What you eat can drastically affect how you sleep, so in order to get a good night’s rest, it is essential to choose foods that calm your mind and body rather than those that stimulate you. Certain types of foods will naturally promote rest and relaxation, particularly those that contain tryptophan - the amino acid that the body uses to make serotonin, the neurotransmitter that slows nerve activity within your brain.
Since tryptophan is a precursor of other neurotransmitters in your brain, including serotonin and melatonin, eating foods that are rich in tryptophan will help you feel relaxed and sleepy. Foods such as turkey, hummus, lentils, and kelp are naturally high in tryptophan and also contain nutrients that provide a host of other health benefits. In addition, bananas not only contain tryptophan, but also potassium and magnesium, which are natural muscle relaxants. Fresh and dried cherries are also one of the only natural food sources of melatonin.
Foods that are rich in starchy, high-glycemic carbohydrates may also promote better sleep, as they help to stimulate the release of insulin and tryptophan and cause these sleep-inducing substances to enter the brain. According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, carbohydrates that are on the high end of the glycemic index scale, meaning they increase the body’s sugar levels rapidly, encourage sleep when eaten at least four hours before bedtime. Foods such as Jasmine rice, potatoes, carrots, corn, puffed cereal, and honey are some of the healthiest choices of simple carbohydrates.
Calcium helps the brain use the tryptophan to manufacture melatonin. Certain combinations, such as whole-grain cereal with milk, a peanut butter sandwich, or crackers with cheese contain both carbohydrates and calcium that work together to relax the mind and body. Calcium itself is so beneficial in helping you sleep, as it is a natural muscle relaxant that can also help you manage stress levels.
Eating these various foods calms your nervous system and triggers a sleep-inducing hormonal response, helping you rest better at night. However, timing is everything, as eating a large meal too late or eating right before bed time can actually have the opposite effect and keep you up at night. It is best to eat these foods later in the day or at least one hour before bed time since it takes about one hour for tryptophan from food sources to reach the brain.
Above all else, it is important to avoid rich, heavy and high-fat foods within two hours of bed time, as they require a lot of work to digest, and may cause stomach trouble and heartburn. It is also wise to avoid drinking too many liquids, including water, juice, tea or other fluids, as this may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night. Caffeinated drinks, such as soda, coffee or caffeinated teas not only act as diuretics, but will also keep you stimulated and make falling asleep that much more difficult.