Three of the major foundations for mental and emotional well-being are nutrition, exercise and sleep.  At the core, eating healthier, sleeping well, and staying active helps you cope with and rejuvenate from daily stressful situations.  In addressing sleep issues specifically, some foods interfere with good sleep hygiene and other foods can better regulate neurotransmitters which aid in restful sleep.

There are a couple of major components that we should discuss in achieving optimal sleep.  Melatonin and serotonin are found to have a significant impact on quality of sleep.  Serotonin is instrumental in mood regulation, for decreasing anxiety, eliciting calm, and for sound sleep.  Melatonin is a hormone released by the pineal gland and helps to control and maintain your sleep and wake cycles.  Without melatonin, your brain would not recognize the necessity to wind down and relax when necessary.  The neurotransmitter serotonin plays a critical role in communicating accurate messages to the brain. In order for your body to produce serotonin, it requires the amino acid tryptophan, usually found in protein rich foods.  If protein is absent in one’s diet, neurotransmitters like serotonin can’t be built.

In general, a well balanced diet, is optimal for good sleep.  Most importantly, the first two meals of the day should include lean protein which further aids mood stabilization and cognitive functioning.  Before bed though, you should consider a different approach.  Large portions of red meats block the synthesis of serotonin, and thus, decreases the likelihood of sleep initiation and uninterrupted sleep.

In considering what snacks to eat before bedtime, let’s first discuss what you shouldn’t eat.  Simple carbohydrates, such as white rice, white pasta, candy, and desserts rapidly increase blood sugar, and subsequently results in withdrawal.  This insulin crash can magnify pre-existing negative emotions associated with insomnia.  Your mind is then activated, frustration mounts, and the fight against wakefulness continues as stress hormones are released. Tryptophan-rich foods in the form of proteins are needed, but they also simultaneously release the amino acid, tyrosine, which keeps the brain active and awake. This is exactly the opposite effect we are trying to achieve.

To expand further, simple carbohydrates in the evening can cause fairly quick withdrawal symptoms, particularly during the next day. At that point, an individual starts to experience diminished levels of serotonin, and then is immersed in increased anxiety, depression and irritability.  If somebody already has an existing anxiety or mood disorder, poor sleep will lead to intensified negative emotions and further disrupted sleep, perpetuating the cycle.

Furthermore, this roller coaster of temporary well-being following sugar intake and low levels of neurotransmitters is associated with scattered cognitive functioning. Upon this awareness, it is important to eliminate negative thoughts towards oneself.  Shame undermines the intention of solidifying behavioral changes. Self-deprecating labels lead to black and white thinking, e.g., “I already blew it by binging, I might as well just eat more”. Because of the strong negative emotional effect, it’s best to avoid simple carbohydrates in large quantities in order to encourage healthy sleep patterns.

Serotonin production is facilitated by eating a small portion of protein, together with a complex carbohydrate.  Oatmeal, turkey and warm milk all contain the necessary tryptophan amino acids.  As we learned though, they also release tyrosine which interferes with sleep.  Eating a complex carbohydrate with a protein blocks tyrosine from getting to the brain.  Legumes, nuts, whole grains and rice are all great choices for complex carbohydrates.  These carbohydrates allow tryptophan to get to the brain before tyrosine.  Thus, the brain is able to produce serotonin leading to quicker sleep onset.

Melatonin is another important hormone necessary for good sleep.  The bodies’ natural ability to produce melatonin is triggered by the change in light patterns and signals to the brain that you are ready to initiate sleep.  In addition to light sources, there are many natural foods available to increase sleepiness.  Not only are they high in antioxidants but pineapple, kiwi, apples, and red cherries are also known for their ability to naturally assist the winding down process.

Keep the portions small and consider reaching for any of these top 10 sleepy foods and these other snack combinations to wind down for the night:

  • Apples and oatmeal with almonds
  • Peanut butter, drizzled honey and banana sandwich on whole wheat
  • Whole grain cereal and milk with cherries
  • Brown rice with cottage cheese and sweet corn

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