8 Superfoods To Help You Fall Asleep Faster + Stay Asleep Longer
“I’m too busy to sleep.” If you have ever said that, you are certainly not alone. Less than 35% of Americans get the recommended amount of sleep every night. But from what I have seen in my telehealth functional medicine clinic, this lack of sleep rarely has to do with schedule and has a lot more to do with an underlying health problem holding us back from a good night’s sleep.
However, in the same way, that we can contribute to health problems and poor sleep with our daily choices, we can also facilitate better sleep with our lifestyle - including the foods we eat.
Read on to learn why it’s important to get enough sleep in the first place and how to sleep better at night naturally by eating more of the foods that help you sleep.
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What happens if we don’t get enough sleep?
Sleep plays a vital role in keeping your physical health in check. A lack of quality sleep is linked to a variety of short-term and long-term health problems including
- Cardiovascular disease
Sleep is necessary for the healing and repair of your heart and blood vessels with a lack of sleep associated with a risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease.
- Brain problems
You’ve probably noticed just how irritable you can be after just one night of getting less sleep than normal. This is because a lack of sleep actually impairs your brain’s ability to function optimally leading to moodiness, decreased memory, and impaired decision-making.
- Poor immune health
Your immune system relies on sleep to function optimally to fight off bacteria and viruses. In fact, a lack of sleep has been linked to an increase in illnesses like the common cold and flu.
What causes poor sleep quality?
Ultimately, poor sleep can be boiled down to underlying health problems like chronic inflammation that throws our hormones out of whack. And when our hormones are out of balance it can make it difficult to sleep at night due to their role in keeping our sleep-wake cycle functioning properly.
Our dietary choices are a big contributor to these problems. Every food we eat either fuels inflammation or soothes it, with certain foods triggering hormone imbalances with every sip or bite. Caffeine and sugar are just two examples of foods keeping us awake and wired throughout the day. So what can you do? Cut back on these foods and focus on healthy, whole foods that make you sleepy, naturally - while also keeping your inflammation levels more in check.
8 foods to help you sleep
While this isn’t a comprehensive list, these foods and drinks that help you sleep have been backed up the most by research.
Cherries naturally contain melatonin - your body’s “sleepy time” hormone - that helps your body relax and wind down. Although your body naturally produces melatonin, a lot of people have melatonin imbalances due to health problems like adrenal fatigue.
Typically in the morning, melatonin levels should be low and cortisol levels high in order to get you up and out of bed. Then throughout the day, melatonin levels start to increase and cortisol levels decrease, and eventually, when the sun goes down, melatonin levels surge and help you get to sleep. But for those with melatonin imbalances, this normal pattern can be reversed with melatonin low and cortisol high in the evening, making it impossible to fall asleep.
That’s why I love foods like cherries that naturally contain melatonin to help counteract this cortisol spike.
Studies have even shown (1) that drinking tart cherry juice just 2 times a day, increased sleep quality and duration by 84 minutes after just 2 weeks! So run, don’t walk to your nearest grocery store, and load up on cherry juice if fresh cherries aren’t in season.
Kiwi is one of my favorite fruits, it is high in nutrients like vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K, and antioxidants, but you probably didn’t expect it to be a sleep superfood.
Multiple studies have shown a direct correlation between eating kiwi before bed and better sleep. For example, one study (2) found that individuals who ate kiwi before bed were able to increase their sleep duration by 13 percent!
Do you feel like you need a nap every year after Thanksgiving dinner? There’s a reason for that. And it’s not because of having to deal with your crazy family! Turkey is uniquely high in the amino acid tryptophan which increases your body’s production of melatonin and has been linked (3) to improved sleep.
Turkey is also believed to make you more tired due to its high protein content as researchers believe that protein intake can contribute (4) to better sleep. While more research needs to be done surrounding this mechanism, there is enough anecdotal evidence that speaks for itself.
This popular tree nut is abundant in nutrients like protein, fiber, and most importantly, the omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In fact, it has the highest amount of ALA out of all the other tree nuts. This is particularly important when it comes to sleep as ALA is converted to DHA in the body to increase serotonin which is a precursor to melatonin. Other than cherries, walnuts are one of the best sources (5) of naturally occurring melatonin.
Walnuts also have their fair share of magnesium which is necessary for GABA receptors to function properly that are in charge of regulating your sleep system. Research has found (6) that supplementing with magnesium helped improve all the major physiological markers associated with insomnia. But since magnesium supplements don’t always have the best absorption rate, I love eating whole food sources like walnuts to ensure better bioavailability.
- Fatty fish
Not only do fatty fish contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but they also contain high levels of vitamin D which has been linked to an increase in serotonin production to promote better sleep. Studies have looked at this connection between sleep and fatty fish intake, showing (7) that those who ate more fatty fish slept better and had more optimal vitamin D levels.
When buying fish, I always make sure to choose wild-caught fish for its higher nutrient content. Salmon, sardines, and tuna have some of the highest vitamin D levels.
Similar to walnuts, almonds are also high in both melatonin and magnesium, providing 80mg - approximately 19% of your daily recommended intake - per ounce.
In one study, students were directed to eat 10 almonds per day for 2 weeks, with results showing improvement (8) in both mild and severe insomnia across the board.
- Chamomile tea
Research surrounding chamomile tea and sleep is still evolving, but many people believe it’s due to its high amount of antioxidant compounds, specifically apigenin, that binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain to produce (9) a zen-like state.
One study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine (10) looked at the effects of chamomile on sleep by giving half a group of 60 older individuals a chamomile supplement and the other half a placebo. Those who received the chamomile supplement showed a significant increase in sleep quality compared to the other group after 28 days.
Chamomile can also play a role in insomnia and sleep quality through its ability to relieve anxiety (11) which can play a role in sleep problems.
Bananas' potassium content might get all the attention, but did you know they also contain tryptophan and magnesium? Together, all three of these nutrients work to enhance various pathways involved in falling and staying asleep for longer. One of my favorite snacks before bed is a homemade trail mix filled with dried cherries, walnuts, and - you guessed it! - dried bananas to incorporate all of these magnesium and natural melatonin foods.
Why these options are better
If you are struggling with sleep it can be tempting to pop a sleep aid like NyQuil or a melatonin supplement. However, even natural melatonin supplements aren’t always ideal because they can mess with your body’s natural melatonin production, further perpetuating a poor sleep-wake cycle and dependence on taking these in order to ever sleep.
Adding in these foods that help you sleep is going to be a great first step toward getting a good night’s sleep. This, along with cultivating a nighttime routine that you love, will help you rehab your sleep hygiene so you can wake up feeling rested and refreshed every single day.
If you are ready to get to the root cause of why you are constantly exhausted - whether that’s a hormone imbalance, chronic inflammation, or something else - check out my telehealth consultation to learn how functional medicine can help you sleep better, naturally.
As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe.
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- Losso, Jack N et al. “Pilot Study of the Tart Cherry Juice for the Treatment of Insomnia and Investigation of Mechanisms.” American journal of therapeutics vol. 25,2 (2018): e194-e201. doi:10.1097/MJT.0000000000000584
- HH Lin, PS Tsai, SC Fang and JF Liu “Effect of kiwifruit consumption on sleep quality in adults with sleep problems” Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2011;20 (2):169-174 https://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/APJCN/20/2/169.pdf
- Sutanto, Clarinda N et al. “The impact of tryptophan supplementation on sleep quality: a systematic review, meta-analysis, and meta-regression.” Nutrition reviews vol. 80,2 (2022): 306-316. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuab027
- Jing Zhou, Jung Eun Kim, Cheryl LH Armstrong, Ningning Chen, Wayne W Campbell, Higher-protein diets improve indexes of sleep in energy-restricted overweight and obese adults: results from 2 randomized controlled trials, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 103, Issue 3, March 2016, Pages 766–774, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.115.124669
- Peuhkuri, Katri et al. “Dietary factors and fluctuating levels of melatonin.” Food & nutrition research vol. 56 (2012): 10.3402/fnr.v56i0.17252. doi:10.3402/fnr.v56i0.17252
- Abbasi, Behnood et al. “The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial.” Journal of research in medical sciences : the official journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences vol. 17,12 (2012): 1161-9.
- Hansen, Anita L et al. “Fish consumption, sleep, daily functioning, and heart rate variability.” Journal of clinical sleep medicine : JCSM : official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine vol. 10,5 (2014): 567-75. doi:10.5664/jcsm.3714
- Ghafarzadeh, Jafar et al. “Investigating the Prevalence of Sleep Disorder and the Impact of Sweet Almond on the Quality of Sleep in Students of Tehran, Iran.” Iranian journal of public health vol. 48,6 (2019): 1149-1154.
- Srivastava, Janmejai K et al. “Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future.” Molecular medicine reports vol. 3,6 (2010): 895-901. doi:10.3892/mmr.2010.377
- Adib-Hajbaghery, Mohsen, and Seyedeh Nesa Mousavi. “The effects of chamomile extract on sleep quality among elderly people: A clinical trial.” Complementary therapies in medicine vol. 35 (2017): 109-114. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2017.09.010
- Hieu, TH, Dibas, M, Surya Dila, KA, et al. Therapeutic efficacy and safety of chamomile for state anxiety, generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, and sleep quality: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials and quasi-randomized trials. Phytotherapy Research. 2019; 33: 1604– 1615. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.6349
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, The Inflammation Spectrum and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.
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