Senior Health

6/3/2022 | By Jill Waldbieser

In addition to being part of a healthy, balanced diet, some foods provide nutrients that contribute to a good night’s sleep. Dietitians weigh in on foods for better sleep.

A balanced diet and a good night’s sleep are mainstays of healthy living. But lately research has begun to uncover just how much the former impacts the latter. A 2021 review in the journal Sleep Medicine Review concluded that eating a healthy diet was associated with better sleep quality. Few people know this better than registered dietitians, who are well-versed in the role different nutrients can play in getting to sleep and staying asleep.

“Sleep and metabolism are both regulated in part by circadian rhythms,” says Christina Badaracco, M.P.H, RD, LDN, a Washington, D.C.-based dietitian, referring to the human body’s internal clock, which impacts hormone production and other metabolic processes. “We’ve also recently learned that our gut microbiota – which are modified through our diet, among other factors – regulate aspects of our sleep. The specific types of foods and beverages we consume, as well as their quantity and timing, affect our sleep quality and duration.”

In general, research has found that eating in line with the Mediterranean or DASH diet, both of which promote fruits and vegetables, whole foods, and nutrients such as fiber and healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, tends to be associated with better-quality sleep. Meanwhile, the typical Western diet has been linked to more restless nights.

“While there won’t be a single food that is going to be a magic bullet to getting people to sleep, focusing on certain nutrients may actually help the body experience an easier time falling asleep or getting better-quality rest at night,” says Lauren Manaker, M.S., RDN, LD, a Charleston-based registered dietitian. It’s best to eat a few hours prior to bedtime to avoid having digestive issues interfere with your sleep and to allow the nutrients to be digested before calling it a night. Here are some favorite evening snacks that registered dietitians enjoy when they want to sleep right.

Three top dietitian ideas on foods for better sleep

oatmeal with honey. Photo by Rebecca Picard. Some healthy foods also provide nutrients to contribute to a good night’s sleep. Dietitians weigh in on foods for better sleep.

Oatmeal with milk, ginger, and honey

Whole grains such as oats increase the production of serotonin, a hormone that relaxes the nerves and tells the brain it’s time to sleep, says Karla Giboyeaux, M.A., RDN, a dietitian based in New York City. Meanwhile, quicker-digesting carbohydrates such as honey and the lactose in milk stimulate insulin release, which in turn allows tryptophan to enter the brain, where it can produce more serotonin. That means this combination doubles your sleepiness factor.

Banana, nut butter, and cinnamon

One of the more well-known sleep-promoting nutrients is tryptophan, an essential amino acid (aka protein building block) that plays a role in the production of serotonin and melatonin, says Badaracco. While you may associate tryptophan with turkey and post-Thanksgiving food comas, it’s also found in foods like bananas, oats, and cheese. Adding a little no-added-sugar nut butter gives you a hit of magnesium, a mineral that promotes relaxation. A sprinkle of cinnamon can add flavor and anti-inflammatory benefit as well.

Whole-wheat avocado toast with pumpkin seeds

“Magnesium, a mineral that we obtain via our diet, helps regulate melatonin, a hormone that plays a key role in sleep,” says Manaker. “It also plays a role in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, ultimately helping people feel calm.” Avocado and pumpkin seeds are both good sources of magnesium, and make a winning combination on whole-wheat toast. Plus, the avocado’s healthy fats are satiating enough to prevent hunger pangs from striking later in the evening.

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Jill Waldbieser

Jill Waldbieser is a journalist, recipe developer, and lover of food with 20 years’ experience in the health, wellness, and lifestyle space, featuring in many publications such as Women’s Health, Men’s Health, Cooking Light, EatingWell and Reader’s Digest. She was the Food & Nutrition Editor at Women’s Health magazine for 10 years, where she oversaw cooking, nutrition, and weight loss content for the magazine. She has had the pleasure of cooking in Italy, Alaska, and the Campbell Soup Test Kitchen, and has prepared and eaten everything from octopus to crickets to plant-based tuna. When she’s not cooking or eating for work or pleasure, she can be found volunteering at her local farmers market or blood donation center, practicing American Sign Language, which she uses to communicate with her son, who is deaf, or on a river somewhere, looking for rapids to kayak.