Food can determine a lot of things beyond your pant size -- especially how well you sleep. But you can’t just keep stuffing pizza into your face until you pass out -- in order to properly fill your belly for an epic night of zzz’s, you need to follow a handful of important tips. We talked to Dr. Rebecca Scott, PhD, research assistant professor of neurology at NYU Langone Health, about the best way to adjust your diet for a good night’s rest. With those factors in mind, we had recipe developer Joanna Keohane concoct these concepts into consumables, so you can just chill -- which is pretty important if you want to sleep through the night.
Yes, tryptophan is important
If you’ve witnessed an American Thanksgiving in the last decade, then you’ve probably encountered an article about why you fall asleep on your aunt’s sofa after your third serving of turkey and mashed potatoes. Most have pointed to tryptophan, an amino acid that helps the brain produce serotonin, as the reason for the crash. That’s because without tryptophan, your body can’t make serotonin, and you only get tryptophan from the foods you eat.
“Serotonin is one of those neurotransmitters that helps transition into sleep and with sleep quality,” Dr. Scott explains. That means you should look for food items that contain tryptophan if you’re looking to get a good night’s rest -- and it’s most commonly found in proteins.
But it’s not just about turkey
Turkey gets all the spotlight for being stocked with tryptophan, when in reality, it contains just as much as any other lean protein, like chicken or salmon. A 3oz turkey breast contains 110% of your recommended daily intake of tryptophan, while a 3oz chicken wing contains 108%, and 3oz of cooked salmon is 98% of your tryptophan RDI.
Those percentages may seem high, but they’re necessary. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it’s actually hard for us to feel the effects of tryptophan in a noticeable way without some sort of complex carbohydrate also being involved. Those carbs help your body produce insulin, which helps break down the tryptophan and get it to your brain, where serotonin is produced. That’s not an excuse to eat mashed potatoes, though -- Dr. Scott says whole grains, like a quinoa or brown rice, are the healthiest options to pair with that protein.
Pan Fried Salmon with Kale, Quinoa, and Cherry Salad
1 x 4 oz salmon fillet, skin on
Salt and pepper to season
Juice of half a lemon
Extra lemon wedges for serving
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon maple syrup
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
Half a bunch of kale, stalks removed, leaves finely chopped
1/2 cup cooked quinoa
6 cherries, pitted and halved
1 scallion, thinly sliced
Make the dressing (mustard, cider vinegar, maple syrup, salt and pepper, olive oil.) Shake all the ingredients together in a tightly lidded container OR mix the mustard, apple cider vinegar, maple syrup, salt and pepper in small bowl and then whisk in the olive oil until well combined.
Place the kale in a medium bowl. Mix half the dressing with the greens so they are well coated. Add all the other salad ingredients and more of the dressing if desired. Toss until well mixed.
Serve with the salmon on top and lemon wedges on the side. Serves one.
There are other vitamins & hormones to focus on, too
Besides tryptophan, there are a few other key vitamins to keep in mind for a good night’s rest. One such is melatonin, a hormone we naturally produce to help us fall asleep and regulate sleep -- making it essentially nature’s sleeping pill.
There are foods that have high levels of melatonin too, like tart cherry juice, which was actually studied by researchers for its sleep benefits. They found that the participants reported longer time asleep and better sleep quality after regularly drinking the stuff. Walnuts also contain melatonin, researchers with University of Texas found. Vitamin B6 is what makes melatonin in our bodies, and fish, like salmon, have a ton of it.
Low magnesium levels have also been tied to chronic insomnia, and a study out of the Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota found that people who had high magnesium diets reported deeper sleep. Foods like bananas and almonds are packed with it.
Avoid high fat and high sugar
After you’ve had a lackluster night’s sleep where you spent hours re-adjusting the sheets and seeking out an elusive cooler side of the pillow, you’re only going to want to eat crap the next day. Researchers have found that when we’re tired, we reach for junk food, like sweets and potato chips, because they provide a quick boost of energy, but they also stimulate the reward centers in your brain.
Turns out, though, that these are the worst things to eat when you’re hungry, as they will have the most negative effect on your sleep the next night, Dr. Scott says. “It’s hard, because if you’re tired,” she says, “your body will naturally reach for these things for the quick energy spurt they provide.”
Instead, she recommends you stick to healthy items full of fiber. Some dairy will give you a tryptophan boost, even though it’s higher in fat, like a sugar-free, whole milk Greek yogurt, so these items are okay -- as long as they’re enjoyed in moderation and not too close to bedtime.
Walnut Cobb Salad
Half a head of romaine lettuce, shredded
1/2 cup shredded chicken from a rotisserie chicken (save the rest for another meal)
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 avocado, thinly sliced
1/4 cup roughly chopped walnut pieces
1 tablespoon chives, finely chopped
1 tablespoon lemon
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
Make the dressing (lemon, salt and pepper, olive oil). Shake all the ingredients together in a tightly lidded container OR mix the lemon juice, salt and pepper in a small bowl and then whisk in the olive oil until well combined.
Place the lettuce in a wide shallow serving bowl. Arrange the egg, chicken, cherry tomatoes, avocado and walnut pieces in rows. Drizzle with lemon dressing. Sprinkle with freshly chopped chives. Serves one.
Go easy on the protein before bed
This may seem counterintuitive, because protein heavy foods typically pack the most tryptophan, but Dr. Scott says you shouldn’t be chowing down on buffalo wings as a midnight snack, or having a really large meal before bed. Protein, she says, is the hardest nutrient for your body to digest.
“A little bit of protein before bed can actually be very good,” Dr. Scott explains, “But too much protein, or a heavy meal before bed -- it activates the whole digestive system, which can interfere with sleep.”
A snack before bed is cool though
You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t eat anything past 7pm, because it could have negative effects on your weight and sleep. Dr. Scott says that’s not necessarily the case. We’re not giving you a pass to clear out the fridge at 11:30pm, but if you’re hungry before bed, Dr. Scott says you should get something to nibble on. A small scoop of peanut butter with a banana, some walnuts and some tart cherries -- all things that will help you produce melatonin -- are fine in small quantities before bedtime.
Peanut butter yogurt crunch
1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds
1 tablespoon almond slices
1 cup Greek yogurt
1-2 tablespoons smooth peanut butter
1 medium banana, cut into slices
1 teaspoon maple syrup (or more to taste)
If it comforts you, it’ll signal it’s time for rest
Researchers have found that having a regular routine will signal to your body when bedtime is, and that will help you naturally release serotonin and melatonin to get some rest. Dr. Scott says the same concept applies to food and drink -- even if it’s more anecdotal than scientific. Getting cozy with a cup of chamomile tea or warm glass of milk before you get under the covers will indicate that it’s bedtime, just because your brain naturally associates these items with relaxation.
“Anything that gives you a sense of warmth and comfort can help, just because it relaxes you,” she says. “Yes, the milk has tryptophan in it, so there’s a real piece of science to it, but it’s also the way that it makes you feel.”
But try to stay away from regular nightcaps
A drink every now and then isn’t going to turn you into an insomniac who spends all night lurking on Reddit, but Dr. Scott still recommends that you try to avoid making a drink before bed a regular habit. While it may give you the impression that you’re falling asleep quickly, alcohol interferes with your body’s ability to synthesize melatonin, Dr. Scott says. That makes it difficult for your body to regulate sleep, so if you have a few drinks before bed, you’ll likely spend more time in light stages of sleep and wake up not feeling rested.
“It can delay the amount of time it takes to fall into a dream, and can fragment dream sleep,” she adds. “I’m all for a drink every once in awhile, but it’s not generally recommended.” If you are having a few drinks, stick to options with less sugar -- i.e. no margaritas before hitting the hay. After following these guidelines, turn on the sound machine, set the room to a cool 65 degrees, and get ready for the sleep of your dreams.
Spiced spiked milk punch
1 star anise pod
1/2 cinnamon stick
Large pinch ground turmeric
1 teaspoon honey
Splash brandy (optional)
Grated nutmeg for garnish