Sleeping well isn’t always easy – we’re sure we don’t have to tell you that twice!
But did you know that sleep-inducing foods exist that could help you get a good night’s kip?
There are various chemicals, enzymes, amino acids and other nutrients that help us to fall and stay asleep, and thankfully, we can find a lot of those in foods and drinks.
We’ve put together this guide to help you discover melatonin-rich foods and other effective foods and drinks for sleep, plus the science behind how they work.
How does food affect sleep?
The foods and drinks we include in our diet can help us fall asleep and stay asleep, as well as totally mess up our natural sleep cycle: 4pm coffee – we’re looking at you!
Our diet affects multiple body processes, like energy metabolism and normal hormone production, which are linked to the sleep cycle.
For example, if you are not consuming the vitamins and minerals needed for your hormonal system to function normally, your body may not create enough melatonin- the hormone that signals sleep.
Some foods contain melatonin, too, which can also help with sleep.
Foods and drinks high in sugar also play a negative role in sleep; although your body may feel sleepy after eating a big slice of cake or other refined carbohydrates, it has been found to reduce the amount of deep sleep you experience and increase the number of times you wake up in the night.1
What foods make you sleepy?
There are a variety of different foods and drinks that can help support healthy sleep patterns, from foods rich in melatonin to high-fibre foods and micronutrient-packed drinks.
Some of the most effective foods that have the potential to make you sleepy (and stay sleepy!) include:
Foods with melatonin
Melatonin is essential for a good night’s sleep. This hormone is produced by the pineal gland (in the middle of the brain) and responds to sunlight.
Our bodies make less melatonin when the sun comes up and then ramps up production when the sun goes down, which is why we typically wake up when it gets light and feel tired when it gets dark.
Some research suggests that including foods high in melatonin could significantly increase the melatonin concentration in blood and help to improve your sleep.2
Some of the most popular natural melatonin foods include:
- Cereals / grains
- Other plant foods
You can also get melatonin supplements to help you sleep, which are usually formulated with other sleep-aiding nutrients, but it’s more satisfying and fun to eat, right?
We will list some of the best foods highest in melatonin and go into more detail below.
Foods that support melatonin production
As well as foods that contain melatonin, foods that contain nutrients and micronutrients that help your body naturally produce melatonin could also help you sleep.
The main nutrient needed to support melatonin production is the amino acid tryptophan.
Our bodies convert tryptophan into melatonin with the help of serotonin. It can be found in milk, as well as tuna, turkey chicken, oats, cheese, nuts and seeds.3
Another nutrient that is thought to support the sleep system is vitamin B12, which seems to contribute to melatonin production by increasing its synthesis and the number of brain receptors it has.4
There is growing evidence that consuming enough micronutrients in general is key for sleep. One large study found that a lack of the following nutrients was associated with sleep problems:5
Should you eat fruit before bed?
Eating a small amount of fruit before bed shouldn’t be an issue, and some varieties like tart cherries and kiwi fruits could actually help promote better sleep.
Just make sure you don’t overdo it and avoid any fruits that give you indigestion or heartburn before bed, as that will likely hinder your sleep.
When should you eat these sleep foods?
It depends on how much you want to eat.
Generally, you should aim to eat dinner around 3 hours before bed so your stomach can digest properly and focus on getting ready for bed, as our digestive system slows right down when we sleep.
With that being said, you probably won’t sleep very well if you have a grumbling, hungry stomach.
Eating small amounts of sleep-friendly foods can be the solution if you’re still peckish when bedtime rolls around.
What is the best food to eat at night?
The best foods for before you go to bed tend to be complex carbs, protein, fruit or vegetables – it’s not advisable to scoff a bag of sweets or drink a fizzy sugary drink before you want to sleep.
10 foods that help you sleep (and drinks)
Here are 10 of the best foods and drinks that could help you get that good night’s sleep you’ve been dreaming of (or not dreaming of…).
Oats could be an amazing choice to help you catch those ZZZs.
They contain both melatonin and the amino acid tryptophan that helps us create melatonin, which helps our brain send signals to the rest of our body that it’s time for sleep.6
Tryptophan also helps our bodies create the hormone serotonin that helps us to relax.7 A lot of sleep problems are exacerbated by anxiety and excessive worrying, so the more serotonin, the better.
Oats also contain B vitamins that help your body convert tryptophan into melatonin and serotonin – helping you sleep from all angles!
It’s also worth noting that you don’t have to eat oats at night for them to help you sleep – having them for breakfast will still help your body produce these sleep-aiding hormones.
Should you eat porridge before bed?
You probably won’t feel very comfortable wolfing down a big bowl of porridge before bed, but a small bowl or a little pre-prepared portion of overnight oats could help.
Alternatively, oat milk and oat milk drinks could provide you with the same micronutrients if you don’t fancy eating late at night.
Handpicked content: 2 ways to make overnight oats
Kiwis are a very nutritious fruit that could also help you sleep well.
They are a low-calorie way to satisfy your sweet tooth, while providing you with a generous amount of vitamin C (71% of your daily recommendation in one fruit) and vitamin K, vitamin B9 (folic acid), potassium and other trace minerals.8
Research suggests that kiwis have the potential to improve sleep quality, usually attributed to their serotonin-supporting nutrients.
One 4-week study followed 24 adults who were told to eat 2 kiwis 1 hour before going to bed each night.
By the end of the study, participants were falling asleep 42% faster compared to when they didn’t eat anything before bedtime.9
There may be an extra reason why you feel extra sleepy after Christmas dinner!
Turkey is high in protein, including the amino acid tryptophan to help us make serotonin and melatonin.
Eating moderate amounts protein before has been linked to better quality sleep, too, potentially helping to decrease restless periods during the night.10
More research is needed to confirm that turkey could help sleep, but its credentials look promising.
Tart cherries, also known as Montmorency cherries and sour cherries are a very rich source of antioxidants and other nutrients.
Unlike sweet cherries that people tuck into as a snack, tart cherries are usually consumed as a juice.
They are a good source of:
These cherries are naturally rich in melatonin, and also contain a good amount of tryptophan and anthocyanins, both of which support melatonin production.
One study tested giving people with insomnia 480ml of tart cherry juice or a placebo every day for 2 weeks.
The cherry juice increased sleep time in participants by 85 minutes on average.11
Milk and dairy
Eating and drinking dairy products like milk is generally considered to have a positive effect of physical and mental health, as well as promoting food sleep quality.
This is thought to be because milk and dairy product are a great source of melatonin – containing a high amount of tryptophan.
Interestingly, an amino acid found in dairy called a-lactalbumin is thought to help tryptophan reach the brain where it can be synthesised into serotonin and melatonin.
A systematic review of past studies between 1972 and 2019 observed that a well-balanced diet including milk and dairy products is ‘considered to be effective for improving sleep quality’.12
However, it also stated that there was a correlation between people who met daily calcium recommendations and a generally healthy diet, so that could be a factor.
Does cheese help you sleep?
Have you ever heard the rumour that cheese causes you to have strange dreams? Well, there might be something in that.
As explained above, cheese and other dairy products help our bodies synthesis the hormones we need for sleep: serotonin and melatonin. We often need to be in a deep sleep to dream, after all!
As well as dairy, vegan-friendly soy products could also help you sleep better.
Soy products like soy milk, tofu, and tempeh contain good levels of tryptophan, the substance that helps our bodies synthesise serotonin and melatonin.13
It could be particularly effective in menopausal and post-menopausal women due to its isoflavone content.
Isoflavones are believed to (weakly) mimic the hormone oestrogen, levels of which decline when women go through the menopause. Most postmenopausal women have insomnia.14
One study on postmenopausal women with insomnia found that isoflavone treatment was effective in reducing insomnia symptoms, which was confirmed by increased sleep quality and efficiency.15
Oestrogen could also help other women and men sleep, as it affects the brain via the same neurotransmitters that are involved in sleep regulation.
Another large cross-sectional study on 1076 Japanese adults aged 20-78 years studied the link between isoflavone intake and sleep evaluation. They found that higher daily isoflavone intake was positively associated with optimal sleep quality and duration.16
Fatty fish and oily fish like mackerel, salmon, trout and tuna contain very high levels of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.
Both of these nutrients have the potential to help people sleep better, as they help produce serotonin and consequently, melatonin.17,18
A population-based study on sleep quality in Ecuador found that oily fish consumption was associated with better sleep quality. This was even witnessed in people who ingested more than the recommended amount of fish.19
Almonds are a slightly sweet tree nut with some pretty sweet potential sleep benefits to boot!
A normal 28g serving of almonds provides you with significant amounts of melatonin and magnesium - 2 substances known to help you relax and improve the quality of your sleep.20,21
They also contain phosphorus, riboflavin, manganese and other nutrients that could help support your sleep system.
One study on rats who were fed 400mg of almond extract found that they slept more deeply and for longer than without the extract.22
However, it’s worth noting that human trials are limited when it comes to almonds and how they could affect our sleep.
Another great benefit of almonds is that you don’t have to have many to enjoy the benefits and feel full, unlike other foods you may need to have a large portion of.
They’re the perfect pre-bed snack.
You know they say that walnuts look like little brains? Well, it turns out they could help your brain create the hormones it needs to signal sleep – clever, eh?
Walnuts are a powerhouse of nutrients including magnesium, phosphorus, copper and manganese.23
They’re also one of the best food sources of melatonin and are full of tryptophan and omega-3 fatty acids – a winning combination to help you get a better night’s sleep.24,25
Just like almonds, you don’t have to have bowls and bowls of walnuts, a handful will suffice – making them an ideal snack before bed.
Barley grass powder
Barley grass powder is highly nutritious, especially when it comes to sleep-promoting compounds.
You can find calcium, tryptophan, GABA, zinc, magnesium and potassium in this bright green powder, which all support sleep regulation.
A 2018 literature review found that barley grass powder may help to regulate normal sleep patterns.26
It’s great for adding to milk or a light smoothie before bed.
As it is savoury, you can also simply mix it into your dinner, e.g., soups and salad dressings.
Other foods and drinks that could help you sleep:27
- Chamomile tea
- Mustard seeds
The final say
We hope this guide has helped explain the link between our diet and sleep and the potential benefits some foods may bring to bedtime. Happy late-night snacking!
Last updated: 13 October 2021