By Anne Palumbo
When I was a teen, I looked out the window one night and saw my dad gardening in the dark, guided by a headlamp.
My reaction then: cuckoo!
My reaction today: resourceful!
You see, I, too, am a poor sleeper and have been for most of my life.
This past COVID-19 year, my spotty sleep has only gotten worse. But I’m not alone.
A report from the National Institutes of Health highlighted a study early in the pandemic that revealed “high rates of clinically significant insomnia.” It’s so widespread, in fact, it now has a name: “coronasomnia.”
What and when you eat can affect the quality of your sleep. Eat a big meal after 7 p.m. and your body may be so involved in digestion it can’t even focus on shut-eye.
Drink too much alcohol and you may fall asleep quickly only to wake up later in the night. Indulge in an after-dinner cappuccino and sleep may elude you for hours.
Years ago, I looked to diet for solutions to my sleep woes, not finding a whole lot.
Since then, researchers, including nutritionists and sleep experts, have continued to conduct studies to try to identify the best foods for sleep. While the studies are not conclusive and more research is needed, they do suggest that certain foods and drinks can make you sleepy or promote better sleep.
On that note, here are some foods and drinks that may enhance the quality of your sleep.
Cherries or Tart Cherry Juice
Cherries are one of the few natural foods that contain melatonin, the sleep-promoting chemical that helps control your body’s sleep and wake cycles. In a small study, adults with chronic insomnia who drank tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks reported longer and better sleep quality compared to when they didn’t drink the juice. Since the extra dose of melatonin can send a signal to your body that it’s time to go to sleep, it’s best to save cherries or tart cherry juice for an after-dinner snack.
The world’s favorite fruit benefits slumber time in more ways than one. Ever suffer from nighttime muscle cramps? Restless legs syndrome? Grab a banana before bedtime. Brimming with two natural muscle relaxants — potassium and magnesium — bananas may quell those troublesome twitches. More magnesium has also been linked to reduced stress, and since stress is one of the leading causes of insomnia, a banana may be your ticket to dreamland. Lastly, bananas also contain some tryptophan, an amino acid that gets converted to serotonin and melatonin, two chemicals that promote sleep.
A cup of warm milk is one of the most common go-to sleep remedies around. But is there any hard science to back this remedy? Some say yes: milk has enough tryptophan, an amino acid that encourages the production of serotonin and melatonin, to improve sleep. Others say no: the amount of tryptophan in milk is too negligible to count. Either way, most experts agree on this fact about warm milk: The routine of drinking a glass of warm milk often brings back soothing childhood memories which then help us drift off. Warming up your milk, especially at night when your metabolism decreases, makes it easier to digest and results in less bloating.
My friend, who consumes salmon twice a week, is a notoriously sound sleeper. All that salmon might be giving her a nocturnal boost. Fatty fish — salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, and trout — are notably high in two nutrients that may promote sleep: vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. The unique nutrient combo, a healthy merger that increases serotonin production, may be this food’s silver-sleep lining.
Serotonin plays an important role in sleep because the body uses it to synthesize melatonin, the hormone that governs the entire sleep-wake cycle. In one study, men who ate salmon three times a week for six months fell asleep about 10 minutes faster and slept more deeply than men who ate chicken, beef, or pork.
Good news kiwi-lovers: Research has found that eating kiwi on a regular basis may substantially improve sleep. In a four-week study, participants who ate two kiwis one hour before bedtime fell asleep over 35% faster, slept more soundly, and experienced about a 13% increase in total sleep time. Scientists believe that the sleep-promoting effects of kiwi may be attributed to its high antioxidant levels, along with its ability to boost serotonin levels. Since a good night’s sleep is often linked with greater happiness, it’s no wonder the 2020 World Happiness Report ranked New Zealand — a top consumer of kiwi — as one of the top 10 happiest places in the world.
A handful of almonds a day may keep insomnia at bay, so say many sleep experts. Almonds are a ready source of two properties that make them a beneficial food to eat before bed: melatonin, which regulates your internal clock and preps you for sleep, and magnesium, which boosts better sleep by quelling inflammation and by helping to reduce levels of cortisol, a stress hormone known to interrupt sleep.
Prefer walnuts? They too are rich in melatonin; what’s more, they’re a top source of the kinds of fatty acids that may enhance serotonin production.
Turkey and other high-protein foods
Turkey is known as the “sleepy meat” and there’s a good reason why: It tops the charts in tryptophan. Tryptophan, as mentioned, induces tiredness by boosting serotonin and melatonin. But turkey has another property that some think influences sleep quality more than tryptophan: Its abundance of protein. Multiple studies demonstrate that higher-protein diets have been associated with improved sleep compared to low-protein diets, and that consuming a moderate amount of protein before bed may help you wake up less throughout the night. Other lean proteins that are also high in tryptophan: chicken, fish (including canned tuna), tofu, and many dairy products.
Again, while some of the foods mentioned here may enhance the quality of your sleep, there isn’t strong scientific evidence that identifies any particular food as being the best for sleep. Eating a healthy and balanced diet that provides all the nutrients your body needs may ultimately be your best bet for a long and peaceful night’s sleep.
Anne Palumbo is the author of SmartBites, a column that’s published every month in In Good Health newspaper.