Since the foods and drinks that you consume throughout the day can impact how you sleep at night, it’s important to choose foods that are calming, rather than those that stimulate your mind and body. Luckily, certain types of foods naturally promote rest and relaxation, particularly those that contain tryptophan – the amino acid that the body uses to make serotonin, the neurotransmitter that slows nerve activity in your brain.
Since tryptophan is a precursor of other neurotransmitters in your brain, eating foods that are rich in the amino acid will help you feel relaxed and make it easier to sleep soundly. Foods highest in tryptophan include cottage cheese, red meat, eggs, fish, turkey, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, and peanuts. Since it takes about an hour for tryptophan from food sources to reach the brain, it’s best to eat these snacks an hour or two before bedtime, rather than immediately before. However, don’t overdo it on the turkey and cottage cheese, as eating foods that are high in protein may actually cause restlessness since protein-rich foods contain the amino acid, tyrosine, which naturally stimulates the brain.
Whole-food, nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrates encourage the release of insulin, which helps to produce serotonin and clear tryptophan-competing amino acids from the bloodstream. Some of the healthiest carbohydrates to eat later in the day or a couple hours before bed time include whole grain cereal, beans, rice, hazelnuts, sweet potatoes, and popcorn.
Certain foods that are high in calcium may also promote sleepiness, as calcium helps the brain use tryptophan to manufacture melatonin. Research shows that a deficiency in calcium may contribute to interrupted sleep patterns and the inability to achieve a deep REM sleep. Without enough calcium, you may fall asleep quickly, but find it difficult to stay asleep or fall back asleep after awaking during the night. While most dairy sources, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and eggs contain a significant amount of calcium, you can also choose other foods if you’re sensitive to dairy or lactose intolerant. Some alternative non-dairy foods that are rich in calcium include dark leafy greens, oranges, quinoa, broccoli, and dried fruit.
Choosing snacks that combine healthy carbohydrates and calcium, such as whole-grain cereal with milk, a peanut butter sandwich or crackers with cheese, will have an especially strong effect since they’ll work together to relax the mind and body. These types of snacks also contain small amounts of protein, which is also important to consider since eating carbohydrate-only foods may cause your blood sugar levels to drop, resulting in the release of stress hormones that will keep you alert.
Magnesium for Improved Sleep
In addition to calcium, several other minerals are especially useful for calming the mind to help you sleep better at night. Magnesium is an essential mineral that is commonly known to relieve insomnia, as it helps to decrease the stress hormone, cortisol, which can keep you awake at night. Foods that are high in magnesium include almonds, black beans, avocado, figs, and dark chocolate (yay!). Organic fruits, such as bananas, are not only rich in tryptophan, but also contain the minerals potassium and magnesium, which are natural muscle relaxants.
While it’s not always easy to ensure you’re getting enough of the recommended essential vitamins and minerals, especially if your sleep is affected, supplementation can help. For example, I add a spoonful of Natural Vitality Calm Powder to a glass of water and drink it every night before bed to feel more relaxed, settled and ready for a good night’s sleep.
Above all else, it’s important to avoid rich, high-fat foods within two hours of bed time since they require a lot of work to digest and may cause heartburn. You should also avoid drinking too much liquid, such as water, juice, tea or hot chocolate, as this may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night. Caffeinated drinks, such as soda, coffee or caffeinated teas not only act as diuretics, but will also keep you stimulated and make falling asleep much more difficult. Overall, maintaining a healthy, balanced diet will keep your energy levels high throughout the day, help you relax and sleep soundly at night, and contribute to general wellness.