Foods that can help with insomnia

Q. Do you have any recommendations for what to eat to help falling and staying asleep? I read the following:

“Try eating a kiwi. High levels of antioxidants and serotonin in the fruit may regulate slumber. Or, try a spoon of almond butter. One tablespoon offers up a healthy dose of magnesium. Deficiencies of that mineral have been linked to muscle cramps and insomnia.”

A. Believe it or not, both of these recommendations are supported by actual published research. A small study of 24 people experiencing sleep disturbances found that eating 2 kiwi fruit 1 hour before bedtime every night for 4 weeks led to significant improvements in their sleep quality. Unfortunately, there was no control group, so it’s hard to say how much of this effect was due to placebo effect.

Seeing as anxiety about not sleeping often makes insomnia worse, it’s easy to imagine that the hope/belief that something you are eating will make you fall asleep could make things a lot better.

Another (better designed) study found that taking 500 mg of magnesium at bedtime helped older people fall asleep sooner and sleep better through the night. However, you’d have to eat not one but 11 tablespoons of almond butter to get that much magnesium. A supplement would probably be more practical (and less caloric!).

Turkey and other foods high in the amino acid tryptophan are often touted as foods-to-make-you-sleepy.  But tryptophan only makes you drowsy if consumed in large amounts on an empty stomach, without any other amino acids present. (Like most protein foods, turkey contains lots of different amino acids.)

But if you’re plagued by sleepless nights, I think it makes sense to match the cure to the cause. Frequently, there are non-nutritional factors at work, in which case nutritional solutions probably aren’t going to be very effective.

  • If stress or worry is keeping you awake, learning relaxation techniques or listening to a guided meditation might be far more effective than any food or supplement. This is one of my favorite guided meditations for inducing sleep.
  • Sleeping in a room that is very dark, quiet, and somewhat cool can also help a lot. I always travel with a sleep mask to block out light. (I like the kind that doesn’t touch your eyelids.) I find earplugs uncomfortable so I use a free smart phone app called Signal Generator to generate sound-absorbing pink noise that blocks out random sounds that would otherwise wake me up.
  • Blue light from your computer, tablet or phone can powerfully suppress the normal evening release of melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep. If you frequently use these devices before bed, cutting down on evening screen time or buying blue-light blocking glasses may make a world of difference.  See also: Can melatonin help you sleep?
  • If heartburn from acid reflux is waking you up in the middle of the night, putting your bed on blocks could be part of the solution. (And a bedtime snack might make things worse.) See also: How to Avoid Reflux.
  • Of course, you’d want to avoid foods or substances that have a stimulating effect before bedtime.

Finally, as someone who occasionally suffers from restless nights, I have taken comfort from recent reports that the 8-hour sleep shift that we all aspire to is a relatively recent invention.  A short night’s sleep coupled with a nap later in the day may work just as well as 8 hours of uninterrupted nighttime slumber.

2 thoughts on “Foods that can help with insomnia

  1. Hi Monica,
    I could really use your advice. I suffer from really bad leg cramps during the night, just before bed time and during sleep. It’s not the calf muscles, it’s the muscles between the toes or on top of the actual foot. I do make sure that I soak my feet weekly in a Epsom Salts bath. What more can I do to help with this pain. Note: I also only wear square toed shoes to ensure that I have plenty of room across the foot (unfortunately I cannot wear ANY of the beautiful pointy or high heeled shoes). I would like to know your opinion on this and get any advice you may have.
    Thank you

    1. That sounds very distressing! You might try the magnesium trick but this problem may not be related to nutrition, in which case, a nutritional solution isn’t likely to be very helpful. It may be musculoskeletal or neurolgical in nature.

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