an hour before bedtime.

Herbal supplements run the gamut as effective sleep aids, but for safety and efficacy, three to try are valerian (taken with hops), chamomile (in tea form), and melatonin. Studies have shown positive results with each and few side effects, although results vary by individual. If you choose to take supplements for sleep, be sure to check with a healthcare expert on proper dosages.

Sleeping and eating go hand-in-hand, which makes what you eat all the more important for people who suffer insomnia. Make the effort to eat the right foods at the right time, and supplement when necessary. Then enjoy restful, easy slumber, night after night.

Written by Susie Yakowicz
I am a freelance writer living in Minnesota. I specialize in writing articles for the web on topics ranging from health and wellness to writing to dogs. Please visit my blog at for more information about me and my work. See more articles by this author
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