I’ve had a post-lunch nap AND been awake half the night after dinner, so I know some foods can help sleep and some can hinder it - but what are the best things to eat before bed to sleep well?
On the occasions I have found myself yawning at my desk at 2 pm, gormlessly staring at my screen, unable to type anything coherent or have a meaningful conversation with anyone, it has occurred to me:
"That lunch would probably have been the best thing to eat before bed tonight... right food, wrong timing!".
I'm sure it's happened to you too, after a big lunch? Not a lot of work gets done that afternoon before you finally log off for the day.
So you already know that food choice can influence your energy levels throughout the day. And in the same way, some types of food can set us up nicely for a night of deep sleep.
To clear things up, and help us regularly fall easily into a nice, long deep sleep when we want to, I'm going to explain how food can make us sleepy, and then cover five of the best things to eat before bed.
One caveat though - I'm only going to cover foods that normal people would actually want to eat, no weird stuff! I keep reading studies showing Tart Cherry Juice or Banana Peel (!!) could be great for sleep... just imagine sitting down to a late-night movie sipping on some taaasty tart cherry juice, munching on some banana peel - mmm-hmmmm - de-lish. No thank you.
How Food Can Make Us Sleepy
L-tryptophan, serotonin, and melatonin are the three things we often hear about when food choices and sleep quality are being discussed. But what are these things and why should we care about them?
L-tryptophan is an amino acid found in food that our bodies turn into a B-vitamin called Niacin.
Niacin in turn creates serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with sleep which also regulates melatonin levels.
Melatonin is essential for good sleep. It is a unique hormone produced in the pineal gland, and functions with the rhythm of the sun - we produce more when the sun goes down, creating the urge to fall asleep.
As well as avoiding bright lights and too much screen time at night (which inhibits melatonin production), we can also ensure adequate melatonin production through food choices.
Here Are 5 of the Best Foods (and Drinks) to Eat Before Bed
All but one of the five things on the list contains the aforementioned L-tryptophan or manipulates serotonin and melatonin to help us sleep better.
Now I'm not suggesting you sit down to a dinner of just these foods/drinks, but including them as part of your dinner or as a late-night snack before bed is a great way to set yourself up to fall asleep quickly and easily once you go to bed.
I was often given a cup of warm milk, or a malted milk drink, by my mom before bedtime as a kid. It made me feel cosy and I’ve always associated it with going to sleep. But it turns out there was a scientific basis to all this (although I doubt my mom was aware of it!).
Milk contains L-tryptophan, and the natural sugars (lactose) also help transport the L-tryptophan to our brains, where it can boost our melatonin levels. The temperature of the milk doesn’t actually matter in this process, although warmer drinks tend to have a more calming effect on us.
Almonds contain plenty of L-tryptophan too, so melatonin gets boosted when we have a small handful before bedtime (portion control is important as they are relatively high in calories). Almonds also contain Magnesium, which has been proven to relax the nervous system, relieve anxiety and generally help us settle down at bedtime.
If you’ve ever felt crazy-tired after a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner involving roast turkey or chicken then you can probably now guess that poultry is particularly high in L-tryptophan. And as with warm milk, carbohydrates (sugars and starches) are a great ‘vehicle’ to get that Tryptophan to the brain and make you feel sleepy. So the potatoes, carrots, etc that go along with the standard turkey or chicken dinner are actually helping!
In practice, having turkey/chicken breast or ground turkey/chicken along with rice, pasta, or bread for dinner should set you up to be ready for some quality sleep a couple of hours later!
Bear with me on this one, I know it doesn’t sound like a realistic pre-bed snack that can help you sleep! Rich in our close friend Mr Tryptophan, chickpeas also contain vitamin B6 which boosts melatonin.
There are two main ways to make chickpeas work as an easy thing to eat before bed - either as a homemade or store-bought hummus dip or as my new favourite late-night snack - Roasted Chilli Chickpeas.
I dump a can of chickpeas in an oven dish, add a glug of oil, some salt, pepper, chilli, and any other spices I have in the cupboard, shake ‘em all about - into the oven on medium heat for 15-20 min - done. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, crazy tasty, healthy AND they help you sleep. What’s not to love?
Plot Twist - Eat Nothing Before Bed
Yeah, I know this is a sneaky one, but avoiding food close to bedtime can often be the best ‘food’ to help you sleep. Having an indulgent snack or treat later in the evening after dinner, plays havoc with your digestive system at a time when your body is trying to relax and fall asleep.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been up half the night with indigestion after a big late dinner, greasy take-out, or too many spicy snacks?
Cutting yourself off food-wise after dinner means that by bedtime everything has been digested, no stomach cramps, no ‘meat sweats’, just a body that is ready for sleep!
Your Sleep-Friendly Eating Guide
Now you understand the role that Tryptophan and melatonin play in making you feel snoozy, you can hopefully start being more aware of the foods to eat before bed that will help you sleep.
Being mindful of what to include in dinners (poultry and some carbohydrates), what late-night snacks to go for (almonds, chickpeas) and which to avoid (anything heavy and/or spicy), possibly washed down with some warm milk, you can help your body feel ready and willing to fall asleep at the right time!