How Food Affects Your Sleep

Combating insomnia through nutrition is about eating the right combination of foods in the evening and — perhaps even more importantly — knowing what foods to avoid.

Among the best natural sedatives is tryptophan, an amino-acid component of many plant and animal proteins. Tryptophan is one of the ingredients necessary for the body to make serotonin, the neurotransmitter best known for creating feelings of calm and for making you sleepy. How sleepy? A 2005 study of people with chronic insomnia found that after three weeks, those who ate foods with high amounts of tryptophan with carbohydrates or who took pharmaceutical-grade tryptophan supplements had improvements on all measures of sleep — and the food sources worked just as well as the supplements.

The trick is to combine foods that have some tryptophan with ample carbohydrates. That’s because in order for insomnia-busting tryptophan to work, it has to make its way to the brain. Unfortunately, amino acids compete with one another for transport to the brain. When you eat carbs, they trigger the release of insulin, which transports competing amino acids into muscle tissue . . . but leaves tryptophan alone, so it can make its way to the brain.

BEST LOW-PROTEIN/HIGH-CARB FOODS FOR SEROTONIN PRODUCTION: Whole-grain breads, crackers, and cereal; whole-wheat pasta; brown rice, wild rice; oats; fruits, especially mangoes, bananas, grapes, papaya, oranges, grapefruit, and plums; vegetables, especially spinach, yams, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, corn, winter squash (acorn, butternut, etc.), green peas, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, asparagus, cauliflower, sugar snap peas, pumpkin, celery, beets; milk (fat-free, 1% low-fat), yogurt (fat-free, low-fat), low-fat ice cream, low-fat frozen yogurt


  • Caffeine. It seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many caffeine junkies come into my practice complaining of sleep problems! People with troubled sleep should avoid caffeinated drinks and foods — coffee, tea, many soft drinks, and chocolate — several hours before bed. Caffeine is a natural chemical that activates the central nervous system, which means that it revs up nerves and thought processes.If you drink caffeinated drinks too close to bedtime, chances are it will keep you awake. Of course, what too close means varies from person to person. Sensitive people should stop drinking caffeine at least eight hours before bedtime (that means by 3:00 p.m. if you hit the sack at 11:00 p.m.). You can play with your particular timing…just don’t experiment on a night when you’re counting on getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Alcohol. It’s true that a drink (or two) can make you sleepy and may help you get to sleep. But after a few hours, alcohol can cause frequent awakenings and lighter, less restful sleep. I’m not saying you need to give up alcohol, but don’t use it like a sleeping pill; and if you have insomnia, I strongly recommend omitting alcohol for a few weeks to see if your sleep problem resolves.
  • Large Meals. Eating a huge dinner, or even a large before-bedtime snack, may make you feel drowsy, but the sleep won’t necessarily take. When you lie down and try to sleep, there’s a good chance you’ll feel uncomfortably full, which can keep you awake. Even worse, you may develop heartburn or gas, which will only increase your discomfort. I recommend eating a dinner that has no more than 600 calories (and optimally at least three hours before bed). Rather, have a light snack consisting of the low-protein, high-carb foods I recommended above.
  • Liquids. The single best piece of advice I can give to those of you who wake up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom is to avoid drinking water or any fluids within 90 minutes of bedtime. It takes that long for your body to process liquid of any type. If you must have something to drink, for example, to take a prescribed medication, take a few small sips. If the medication requires a full glass of water, take it earlier in the evening if possible.

PREVIOUS: What Is Insomnia?
Discover more Food Cures for your health.