The Best and Worst Foods for Better Sleep, According to a Doctor
Having trouble falling and staying asleep? There are foods that can help with that, and others that could be the reason why you're having trouble.
We talked with sleep expert and author, Kavita Desai, Pharm.D., to learn more about the foods that can impact your sleep cycle, for better or worse. Some might be expected while others are pleasantly surprising. Here are some of the best and worst foods you can eat for better sleep, according to Desai.
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The Best Foods for Better Sleep
Eggs are one of the top foods you can eat for better sleep, according to Desai, and that's because they contain melatonin.
"There are certain foods that contain melatonin, which is the hormone that our body produces to help regulate our circadian rhythms and improve our sleep cycle," Desai said. "Eggs are very high in melatonin."
Whether it's Air-Fryer Wasabi Egg Salad Wraps for lunch or Coriander-&-Lemon-Crusted Salmon with Asparagus Salad & Poached Egg for dinner, you might want to include eggs in your meals for improved sleep quality.
Like eggs, milk also contains melatonin.
"We've all heard that a glass of warm milk before bed can help you sleep, and that's part of the reason," Desai pointed out. So pour a glass of milk for yourself (or enjoy it in a smoothie or decaf hot tea, see below), and you might find falling asleep to be much easier.
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Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines are packed with omega-3s, which are specific types of unsaturated fats that can help promote healthy brain function and improve mental health, both of which aid in better sleep.
"Eating fish like salmon two to three times a week can be beneficial, as they have nutrients like vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids which help regulate our serotonin levels," Desai said.
From our Gochujang-Glazed Grilled Mackerel to our Egg & Salmon Sandwich, there are many ways to enjoy these fish in your eating pattern.
Turkey doesn't have to just be a Thanksgiving delicacy. The lean protein has a lot of nutritional benefits, including supporting a restful sleep. "Turkey is high in protein, and it has an amino acid in it called tryptophan which can help you sleep," Desai said.
For dinner, try our Turkey Chili or Slow-Cooker Turkey Thighs with Herb Gravy for a healthy and satisfying meal.
"Bananas are very high in magnesium," Desai said as a reason for why bananas are one of the best foods for better sleep. Magnesium is an essential mineral to include in your diet, not only to help improve your sleep quality but to support muscle growth, heart health and healthy digestion. Try bedtime snacks like our Frozen Chocolate-Banana Bites or Sprouted-Grain Toast with Peanut Butter & Banana to get your fix.
Similar to bananas, pumpkin seeds are high in magnesium, so Desai suggests a handful is a perfect bedtime snack. Try seasoning them with everything bagel seasoning or salt and vinegar for a salty and savory bite.
Related: Pumpkin Seed Salmon with Maple-Spice Carrots
There's three types of tea that Desai recommends to her patients:
Chamomile: "Chamomile is often touted as a calming tea, and it actually has an ingredient in it called apigenin," she said. "And that particular chemical not only promotes relaxation and the calming effect that chamomile has, but it can also decrease symptoms of insomnia."
Valerian: "Valerian is often known as 'sleepy time tea,' but I call it a natural sedative," Desai said, before cautioning: "The only thing I caution is that a common side effect that people experience when drinking valerian tea before bed is they may experience very vivid dreams. So if that's something you have a problem with, you may want to avoid it."
Passion Flower: The last tea that Desai recommends is passion flower tea. "Like valerian, it acts as a sedative, so it's very calming," she explained.
Related: This Is the #1 Food for Better Sleep, According to a Dietitian
The Worst Foods for Better Sleep
It's probably not a shock to hear that coffee or any highly caffeinated drink should be avoided not only at night, but hours before you're ready to snuggle into bed.
"I typically recommend cutting out caffeine by midday at the latest. It really depends on your sensitivity," Desai explained. "I find women become increasingly sensitive to caffeine [as they age], so you really want to be aware of when you're drinking coffee in the day and to opt for decaf when needed."
Related: How Much Caffeine Is Too Much? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say
While consuming alcohol in the evening might make you tired, you should limit the amount of alcoholic beverages you drink if you're looking for a good night's sleep, according to Desai.
"Alcohol completely disrupts your sleep cycle. Although it feels like it's sedating and it helps you fall asleep, it generally will not allow you to stay asleep and you may wake up feeling very fatigued," she said.
Foods that are high in added sugar and other simple carbohydrates can negatively affect your sleep cycle if consumed closer to bedtime.
"Anything that's not fueling your brain can disrupt your sleep, whether it's ultra-processed foods or foods higher in [added] sugar," Desai suggested. "All of these foods tend to be more stimulating, and especially in the long-term will not help you achieve a longer, more restful sleep."
Related: Is There Such a Thing as Good Carbs and Bad Carbs?
The Bottom Line
Desai's suggestions were incredibly helpful in understanding the best and worst foods for better sleep. Foods rich in melatonin, omega-3s and magnesium are generally beneficial for improving sleep whereas highly caffeinated or high-added-sugar foods can negatively affect your sleep cycle. Want more insights from Desai? Check out her book Lady Parts: Putting Women's Health Back Into Women's Hands.
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