Best and Worst Foods for Sleep

What you eat for dinner plays an important role at bedtime. Add these 9 sleep-inducing foods to your evening routine while watching out for these 5 sleep inhibitors to ensure a restful night’s sleep.

Eating for Great Sleep

Photo: Paramount Pictures/PhotoFest

Eating for Great Sleep

Tired of counting sheep? Lying awake at night when you’re having trouble falling asleep can be extremely frustrating and may lead to unhealthy food choices, weight gain, and increased risk for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Research has found that nearly 70 million Americans are sleep deprived, and this number is growing.

While we know that shutting down electronics an hour before bedtime and hitting the sack at the same time every night can help achieve optimal sleep health, what you eat for dinner can also play a role. Since a good night’s sleep is important for our health and well-being, serve one of these sleep-inducing foods at dinner while keeping the sleep-offending foods to a minimum.

Best for Sleep: Milk

Best for Sleep: Milk

You can’t believe every old wives’ tale you hear, but your grandmother was right when she said that drinking a glass of milk before bed will help you sleep at night. Milk is a sleep supporter because it has tryptophan, which raises melatonin and serotonin levels in the body, both of which induce sleep. Plus, milk has calcium, and recent research has found that calcium deficiency in the diet can cause disturbed sleep patterns.

View Recipe: Date Milk Shake

Best for Sleep: Soybeans

Photo: Brian Woodcock

Best for Sleep: Soybeans

Vegetarians, no need to worry that tryptophan may only be found in meat since soybeans in their natural state can provide 100% of your daily value per cup. Soybeans not only contain a high concentration of this sleep-promoting amino acid, but they are also a source of calcium. Research has shown that adequate levels of calcium are linked to a better night’s sleep. 

View Recipe: Fettuccine with Edamame, Mint, and Pecorino

Best for Sleep: Walnuts

Photo: Johnny Autry

Best for Sleep: Walnuts

While all nuts have some tryptophan, cashews and walnuts take the lead with the highest amounts. Walnuts also contain melatonin to add even more bang for your sleep-promoting buck. Try sprinkling nuts on a salad, in a pasta dish, or with roasted vegetables to add crunch, flavor, and protein.

View Recipe: Apple-Walnut Kale Salad

Best for Sleep: Salmon

Photo: Francesco Tonelli

Best for Sleep: Salmon

As if there weren’t already enough positive health benefits for eating salmon, salmon along with cod, halibut, tuna, and snapper are all good sources of vitamin B6, which promotes the production of sleep hormones. Plus, salmon is high in protein to help keep you full throughout the night.

View Recipe: Barbecue Salmon and Snap Pea Slaw

Watch: The Best Way to Cook Salmon

Best for Sleep: Tart Cherries

Photo: Romulo Yanes

Best for Sleep: Tart Cherries

Tart cherries are one of the few foods that naturally contain melatonin, and new research has shown that drinking tart cherry juice before bed may help improve the quality and duration of sleep. Look for fun ways to incorporate tart cherries, such as dried frozen cherries, or cherry juice into your dinner meal or pre bed snack.

View Recipe: Dark Cherry Merlot Sauce over Yogurt

See More: Cherry Recipes

Best for Sleep: Spinach

Photo: Jason Wallis

Best for Sleep: Spinach

This powerhouse vegetable boasts a long list of nutrients, including sleep-promoting tryptophan. Spinach is also high in vitamin B6, which plays double-duty to help tryptophan work its magic. Incorporate fresh spinach at dinner in salads, whole-grain dishes, sautéed and served alongside a protein, or blended into a smoothie.

View Recipe: Quick Parsley-Spinach Salad

Best for Sleep: Legumes

Photo: Justin Walker

Best for Sleep: Legumes

One cup of cooked black, navy, lima, kidney, or pinto beans provides half of your suggested daily intake of tryptophan. Beans are also a good source of protein and fiber to keep you full throughout the night. Try a combination of your favorite beans in soup or chili.

View Recipe: Black Bean Soup with Chorizo and Lime

Best for Sleep: Chicken

Photo: Brian Woodcock

Best for Sleep: Chicken

Many of us usually think of turkey when we think about foods that make us sleepy, but chicken actually packs more tryptophan than the Thanksgiving superstar. Make sure to get enough protein during the day to help with overall mood and sleep. For dinner, pair chicken with whole grains, like brown rice or quinoa, or potatoes to help provide balance for a better night’s sleep because carbohydrates are also sleep inducers.

View Recipe: Meyer Lemon Chicken

See More: 100 Chicken Recipes

Best for Sleep: Lentils

Photo: Johnny Autry

Best for Sleep: Lentils

Though small, these tiny members of the legume family make up in health benefits what they lack in size.  In addition to being a great source of tryptophan, lentils are packed with fiber to help with digestion and lower cholesterol. Enjoy lentils in a soup or on a salad and get ready for a great night’s sleep.

View Recipe: Grilled Peppers and Lentil Salad

Worst for Sleep: Chocolate

Photo: Randy Mayor

Worst for Sleep: Chocolate

A sneaky source of caffeine, chocolate can contain as much caffeine as a soda depending on how much you eat. Dark chocolate, in particular, contains more caffeine compared to white and milk chocolate. While a couple of small squares will not necessarily disrupt sleep, eating a whole bar of chocolate before bed could mean tossing and turning all night.

Worst for Sleep: Fatty Foods

Photo: Randy Mayor

Worst for Sleep: Fatty Foods

Eating a high-fat meal right before bed can hinder your natural sleep cycle and cause you to feel sleepier during the day. To ensure that you will sleep well during the night (and take care of your waistline), include lean proteins, whole grains, and vegetables on your dinner menu.

Worst for Sleep: Spicy Foods

Photo: Oxmoor House

Worst for Sleep: Spicy Foods

Not only can spicy foods trigger heartburn, but research has shown that they can also interrupt sleep by increasing core temperature when core temperature naturally decreases closer to bedtime. This can lead to sleep interference and being awake more during the night. Save the spicy foods for lunch, and choose mild-flavored favorites for dinner.

Worst for Sleep: Alcohol

Photo: Randy Mayor

Worst for Sleep: Alcohol

Some swear by a nightly glass of wine to help them fall asleep. But what they don’t know is that alcohol metabolizes quickly in our system and leads to sleep disruption, diminished quality of sleep, and increased snoring. Alcohol’s initial effects may make you sleepy, but they wear off in the middle of the night, often waking you and disturbing your REM cycle.

Worst for Sleep: High-Protein Meal

Photo: Oxmoor House

Worst for Sleep: High-Protein Meal

While this may come as a surprise, research has shown that eating a high-protein meal before bed can cause disturbances in sleep. Digestion slows down during sleep, so bulking up with a large quantity of protein at dinner may mean that the digestion of your high-protein dinner is keeping you up at night. Be sure to include carbohydrates and vegetables alongside protein at dinner for a healthy, balanced meal and a good night’s sleep.

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