You avoid blue light before bed, have a comfortable mattress and shades to keep your room dark. But did you know that what you eat — and when you eat it — can also play a role in how well you sleep?
That’s because while your sleep-wake cycle is controlled by your body’s master clock, located in the hypothalamus of the brain, you also have peripheral clocks in organs like the liver and pancreas. These control physiological processes like managing your blood sugar, cholesterol, hormone secretion and digestion. “If you eat at a time that's contradictory to your circadian system, it throws off the peripheral clocks,” explains Josna Adusumilli, M.D., a neurologist and sleep medicine physician at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Such misalignment of metabolic processes can impact your would-be slumber.
Ideally, experts say, you should eat a balanced dinner (one that includes protein, carbs and fiber), finishing at least two hours before bedtime, as eating cues your body that it’s time to be awake. “The human body was not meant to digest food lying down,” says Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
But since being hungry can also interfere with sleep, if you need a snack, you should make it count. Here are seven standouts that might help your body feel more ready to call it a night.
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Superfood No. 1: Kiwi
Kiwi isn’t just good for boosting your immunity. “It also contains a high concentration of serotonin, which is a precursor for the hormone melatonin that regulates your sleep-wake cycle,” says Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian and adviser to Performance Kitchen. One small study found that after four weeks of eating two kiwifruits one hour before bedtime, people reported an easier time falling asleep, and slept for a longer period of time. They also woke up less during the night. “Since kiwifruits are filled with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, they also make a nice replacement for less nutritious nighttime snacks,” Cassetty adds.
Superfood No 2: Pumpkin seeds
One ounce of pumpkin seeds contains 37 percent of your daily magnesium, a mineral linked with healthy sleep. “Magnesium activates the neurotransmitter GABA [gamma-aminobutyric acid], which helps calm the nervous system,” says Cassetty, who likes to think of this as activating the on/off switch for your brain. “Magnesium is part of the mechanics that relax your brain and body so you can fall asleep at night,” she explains. Studies in older adults have shown that magnesium supplementation can improve sleep quality and duration.
Superfood No. 3: Cheese
If a warm glass of milk doesn’t sound appealing, grab a few cubes of cheese. “This protein-packed snack is also full of calcium, magnesium and tryptophan, all of which are necessary for a good night’s sleep,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian nutritionist in New York City. A 2013 study published in the journal General Dentistry found that eating cheese increases your saliva production, and may therefore help ward off cavities. Another study found that eating two tablespoons of cottage cheese 30 to 60 minutes before bed supports metabolism and muscle recovery.
Superfood No 4: Tart cherry juice
“Tart cherries have a high dietary melatonin concentration and have also been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory characteristics that may be beneficial in improving sleep quality,” explains Kristine Dilley, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. One small Louisiana State University study found that drinking 8 ounces of tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks increased both sleep time and sleep efficiency in adults with insomnia. Another study had 20 volunteers drink tart cherry juice or a placebo for seven days. Those who drank the cherry juice had significantly higher melatonin levels than those who didn’t.
As tart cherry juice contains natural sugars, Dilley warns that individuals with diabetes or conditions that make them sensitive to sugar intake should consult their physician before adding this to their daily routine. And when purchasing, opt for brands without added sugars.
Superfood No 5: Tea
Chamomile tea has been used for decades as a sleep aid for its calming and antioxidant properties. “It comes from a flower and is full of calming scents,” says Dana Ellis Hunnes, adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Chamomile also contains apigenin, a flavonoid (plant nutrient) that promotes sleepiness, she adds. A recent study that examined the effect of chamomile extract on the sleep habits of adults age 60 and older found that when compared to the placebo group, those who drank chamomile had significantly improved sleep quality.
But this classic isn’t the only type of herbal tea to try. Low-caffeine green tea contains theanine, an amino acid that research has found can help lower stress and significantly improve sleep quality. “And tea made from the herb lemon balm contains naturally occurring oils with terpenes, organic compounds that can promote relaxation and better sleep,” Hunnes says.
Superfood No. 6: Rice
One study of Japanese men and women found that a high dietary glycemic index and high rice consumption was significantly associated with good sleep. The study also looked at bread, which was not associated with sleep quality and found that noodles were linked to poor sleep.
Dilley recommends brown rice, which is higher in fiber. “In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, eating a higher fiber diet was associated with less nighttime awakenings and more restorative slow-wave sleep,” she explains. This effect, she says, could be due to the fact that fiber helps prevent blood sugar spikes that may lower melatonin. Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, a registered dietitian and founder of Hispanic Food Communications, recommends trying a rice-dairy combo of rice pudding with no added sugar or rice crackers or rice cakes with a glass of warm milk, as another optimal bedtime snack.
Superfood No. 7: Nuts
“Many nuts such as almonds, walnuts and pistachios have melatonin, along with magnesium and zinc, which together can help people get a better night's sleep,” Melendez-Klinger says. Spread some nut butter on a rice cake for the ultimate before-bed snack. (Basic peanut butter and crackers works, too.) Or you could reach for a handful of Brazil nuts. A study by the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago suggested that people who sleep less than five hours a night do not consume enough of the mineral selenium. “Thankfully, Brazil nuts are chock full of it, and eating just two per day can ensure your body is meeting the minimum requirements for this nutrient,” says Kaytee Hadley, a dietitian, health coach and founder of Holistic Health & Wellness.
Nicole Pajer is a contributing writer who covers health, culture and entertainment. She has also written for The New York Times, Parade, Woman's Day and Wired, among other publications.