The Best Foods to Help Sleep, According to a Nutritionist

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Written By Paklay Zablay

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If you’re struggling to get regular, good quality sleep, the solution might lie beyond your bedroom and in your kitchen. It turns out, the best foods to help sleep may be as important as ensuring you turn off devices early and get to bed on time.

“It might sound unusual, but a restful night’s sleep begins with what’s on your plate,” says nutritionist GQ Jordan. “Including the right nutrients nourishes your body and supports your natural sleep-wake cycle, known as the circadian rhythm.” Here’s what you need to know to help you drift off more easily.

Make magnesium a non-negotiable

When it comes to the best foods for sleep, you’ll want to consider options with magnesium. “An essential nutrient for sleep is magnesium, which can be depleted by stress and exercise,” says Jordan. If you find yourself over-thinking or feeling overwhelmed, and that it’s affecting your sleep, you probably need some more magnesium in your diet. As well as being involved in over 600 enzymatic reactions in the body—including regulating mood and stress responses— magnesium is an excellent sleep support because it regulates the neurotransmitter GABA, raised levels of which are often associated with insomnia and sleep issues.

To ensure you get enough in your diet you’ll need to stock up on plenty of dark, leafy greens as well as nuts, wholegrains, seeds and soybeans. Dark chocolate is also a good source, so no need to curb that late night sweet snack if that’s your thing.

Increase your tryptophan intake

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that’s used in the synthesis of protein in the body. Because it doesn’t occur naturally, we need to recoup it from our diets to have an adequate amount. Its vital role in promoting sleep comes because it’s also the sole precursor of serotonin, which is itself a precursor of melatonin, the sleep hormone.

Taken just before bed—or eaten with your evening meal—it has been shown to decrease the time it takes to fall asleep. “Tryptophan, found in poultry, beef, tofu, oats, bananas and dairy, is pivotal for producing hormones that facilitate relaxation and sleep onset,” says Jordan, who recommends getting enough protein at each meal. “That’s about 25 to 30g, an amount roughly the size of your palm.” As well as supporting the production of these important hormones, proteins like these will also help stabilize your blood sugar levels, which means steadier, less spiked sleep.

More melatonin

Given that it’s the holy grail of sleep hormones, it makes sense to try and up your melatonin intake if you’re struggling to switch off at night. Failure to naturally produce enough can be down to several things, but elevated cortisol levels at night (when they should be decreasing and melatonin should be increasing) are often a factor.

Although it doesn’t actually make you fall asleep, melatonin puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps to promote sleep. “For a natural source of melatonin, our sleep-promoting hormone, consider tart cherry juice,” says Jordan. “A post-dinner mocktail made with 200ml tart cherry juice, 100ml sparkling water, and a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, served over ice with mint leaves, can signal to your body that it’s time to wind down, helping you fall asleep faster.” Most nuts (especially pistachios and almonds) are high in melatonin, while fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are also good sources. A pre-bed banana is also a good idea, as they can provide up to 26 percent of your daily recommended intake.

Add some omegas

Omega-3 fatty acids are key if you suffer with any kind of inflammation, but they might also be helpful for improving your sleep. One study found that those who ate diets low in omega-3s showed weaker secretions of melatonin, which resulted in disturbed sleep patterns. They can also help by regulating levels of norepinephrine, a chemical released by the body as part of the stress response. Adequate norepinephrine is important for sleep quality as it encourages REM sleep which is important for memory consolidation, brain development and emotional processing.

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