Do you struggle with sleep? One in three people have problems with sleep - and it’s worse for women. If you have trouble dropping off, waking up during the night or waking too early, eating the right foods and avoiding the ones that disrupt sleep might help.
Recent research shows that generally, following a Mediterranean diet is associated with better sleep. Think vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and healthy fats. Read on for 12 foods that may help you sleep, the foods that can make sleep problems worse – and how to change your food habits to help you sleep.
The 12 best foods for better sleep
Get more from melatonin with these sleepy foods
Walnuts contain tryptophan, the amino acid that helps our bodies produce the sleep-boosting hormones serotonin and melatonin. Walnuts are also high in melatonin. Your pineal gland releases melatonin at night to regulate our sleep, and if you have low levels you may have trouble falling asleep.
In the UK, melatonin supplements are only available on prescription for some people who find it hard to fall asleep, work shifts or are jet-lagged. But you may be able to increase your levels with more walnuts.
Eat: make a walnut pasta with anchovies, parsley and red chilli flakes; or eat a handful as a snack; serve with cheese and honey, or add to cereal, salads or flapjacks.
Almonds are a good source of magnesium, which is needed to regulate sleep-promoting melatonin. Magnesium also relaxes your muscles. By eating a handful of almonds (around 10) a day, you might be able to improve sleep quality in 2 weeks, according to one study of students in dormitories.
Eat: snack; almond nut butter on toast (add chopped banana for an extra sleep booster); add almonds to muesli and smoothies
3. Oily fish
Salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel and other oily fish contain vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, which may help you sleep. Both boost serotonin production, which we know influences melatonin, the driver of our sleep patterns. One study found that indoor workers who were deficient in vitamin D had more sleep problems than those who weren’t.
Eat: salmon traybake; flaked trout pasta; sardines on toast; mackerel pate
Food choices to help your body make sleep hormones
This is rich in tryptophan, the amino acid that’s closely linked to our mood and sleep cycle. When it reaches your gut, tryptophan needs to be transported to your brain, where it creates serotonin and melatonin to help make you sleepy. Once in your bloodstream, tryptophan needs to hitch a ride from your gut and then enter the brain - and this is where carbs help. Eat your turkey with a helping of bread or rice to get the full benefits.
Eat: turkey risotto; turkey curry and rice; turkey sandwich.
5. Warm milk
A glass of warm milk and honey has long been seen as a gateway to a good night’s sleep. As with turkey, it’s the tryptophan that triggers the melatonin reaction in the brain. Research now shows milk could also help because it contains milk peptides (small proteins) that may contribute to reducing stress and help you fall asleep more easily. Milky and malted drinks not only improve the quality of your sleep, they also have a positive impact on how often you wake up and how long you sleep.
Drink: warm milk with honey and cinnamon; warm milk with cereal.
6. White rice
Step aside bread and noodles - rice is the starchy carb that improves sleep, one study found. That’s because the higher glycemic index (GI) of white rice helps transport tryptophan from the gut to the brain, where your body converts it into serotonin and melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep patterns. To get the benefits, serve rice with tryptophan-rich foods such as chicken, turkey, tuna and leafy greens.
Eat: chicken stir-fry with rice; tuna rice salad; spinach risotto.
Relax and feel sleepier with these foods
7. Chamomile tea
Traditionally used as a mild tranquilliser, there aren’t many scientific studies to confirm it helps but there are some theories it may contain sleep-promoting chemicals and it’s thought to be a safe and potentially effective remedy for improving sleep quality. A warm cup of caffeine-free chamomile is also soothing and can help you unwind before bedtime.
Drink: hot chamomile tea (steep for 3-5 minutes); or brew, chill and drink with slices of fruit.
8. Kiwi fruit
Make kiwis your fruit of choice if you struggle with falling asleep or don’t sleep for long enough. Many studies show that the fruit contains antioxidants and serotonin. One small study of 24 people found that eating 2 kiwis an hour before bed could help you fall asleep faster and sleep for longer.
Eat: sliced kiwi fruit with yoghurt; add to fruit salads; make a kiwi smoothie.
9. Rolled oats
The grain we enjoy as porridge at breakfast is a sleep inducing food, so eat nearer bedtime too for good sleep. Oats are a plant source of amino acid tryptophan that produces the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. Research shows that increased melatonin can reset circadian rhythms caused by jet lag or shift working and if your sleep patterns are generally poor.
Eat: flapjacks; fruit crumble with an oat topping; bircher muesli.
Eat these foods for all-round nutrition and sleep power
Eating a banana contributes to a woman’s daily magnesium intake (310-320mg). We need magnesium to regulate our sleep and to relax our muscles. Low levels of are linked to insomnia. Bananas contain magnesium and tryptophan - the amino acid that produces feel-good serotonin to help us relax - as well as vitamin B6, needed for a healthy nervous system.
Eat: mashed banana with natural yoghurt; sliced banana on toast; banana and fruit smoothie.
11. Leafy green vegetables
Getting a better night’s sleep is another good reason to eat your greens. They contain a powerhouse of sleep-influencing vitamins and minerals: tryptophan, potassium, magnesium, fibre, iron, calcium, vitamin C, choline, complex carbs, and beta carotene, as well as lutein and zeaxanthin, natural filters of high-energy blue light that interferes with melatonin production. Get into the habit of cooking with spinach, chard, cabbage and kale.
Eat: a side serving of greens; spanakopita, minestrone soup with savoy cabbage, stir-frys; green soups.
Watch this space:
More research is needed to show whether this food definitely helps but there are some indicators it might.
12. Tart cherries
Drinking a concentrated tart cherry juice for a week has been linked with sleeping through the night. A glass of cherry juice increases the amount of phytochemicals, including melatonin, in your body. Melatonin is a key hormone for a healthy wake-sleep cycle. The study was small, but participants slept for longer and had less disturbed sleep. More research is needed, but there’s no harm in drinking a small glass of tart cherry juice, as it may have other health benefits such as reducing muscle soreness, inflammation and blood pressure.
Drink: 125ml glass of tart cherry juice; mix with yoghurt and freeze in pots or as lollies.
The 6 foods and eating habits to avoid for better sleep
There are some foods and drinks that have a negative impact on how we sleep. Here are 6 you might need to rethink - or take off the menu entirely.
1. Alcohol: may help you drop off to sleep but interferes with later sleep stages. You may also wake up because you’re dehydrated. Sleep better: stop drinking at least 3 hours before bedtime. Also stick to government guidelines - that’s a maximum of 14 units spread over a single week, with some alcohol-free days, limiting the amount you drink on a single occasion
2. Caffeine: can keep you awake at night. Keep a drinks diary to log your drinks and note when you sleep badly. Our Healthily app is an easy way to track your caffeine intake. Sleep better: avoid coffee, tea and caffeinated energy drinks in the afternoon or evening
3. Big meals: eating a hearty supper just before bed time - be it a big bowl of pasta, pie or fish and chips - may cause indigestion and disrupt sleep. Sleep better: try to eat your last main meal of the day 3 hours before you go to bed
4. Dark chocolate: it contains caffeine so tucking into a bar before bed may leave you too stimulated to sleep. Sleep better: if you really must have chocolate, limit yourself to nibbling a couple of squares
5. Cheese and charcuterie: strong or aged cheese and cured meats such as hams, salami and pepperoni contain high levels of tyramine, which can keep you alert. Sleep better: avoid the after-dinner blue cheese; if you have a cheese craving, a little cream cheese spread on an oat cracker would be a good pre-bed snack
6. Spicy foods: can lead to heartburn and acid reflux, which are likely to affect your sleep. Sleep better: go easy on spice in the evenings if you’re affected. If you get heartburn, especially when you lie down, cut out acidic foods before bedtime too, such as tomato sauces and very acidic fruits, such as citrus, and their juices
Easy swaps for your pre-sleep food treats
If your diet is getting in the way of a good night’s sleep, it’s time to make changes. Think of it as more of a diet makeover: tell yourself you can still enjoy most of these foods and drinks, just at different times of the day.
Changing habits can be hard at first when your brain is hardwired to have that late-night coffee or nightcap, but experts will tell you cravings can pass in minutes if you can distract yourself. Having alternative food and drinks is another good tactic that will help you wake up refreshed.
late supper: cut down cooking time in the evenings by batch cooking in advance. Then you just need to reheat a portion and you can have a meal on the table quickly. Alternatively, have ingredients at home for that 10-minute recipe – a pasta dish or stir-fry
nightcaps: to break the routine of winding down late at night with a glass of wine or beer, switch to alcohol-free option. Or try distraction tactics - put the kettle on and run a bath
late-night snacking: if sweets, chocolate and salty snacks are calling you, get into the habit of nibbling frozen grapes, a handful of unsalted nuts or blueberries
sleepy snacks: if you feel hungry before bed try slow-release carbs that won’t give you a sugar spike and keep you awake: a sliced banana with low-fat yoghurt, a slice of wholegrain bread with a nut butter; small bowl of cereal or porridge
caffeine swap: switch to a sleep-inducing herbal tea - try passionflower, chamomile or a nighttime blend with chamomile, lavender and valerian
spice fix: if you like strong flavours but spices are giving you indigestion, look for dishes flavoured with punchy herbs like dill, tarragon, rosemary or thyme, and flavourings such as ginger and garlic
When to see a doctor about a lack of sleep
You should see your doctor if:
- working on your sleep hygiene and diet hasn’t improved your sleep, specially if you’ve had trouble sleeping for months
- your sleep problem is affecting your daily life in a way that makes it hard for you to cope and you feel stressed by it
- you have an underlying health condition and think it’s affecting your sleep
- you think you might have a sleep disorder such as insomnia, RLS or sleep apnoea
Use our Smart Symptom Checker to find out what could be causing your sleep issues.