From early birds to night owls, we all can agree that when we finally lay our heads on the pillow we’d like to actually go to sleep, thank you.
Nothing is more annoying than insomnia, and the evidence is piling up that sleep is essential for good health. Although the research is a bit spotty when it comes to which foods help or harm sleep, anecdotal evidence does suggest that certain items consumed right before bedtime are more likely to be “sleep promoters” while others may be “sleep stealers,” says Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D., CEO of the National Sleep Foundation.
Here’s a list of potential good guys when it comes to getting some shut-eye.
Cherries are one of the few natural foods to contain melatonin, the chemical that helps control our body’s internal clock, says Keri Gans, a registered dietician in New York City and author of The Small Change Diet.
One study—albeit a small one—found that drinking tart cherry juice resulted in small improvements in sleep duration and quality in adults who suffered from chronic insomnia. (And travelers often take melatonin capsules to combat jet lag).
Why not a few cherries, tart or otherwise, to promote sleep?
You may have fond memories of your mother or grandmother making you a glass of warm milk to help you fall asleep. This may not be just an old wives’ tale. Milk contains the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the brain chemical serotonin. Although the topic is a controversial one, some people believe that tryptophan and serotonin might make it easier to sleep. Or maybe a simple glass of milk brings back soothing childhood memories, which help you drift off.
Jasmine rice ranks high on the glycemic index, meaning the body digests it slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the bloodstream. A 2007 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that consuming jasmine rice four hours before bedtime cut the amount of time it took to fall asleep in half when compared with eating a high-glycemic-index meal at the same time interval. The authors speculate that high-glycemic-index meals may up the production of tryptophan.
Carbs in general are good for sleep but it’s not a great idea to binge on a box of cookies before bedtime (or anytime). Instead, try a bowl of Kashi or shredded wheat which contain “good” or complex carbs. Even better, cereal goes well with milk which has its own sleep-promoting qualities. “That’s two for the price of one,” Rosenberg says. Other complex carbs are quinoa, barley, and buckwheat.
Bananas help promote sleep because they contain the natural muscle-relaxants magnesium and potassium, says Gans. They’re also carbs which will help make you sleepy as well. In fact, bananas are a win-win situation in general. “They’re overall health promoters,” says Rosenberg. “We need potassium for cardiovascular health and cognitive functioning.”
Like milk, turkey contains tryptophan, a chemical that can make people doze off in front of the TV after Thanksgiving dinner. But if you’re a die-hard insomniac, a meal’s worth of turkey (or a glass of milk) isn’t likely to help you. “You’d have to drink a lot of milk or turkey to have a major effect,” says Rosenberg. “[But] if you need a little bit of a push in the right direction [it might help].”
Sweet potatoes are a sleeper’s dream. Not only do they provide sleep-promoting complex carbohydrates, they also contain that muscle-relaxant potassium. Other good sources of potassium include regular potatoes (baked and keep the skin on), lima beans, and papaya.
The root of the valerian plant has been shown in some studies to speed the onset of sleep and improve sleep quality. Some people hold that valerian tea along with motherwort, chamomile, and catnip brews, none of which contain caffeine, will help make you drowsy. It may not be any property of the actual tea however, but the power of the relaxing ritual as you get ready for bed, says Roehrs.