We all know that what we eat and drink affects how we sleep. No one thinks it’s a good idea to snack on chili or to down a couple of espressos before bed. Not if they hope to sleep well, anyway. But some of what you think you know about sleep may not be true. For example, it is commonly held that Thanksgiving turkey is especially good at putting people to sleep. In fact, it has the same effect as other poultry—a little, but not much.
In this article, we’re going to look at some of the foods that really do promote sleep. Before we get to that, let’s quickly mention the food and drink that you should avoid in the hours before bedtime.
- Any heavy meal will keep you awake, especially if you suffer from acid reflux.
- Fatty and spicy foods are especially bad.
- Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it disrupts the all-important deep sleep cycles.
How Does Food Help You To Sleep Better?
A huge number of factors influence human sleep, both physiological and psychological. Among the most impactful is the intricate balance of hormones and neurotransmitters that control our circadian rhythm, the built-in clock regulating sleep and wakefulness.
The physical and chemical interactions that supervise the circadian rhythm aren’t entirely understood. But we do know that several substances in food play a role in managing sleep.
Three of the most important are:
As a general rule, consuming more of these can help you to sleep better. As you might expect, the reality is not quite so clear cut, and you should seek medical advice if you have any questions or if dietary changes don’t have the results you expect.
GABA, tryptophan, and melatonin are available as supplements and are often prescribed to people with insomnia and other sleep disorders, but you don’t need to take a pill because many common foods are rich sources.
Natural Food with GABA
GABA, which has the tongue-tying scientific name gamma-Aminobutyric acid, is a neurotransmitter that reduces neuronal excitability in the nervous system. It interacts with receptors in the brain and helps to increase relaxation, reduce anxiety, and lower blood pressure. Several sleep medications target the same receptors as GABA.
GABA is a non-essential amino acid, which means that your body can synthesize it, but people often benefit from increasing GABA levels through supplements and food.
Many foods and drinks contain GABA, including oolong tea (watch out for high-caffeine teas), whole grains, lentils, walnuts, beans, fish, tomatoes, spinach, potatoes, and cocoa.
Natural Food with Tryptophan
Tryptophan is an amino acid, but, unlike GABA, it is an essential amino acid. That means your body cannot synthesize it, so you must consume it as part of your diet. Tryptophan helps your body to make proteins, and it is also a precursor to the serotonin neurotransmitter and the melatonin hormone, both of which regulate sleep.
Tryptophan is the source of the myth that turkey is particularly effective at making people sleepy. The myth is based on the belief that turkey contains an unusually large amount of tryptophan, but, in reality, it has the same amount as other types of poultry.
That brings us to the best sources of tryptophan. It is most often found in protein-based foods, including poultry, eggs, cheese, milk, almonds, peanuts, and chickpeas. Most rich sources of protein are also rich in tryptophan.
Natural Food with Melatonin
Melatonin is one of the most important sleep hormones because it helps to regulate the circadian rhythm. Melatonin levels naturally increase when your body thinks it’s time to sleep and decrease during periods of peak wakefulness.
Your body creates melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland in the center of your brain. Irregularities in melatonin production can upset the circadian rhythm and cause insomnia or poor sleep, which is why it’s often prescribed to people with sleep disorders.
However, melatonin is also present in many foods, including fruits and vegetables, such as some red grapes, cherries, tomatoes, and cucumber; grains such as rice and barley; and nuts and seeds, such as walnuts, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
It should be clear that the foods that promote sleep are also part of a healthy diet. If you eat a varied and balanced diet of protein, grains, fruit, and vegetables, you will get all the GABA, tryptophan, and melatonin your body needs.
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