Everyone knows it’s not good to go to sleep on a full stomach. But the right bedtime snacks can actually help some people doze off faster and sleep better through the night.
“Eating large, heavy meals late in the evening can make you feel uncomfortably full and keep you up tossing and turning,” says registered dietician Joy Bauer, the nutrition and health expert for NBC’s Today show. “But a light snack with the right mix of ingredients can actually help you get a better night’s rest.”
One key sleep-inducing compound is the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in poultry, meat, fish, eggs, nuts and other protein-rich foods. The experts at WebMD explain that tryptophan is needed for the body to produce the feel-good hormone serotonin, which helps to relax you.
Serotonin is also needed to make melatonin, the hormone that regulates the circadian sleep-wake cycle.
But there’s a catch. To be an effective sleep-enhancer, tryptophan has to make the leap from the bloodstream to the brain, and it’s got a lot of competition.
“Tryptophan, which is a bulky amino acid, [has] to stand in line to get through the blood-brain barrier with a whole bunch of amino acids,” explains registered dietician Elizabeth Somer. “Very little of it makes it across.”
But combining the tryptophan with a carbohydrate allows the amino acid to jump to the front of the line, where it can cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate serotonin production.
Somer, author of the book “Eat Your Way to Happiness,” adds that the carbohydrate works best on tryptophan that is already in the bloodstream from a previous meal.
“Research shows that a light, 30-gram carbohydrate snack just before bed will actually help you sleep better,” she says.
Complex carbs — whole grain crackers and bread, oatmeal, legumes, and starchy veggies like potatoes and corn — are the best foods you can eat to trigger the tryptophan’s blood-brain crossover.
The tryptophan/carbohydrate combo is just one of several foods and drinks that can make you drowsy. Here are some others:
Chamomile or passionfruit tea: There’s something inherently soothing about a warm cup of tea. Drinking the chamomile variety also boosts levels of glycine, an amino acid that acts as a mild sedative. And Australian researchers have found that sipping a cup of passionfruit tea helped people sleep more soundly. They figure it’s due to the soporific effects of the Harman alkaloids found in the flowers.
Lettuce: The leafy greens contain lactucarium, a milky fluid informally known as “lettuce opium” due to its sedative properties. You can either eat the lettuce raw or simmer a few leaves in a cup of water for 15 minutes, add a couple sprigs of mint for flavor and sip it before turning in for the night.
Cereal with milk: A good low-sugar, whole-grain cereal can serve as source for the all-important carbohydrate, and milk not only contains some tryptophan but also calcium, which helps the brain convert serotonin into melatonin.
Almonds: Nuts are another good source of tryptophan, and almonds add a healthy dose of magnesium, which is necessary for quality sleep. “Magnesium promotes both sleep and muscle relaxation,” notes Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, author of the book “From Fatigued to Fantastic.” “And they have the added benefit of supplying protein that can help maintain a stable blood sugar level while sleeping.”
Cherries: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Rochester found that cherries, especially the tart kind, help to boost levels of melatonin. You can drink cherry juice or snack on fresh, frozen or dried versions of the fruit.
Edamame: These green soybeans are a good bedtime snack for women who toss and turn at night due to hot flashes. Thank their isoflavones, compounds that mimic estrogen. A 2012 study found that isoflavone supplements reduced the frequency and severity of hot flashes.