According to the Centers for Disease Control, one-third of us don’t get enough sleep—experts recommend at least seven hours nightly. Whether it’s a crying baby at home or a stressful day at work that’s keeping you awake at night, a lack of sleep can have a negative impact on your productivity, mood, appetite and more. While it’s a great idea to identify and work on the root causes behind your sleep deprivation, sound diet choices can help, too. Below are three nutrients you can eat more of to improve your sleep quality.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that our bodies use to produce niacin, a B vitamin that helps with digestion and energy metabolism. Niacin is also a precursor to serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood, helping you feel comfortable and relaxed. When your serotonin level is high, you tend to feel better and therefore sleep better. On the other hand, when your serotonin level is low, your sleep can be more easily disrupted.
Meats, dairy and nuts are all high in tryptophan. While it’s true that you might feel sleepy after eating turkey at Thanksgiving, it has no more tryptophan than the grilled chicken or steak you might enjoy at a summer cookout.
Vitamin B6, also known as pyridoxine, is another essential B vitamin that can help improve your sleep. Its main function is to release the energy that’s stored in our bodies as glycogen. As far as sleep goes, vitamin B6 may help by contributing to neurotransmitter synthesis which is required for the production of many brain chemicals, including serotonin and melatonin. Melatonin is an important hormone that regulates your body’s circadian rhythm. It’s released when the sun goes down and acts as a trigger for oncoming sleep. Great sources of vitamin B6 include sunflower seeds, fish, bananas and avocados.
A meal of protein paired with carbohydrates may lull you to sleep because carbohydrates help your brain make more serotonin. Shortly after eating carbohydrates, your pancreas releases insulin. This influx of insulin lowers the concentration of most amino acids in your bloodstream except for tryptophan. Tryptophan is then readily absorbed by your brain where it can be converted into serotonin. Of course, going to bed with a full stomach is uncomfortable which can undermine sleep quality. It’s best to consume carbs later in the day, leaving at least an hour or two to digest before going to bed.
In addition to looking out for tryptophan, B6 and carbs, it’s important to say no to coffee and other caffeinated foods and beverages late in the day. Caffeine is a well-known stimulant, and it’s counterproductive to sleep onset and quality. You absorb 99 percent of the caffeine in a caffeinated beverage just 45 minutes after ingestion. It then takes you anywhere between 1.5 to 9.5 hours to clear half the amount of caffeine you drank from your system. This means that, when it comes to good sleep, it pays to be mindful of when you drink caffeine. We recommend quitting coffee at least six hours before bedtime.
Which foods and beverages do you eat to sleep better? Let us know in the comments below!
This post was originally published on February 25, 2016. It was last updated July 11, 2018.