Have you noticed that eating a stodgy, carbohydrate-rich lunch can leave you feeling sluggish and induce a mid-afternoon slump? While this is not an ideal response during the day, selecting the right foods at the right time can help promote sleep and aid you in drifting off quickly at night by boosting the production of your natural sleep hormone, melatonin. We take a look at some of the best dietary choices to promote sleep.

Complex carbohydrates to promote sleep

Image of complex carbs to promote sleep

A light bedtime snack that includes complex whole-grain carbohydrates can help you sleep more soundly. Adding a dairy product such as the traditional milky, night drink is also beneficial. In fact, any dairy products eaten at any time will help. A study involving 437 older adults found the combination of higher milk or cheese consumption during the day was linked with less difficulty in falling asleep for those who also engaged in light physical activity. Contrary to the old wives’ tale, eating cheese is not associated with nightmares –  in fact, this myth was believed to have arisen from Charles Dickens’ character, Scrooge, who blamed his nocturnal ghostly visions on eating a ‘crumb of cheese’ before bed.

Dairy products promote sleep

Dairy products such as milk and cheese promote sleep in several ways. They provide calming minerals (magnesium and calcium) that relax muscles, plus small protein chains (peptides) that are naturally designed to help babies sleep after suckling. Clinical studies show these peptides (e.g. lactium) have a significant anti-stress effect in adults, too. Dairy products are also a source of the amino acid, tryptophan, which is needed for the production of melatonin hormone in the pineal gland of the brain.

A collection of dairy products.

Other foods that contain tryptophan include turkey, bananas, oats, honey and pumpkin seeds. However, tryptophan doesn’t readily cross the blood-brain barrier – for example, pumpkin seeds must be processed to remove the oil and combined with carbohydrate to create a sleep-inducing drink. Supplements that provide building blocks to boost melatonin production in the brain (5-HTP usually combined with magnesium and B vitamins) are, therefore, popular.

Montmorency cherries are unexpectedly effective

Recent attention has turned towards the juice of montmorency sour cherries which are one of the few foods to contain ready-formed melatonin. In one study, 20 volunteers consumed either tart cherry juice or a similar tasting placebo for seven days before bedtime, then after a wash-out period, switched to the other drink for another seven days. Their melatonin levels were significantly boosted when drinking the cherry juice, but not when drinking the placebo.

As a result, the real cherry juice increased their time in bed, total sleep time and sleep efficiency (the ratio of the total time spent asleep at night, divided by the total time in bed). This suggests that drinking a tart cherry juice concentrate can help you sleep better – but I would recommend using a straw and rinsing your mouth afterwards to protect your teeth from acid attack at night.

Other dietary measures to help you sleep include cutting back on caffeine and alcohol, not eating too late and avoiding heavy, spicy meals in the evenings. And, if all else fails, you may want to try a short period of fasting. A one-week modified fast has been found to improve the quality of sleep and daytime performance in non-overweight volunteers.

What food have you found promote sleep effectively for you? Let us know in the comments below.