Top 10 Foods For Better Sleep

Photo of Daisy Whitbread Written by Daisy Whitbread
BSc (Hons) MSc DipION
Photo of Dr. Nicolette Natale Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Nicolette Natale
Evidence Based. References sourced from PubMed.
Top 10 Foods For Better Sleep

According to the National Sleep Foundation, one in three people suffer from sleep problems at some point in their lives.

Sleep is just as important as healthy eating and exercise for both physical and mental health. Lack of sleep can contribute to depression, anxiety, stress, weakened immune system (1), weight gain (2), skin aging (3), relationship problems, and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes (1).

Busy lifestyles, however, often mean that getting enough sleep falls down the list of priorities while trying to fit in everything else life demands of us. Furthermore, features of modern life including high stress levels, artificial lighting, and technology use can all disrupt sleep.

The good news is that everyone is born with the natural ability to sleep, so if you're not sleeping well, it means something is getting in the way of your body's natural ability. Identifying and removing the cause(s) should therefore restore good quality sleep. The benefits of doing so will include improved mood, reduced disease risk, improved brain function, memory and concentration, more energy, helping appetite and weight control, and slowing down the aging process.

The following foods may also help, as they have sleep promoting effects. If eaten regularly, as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, along with good sleep hygiene (see tips below) and genuinely making sleep a priority, they can help encourage a restful night's sleep.

Foods to Eat for Better Sleep

1 Soya Foods
A block of tofu
Soya is a top dietary source of tryptophan, from which serotonin is manufactured, which in turn, is converted into the 'sleep hormone' melatonin. (4) Melatonin is released by the brain as it gets dark to induce sleep, so including foods that are high in tryptophan will ensure your body has the building blocks to produce it. One study found that consuming tryptophan-enriched cereal for 3 weeks improved sleep duration and quality in middle-aged and elderly adults. (5) Other good sources of tryptophan include nuts, seeds, chicken, turkey, fish, beans and eggs.
Nutrition Facts for Boiled Soybeans (Edamame).
2 Tart Cherries
Two cherries on a branch of a cherry tree
Tart Cherries contain small amounts of the 'sleep hormone' melatonin and research suggests that they can improve sleep duration and quality (6). One study found that drinking concentrated tart cherry juice for 7 days raised melatonin levels and increased time in bed, total sleep time, and sleep efficiency. (7) Another study found similar benefits, along with reduced night awakenings and less movement during the night. Further, the benefits increased with advancing age. (8)
Nutrition Facts for Sour Red Cherries (Frozen).
3 Chamomile Tea
A cup of chamomile tea
Chamomile Tea was traditionally used for centuries as a remedy for anxiety and insomnia, chamomile tea is a soothing evening drink, due to its sedative effects. It contains a substance called apigenin with mild anti-anxiety and sedative properties that bind to the same receptors in the body as sedative drugs, but it is of course, completely natural. (9) One study found that chamomile extract significantly improved sleep quality in elderly people after 28-days (10) and others have shown improvements in anxiety (11), which is often related to sleep problems. Chamomile can also be a safer alternative to benzodiazepine sleeping aids that increase the risk of falls and injuries.
Nutrition Facts for Tea Herb Brewed Chamomile.
4 Spinach
A Bowl of Spinach
Spinach is a top source of the mineral magnesium that helps calm the nervous system and relaxes muscles. Magnesium supplements for 8 weeks improved symptoms of insomnia in elderly adults, including sleep time, sleep efficiency, and reduced early morning awakenings. (12) Other studies have found benefits of magnesium in combination with other nutrients (melatonin, zinc, B vitamins) for people with insomnia. (13,14) Magnesium can also alleviate periodic limb movements during sleep and restless leg syndrome, both of which disturb sleep. (15)
Nutrition Facts for Cooked Spinach.
5 Fermented Foods (Sauerkraut, Kimchi)
Kimchi in a bowl
Sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented foods are a top source of probiotics, which have myriad health benefits including improving sleep quality via their actions on improving gut health. A 2021 Korean study found that probiotic supplements for 8 weeks produced significant benefits for sleep and mental health. (16) Another 2021 study found that prebiotics (carbohydrates that feed and stimulate the growth of the good bacteria in the gut) improved sleep quality in 70 adults, aged 35-50 suffering with moderate sleep disturbances. (17)
Nutrition Facts for Kimchi.
6 Kiwifruit
Slices of kiwifruit
Consumption of kiwifruits before bed appears to enhance the sleep of individuals with self-reported sleep disorders and may also promote sleep in healthy individuals. (18) One study gave subjects aged 20-55 years, 2 kiwifruit an hour before bed for 4 weeks and found improvements in total sleep duration and quality, they also fell asleep more quickly and woke up less in the night. Kiwifruit also have a high serotonin content, which could account for these effects, along with antioxidants and folate, both of which have been associated with benefits relating to sleep. (19)
Nutrition Facts for Kiwifruit.
7 Oily Fish
Salmon Fillets
Oily Fish provides vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are involved in serotonin regulation and therefore in sleep regulation. One study gave US prison inmates oily fish three times a week for 5 months (over the winter) and reported some improvements in sleep quality and daily functioning. (20) Vitamin D deficiency has been previously linked with poor sleep and supplements have led to improvements.(21,22) Omega-3 fats have also been shown to reduce sleep disturbances in children with clinical sleep problems. (23)
Nutrition Facts for Cooked Oatmeal.
8 Oatmeal
A bowl of oatmeal with blueberries
Oats and other complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, wholewheat breads and pastas help raise the body's levels of serotonin. (24) Tryptophan is used to make serotonin and melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep, and eating carbohydrate foods makes tryptophan more available to the brain. Eating an evening meal containing complex carbohydrates combined with protein (to provide the tryptophan) can therefore help induce sleep. Oats also contain some tryptophan and wholegrains, in general, are a good source of magnesium.
Nutrition Facts for Cooked Oatmeal.
9 Nuts
Nuts and Seeds in a Bowl
Nuts, specifically walnuts, contain small quantities of melatonin (25), along with sleep-promoting minerals magnesium and zinc. An Italian study found that magnesium, zinc, and melatonin supplements improved sleep in care home residents suffering with insomnia. (14) Magnesium promotes the release of a neurotransmitter called GABA in the brain (26,27) that calms the nervous system and the mind, reduces thoughts and helps promote sleep. Nuts and seeds are also another top source of tryptophan for melatonin production.
Nutrition Facts for Brazilnuts.
10 Malted Milk
A glass of milk
A glass of warm milk is a popular night time drink, believed to encourage a good night's sleep. The evidence for regular milk is limited, but it's better for malted milk. (28) Milk is a source of tryptophan and when milk is malted (adding carbohydrate), this raises blood sugar levels, allowing more tryptophan to cross the blood brain barrier and enter the brain. Malted milk is also a source of various vitamins linked with sleep physiology, including vitamins D, B12 and B6. (18) Two small studies in the 1970s observed reduced restlessness and movements during sleep following a night-time drink of malted milk. (29,30)
Nutrition Facts for Milk Malted.

Foods To Avoid For Better Sleep

  • Caffeine - can take 10-12 hours to be fully metabolised and can suppress melatonin production for up to 10 hours. If you are having severe sleep problems, it is advisable to cut caffeine out completely, otherwise limit yourself to one coffee or two teas, per day, before noon. Alternative hot drinks that promote sleep and relaxation are chamomile, valerian, and sleep formula teas.
  • Sugar - can be stimulating, so avoiding refined sugar in the evenings and limiting it in general, can be helpful (31,32). Chocolate contains small amounts of caffeine, another stimulating chemical called theobromine and sugar, so should be avoided in the evenings if you are sensitive. If you wish to indulge in a few squares of dark chocolate, have it as an afternoon snack with some nuts.
  • Alcohol - people often resort to a glass of wine to relax and alcohol does temporarily promote the brain-chemical GABA, which makes us feel relaxed. Unfortunately, the effect doesn't last and too much alcohol actually leads to GABA depletion. Furthermore, although alcohol can help you fall asleep, it reduces the quality of sleep, so overall is not helpful.
  • Eating Late - eating late or large, heavy evening meals, and difficult to digest foods such as red meat, fried foods, and spicy foods can all disrupt sleep. They can cause indigestion and discomfort that can interfere with sleep, plus eating late means that you won't have digested the food properly before you go to sleep. We should aim to eat dinner at least 3 hours before bed to allow time to fully digest it. If work or other commitments mean eating late, eat more during the day and have a lighter evening meal such as a vegetable soup.

General Tips to Sleep Better

  • Regular exercise helps to improve sleep quality. Morning exercise is best, but if you exercise in the evenings avoid high intensity exercise, which can be over-stimulating.
  • Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga and meditation are great for calming the nervous system and are scientifically proven to improve sleep and reduce stress levels (33,34,35).
  • Sleeping and waking at consistent times, helps establish good 'sleep-hygiene' and regulates your body clock. Early to bed and early to rise encourages the best quality sleep.
  • Making the bedroom restful and comfortable is the second aspect of 'sleep-hygiene' to consider. It should be dark, quiet, free from clutter, cool, and somewhere you feel relaxed. If you live in a noisy city, earplugs and eye-masks help.
  • The screens of laptops, tablets, and smart phones give off blue light that suppresses melatonin (sleep hormone) production. Avoiding screens and exposure to bright light for an hour before bed is therefore beneficial.
  • A warm bath before bed has been shown to help some people get to sleep more easily, as the change in body temperature helps induce sleep.
  • Avoid stimulating or stressful activities in the evenings such as watching the news, studying, high-intensity exercise, video games, difficult conversations, and any other stressful situations. These activities stimulate adrenalin production, which blocks sleep.
  • If you are anxious about anything or have a to-do list running through your mind, write it down so you can switch off from it for now, and deal with it the next day.
  • Going to bed very hungry can lead to low blood sugar levels at night, known as nocturnal hypoglycemia, which results in the release of stimulating hormones. A small snack about 30 minutes before bed will be enough to prevent this if it's a problem for you.

Data Sources and References

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  6. Losso JN, Finley JW, Karki N, Liu AG, Prudente A, Tipton R, Yu Y, Greenway FL. Effects of a tart cherry juice beverage on the sleep of older adults with insomnia: a pilot study Am J Ther. 2018 Mar/Apr;25(2):e194-e201. doi: 10.1097/MJT.0000000000000584. 28901958
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