A Sleep Expert's Top Tips For Eating At Night

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Have you ever noticed how some foods make you sleepy? Food interacts with alertness through a series of chemical reactions in our brain and body. Or you may have noticed you have trouble falling asleep after a large carbohydrate-heavy meal—indigestion or acid reflux from dinner can sabotage your sleep. Similarly, going to bed hungry can ruin your sleep with prolonged stomach contractions and gnawing aches and pains.

As a Ph.D. diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine since 1984, I'm committed to helping people get the best sleep. I've dedicated 35 years to the study of human sleep and clinical sleep disorders—including how what we eat affects our night. Here, I'm sharing the best foods to naturally boost sleep quality without packing on extra pounds.

How to eat right for great sleep:

Most protein-rich foods contain naturally occurring tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is necessary to make serotonin, which in turn converts to melatonin in the brain’s pineal gland. Increasing bloodstream melatonin levels signals the brain and body that it is time for sleep. Tryptophan cannot be made by the body and must be ingested from foods, or through supplements that can vary widely in quality.

Carbohydrates help make tryptophan more available to the brain. Foods rich in vitamin B6 are used by the body to make serotonin, and some foods are natural sources of melatonin.

Foods with the highest tryptophan concentration include chocolate, oats, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, fish, poultry, red meat, sesame, chickpeas, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts (and peanut butter), buckwheat, spirulina, and bananas.

With all that in mind, here are my 10 favorite foods to eat for super sleep:

  1. Fish such as salmon, tuna, and halibut with garlic and pistachio nuts are rich sources of vitamin B6.
  2. Salads with lettuce are high in lactucarium, which has sedative properties.
  3. Leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, and mustard greens are great sources of calcium.
  4. Tart cherries naturally boost melatonin levels and can be added to salads. Alternatively, enjoy a glass of cherry juice with dinner.
  5. Walnuts are an excellent source of tryptophan and a natural source of melatonin. Walnuts are a great addition to the fish, salads, and vegetables listed above. Plus, if you're a night-shift worker, some walnuts and a glass of tart cherry juice make a perfect, light breakfast before day-sleep.
  6. Almonds are another valuable nut for sleep because of their high magnesium content. Low magnesium levels are associated with symptoms of restless legs and sleep difficulty. Eating almonds daily or taking a daily magnesium supplement may be helpful for decreasing any restlessness in your legs so you fall asleep faster. I can attest to this personally with a 35-year history of moderate, restless legs syndrome. I now use honey-roasted almonds in salads, make smoothies with almond flour, and take 500 mg of oral magnesium nightly, a few hours ahead of bedtime.
  7. Chickpeas found in hummus are an excellent source of tryptophan. So, if you need a small snack to stave off hunger before bedtime, consider hummus on whole-grain crackers.
  8. Honey, with natural sugar, aids in transporting tryptophan to the brain without spiking your insulin level, making it a better carbohydrate choice. Avoid carbohydrates with a high glycemic index at night.
  9. Chamomile tea contains the chemical glycine, which relaxes nerves and muscles and induces a mild sedative effect. Add a little honey to your chamomile tea at dinner or at least 90 minutes ahead of bedtime for a more restful sleep.
  10. Passionfruit tea contains chemical alkaloids that have a sedative effect. Drinking a cup of passionfruit tea an hour before bedtime may help you sleep more deeply.

What about bedtime snacks? The best are those that contain both a protein and a carbohydrate with a low glycemic index that doesn't spike your blood sugar level. Keep your evening snack to at least an hour ahead of bedtime.

Good evening snacks include:

  • Cheese or hummus on whole-wheat or whole-grain crackers
  • Peanut butter on toast or apple slices
  • Cereal and milk
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The food practices to avoid before sleep:

Just as important as eating the right foods is avoiding the foods and eating practices that can hurt your sleep. Here are some to keep in mind:

  1. Eating a large dinner less than three hours ahead of bedtime. A large protein- and carbohydrate-rich meal right before sleep will increase the likelihood of acid reflux (heartburn) and indigestion. Your body is busy digesting the meal while you are trying to sleep.
  2. Eating spicy or acidic foods and fluids at night. These will also promote heartburn (esophageal reflux activity) during sleep.
  3. Snacking on evening foods that spike your blood sugar level (that is, have a high glycemic index); high glycemic index carbs at night add on the pounds.
  4. Drinking caffeinated beverages too close to sleep. Avoid any after 5 p.m.
  5. Drinking water and other fluids right up to bedtime. Even herbal, noncaffeinated teas should be kept an hour ahead of your bedtime if you want to minimize sleep disruption due to bathroom trips in the first few hours of sleep.
  6. Drinking alcohol at bedtime. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it disrupts your sleep several hours later, after it has been metabolized. Research studies show that drinking alcohol close to bedtime can induce snoring in someone who does not normally snore and increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea (respiratory pauses).

The bottom line: Sleep, nutrition, and weight are all intertwined. Embrace these nighttime nutritional practices in the context of seven hours of sleep to get in control of your appetite, daytime energy level, and body weight.

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