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A balanced diet and a good night's sleep are two of the mainstays of healthy living. But lately research has begun to uncover just how much the former impacts the latter. Last June, a systematic review that included 29 studies and was published in the journal Sleep Medicine Review concluded that eating a healthy diet was associated with better sleep quality. Few people know this better than registered dietitians, who are well-versed in how different nutrients in food can play a role in getting to sleep and staying asleep.
"Sleep and metabolism are both regulated in part by circadian rhythms," says Christina Badaracco, M.P.H, RD, LDN, a Washington, D.C.-based dietitian, referring to the human body's internal clock, which impacts the production of hormones and other metabolic processes. "We've also recently learned that our gut microbiota—which are modified through our diet, among other factors—regulate aspects of our sleep. The specific types of foods and beverages we consume, as well as their quantity and timing, affect our sleep quality and duration."
In general, research has found that eating in line with the Mediterranean or DASH diet, both of which promote fruits and vegetables, whole foods and nutrients such as fiber and healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, tends to be associated with better quality sleep. Meanwhile, the typical Western diet—which is high in processed foods, red meat and added sugars, but low in fiber—has been linked to more restless nights.
"While there won't be a single food that is going to be a magic bullet to getting people to sleep, focusing on certain nutrients may actually help the body experience an easier time falling asleep or getting better-quality rest at night," says Lauren Manaker, M.S., RDN, LD, a Charleston-based registered dietitian. It's best to eat a few hours prior to bedtime to avoid having digestive issues interfere with your sleep and to allow the nutrients to be digested before calling it a night. Here are some favorite pre-bedtime snacks that registered dietitians enjoy when they want to sleep right.
What to Eat for Better Sleep, According to Dietitians
1. Banana with Nut Butter and Cinnamon
One of the more well-known nutrients said to help promote quality sleep is tryptophan, an essential amino acid (amino acids are the building blocks of protein) that plays a role in the production of serotonin and melatonin, thereby promoting sleep, says Badaracco. While tryptophan has most famously been associated with turkey and post-Thanksgiving food comas, it's also found in foods like bananas, oats and cheese. Adding a little no-added-sugar nut butter gives you a hit of magnesium, a mineral that promotes relaxation. A sprinkle of cinnamon can add flavor and anti-inflammatory benefit as well. Try our Peanut Butter-Banana Cinnamon Toast for a dessert-like treat before bed.
2. Salmon Salad on Cucumber Slices
"Salmon stands out for being one of the few foods that provide a meaningful amount of vitamin D," says Samantha Cassetty, M.S., RD, a nutrition and wellness expert and co-author of Sugar Shock. Research shows that this nutrient plays a role in sleep regulation, and in one study, after consuming salmon three times a week for five months, participants experienced better sleep and had measurably higher vitamin D levels than those that didn't eat salmon.
Another review of 19 studies found that the omega-3 fatty acids in salmon may help ease symptoms of anxiety. It's possible that this may also benefit sleep, Cassetty says. And because salmon is sold canned or in a shelf-stable pouch, you can keep some on hand so you always have a high-protein snack ready when you need one. Cassetty likes to mix it into a Mediterranean-style salad with olive oil, olives, red onions and a little lemon juice, and use slices of cucumber or red pepper to scoop up the mixture. Our Salmon Salad recipe would make a perfect light dinner with some crudités and whole-grain crackers.
3. Frozen Kefir with Chopped Nuts
Fermented foods like kefir, miso and Greek yogurt may be helpful for suppressing the release of cortisol, notes Laura M. Ali, RD, a culinary nutritionist based in Pittsburgh. While cortisol is known as the stress hormone, it also causes alertness, which is exactly what you don't want before bed, so eating foods that help suppress or slow its release may be helpful, Ali says. Kefir, a fermented yogurt drink that's similar to yogurt but has more gut-friendly probiotics, also comes frozen, like a tangier, more nutritious ice cream substitute. Sprinkle some antioxidant-rich nuts on top for a hit of magnesium and melatonin. You can also try combining kefir and nut butter in our Berry-Kefir Smoothie for a fruity treat.
4. Whole-Wheat Avocado Toast with Pumpkin Seeds
"Magnesium, a mineral that we obtain via our diet, helps regulate melatonin, a hormone that plays a key role in sleep," says Manaker. "It also plays a role in activating the parasympathetic nervous system, ultimately helping people feel calm." Avocado and pumpkin seeds are both good sources of magnesium, and happen to make a winning combination on whole-wheat toast. Plus, the healthy fats in the avocado are satiating enough to prevent any hunger pangs that may strike later in the evening. Try our West Coast Avocado Toast (it's topped with sunflower seeds, which also provide a little magnesium boost).
5. Yogurt Parfait with Tart Cherries and Walnuts
Among more than 950 female health care workers, those who ate yogurt for 16 weeks showed considerable improvements in sleep quality compared to a control group that did not consume any fermented dairy during the same time, according to a 2021 study in BMC Gastroenterology.
Previous research has found that dairy, particularly fermented dairy like yogurt, may aid sleep quality, possibly due to the presence of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, which may induce relaxation and improve sleep quality. "Walnuts are high in many sleep-promoting nutrients, such as tryptophan, isoflavones, naturally occurring melatonin, magnesium and zinc, all of which have been linked to improved sleep quality," says Nicole Stefanow, M.S., RDN, a culinary dietitian nutritionist in the greater New York City area. And the literal cherry on top of this sleep sundae provides melatonin, which can help improve both duration and quality of sleep, research shows. Plus, our staff dietitians say that this tasty Tart Cherry Nice Cream is the best before-bed snack.
6. Cottage Cheese with Cucumber, Tomato, Everything Bagel Seasoning and a Drizzle of Olive Oil
"Calcium-rich foods can promote relaxation, so ingesting enough each day is important for more than your bones," says Kelly Jones, M.S., RD, CSSD, a Newtown, Pennsylvania-based sports dietitian. Some research has found that calcium deficiencies are related to insomnia and other sleep disturbances, possibly because calcium is integral in the process of using tryptophan to make the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. This savory spin on cottage cheese is low in sugar, although if you have a sweet tooth, you could try this Cottage Cheese with Raspberry Honey recipe instead.
7. Kale Chips and Roasted Chickpeas
Not getting enough dietary fiber has been linked with lighter, less restorative and more disrupted sleep in one small study. Results show that greater fiber intake predicted more time spent in the stage of deep, slow-wave sleep. Kale happens to be a good source of not only fiber, but also other nutrients linked to sleep, including calcium. Kale chips are a concentrated source of all these, says Nichole Dandrea-Russert, M.S., RDN, author of The Fiber Effect and the blog Purely Planted. Similarly, plant compounds known as isoflavones have been associated with better sleep quality and longer sleep duration. Chickpeas are rich in isoflavones and, when dried and seasoned, make a great snack. Try these Crunchy Roasted Chickpeas or Kale Chips the next time you're craving something crunchy before bed.
8. Milk or Soymilk
That old yarn about warm milk making you sleepy isn't wrong—researchers just discovered that the reason may not be tryptophan, as originally thought, but milk peptides that relieve stress and enhance sleep, according to research published in 2021 in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. But there's good news for anyone who doesn't drink cow's milk, too: Soymilk is rich in magnesium, a mineral that has been found to help reduce insomnia, and is an excellent source of vitamin A and calcium, two nutrients that play a large role in the hormonal pathways necessary to sleep, says Christa Brown, M.S., RDN, a New Jersey-based dietitian. In a large study published in 2019 in the journal Nutrients, individuals who had a low intake of calcium, magnesium, vitamin A and several other vitamins slept, on average, for less time compared to those who had adequate intakes of those nutrients. Our Banana-Cocoa Soy Smoothie tastes like dessert, but could help you sleep more soundly.
9. Oatmeal with Milk, Ginger and Honey
Whole grains such as oats increase the production of serotonin, a hormone that relaxes the nerves and tells the brain it's time to sleep, says Karla Giboyeaux, M.A., RDN, a dietitian based in New York City. Meanwhile, quicker-digesting carbohydrates such as honey and the lactose in milk stimulate insulin release, which in turn allows tryptophan to enter the brain, where it can produce more serotonin. That means this combination doubles your sleepiness factor. Our Apricot-Ginger Energy Balls may sound like they'll keep you up, but they can also help you sleep, thanks to the oats and honey (enjoy one with a small glass of milk for extra sleep-inducing benefits).