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Dietician Reveals 7 Foods that Help You Sleep Better

Author imageThe Mattress Warehouse

Author: Gayle Landau

[Registered Dietician]

Do you go to bed hungry and struggle to fall asleep? Or is it the opposite – do you overeat before bedtime and feel too uncomfortable to sleep? It shouldn’t surprise you that neither of these scenarios will lead to restorative sleep. But what are your options? Are there foods that help you sleep better? Definitely! The Mattress Warehouse asked me to talk about how food and sleep are related – what are the best foods to eat before bed and what foods should be avoided before you hit the hay. So if you want to improve your sleep patterns (and diet), keep reading.

How food affects your sleep quality

What you eat or drink, when you consume it and how much of it you consume can all affect the quality of your sleep. Here’s why:

  • The variety of your diet may play a role in influencing the variety of gut bacteria. These in turn may have a role to play when it comes to sleep. There is bi-directional communication between the brain and the gut. A varied diet ensures good bacteria and research has shown that regular sleep cycles help our good bacteria to flourish.
  • It helps regulate our blood sugar levels, which has an effect on how energised and/or tired we feel.
  • Certain foods act as a stimulant that can adversely affect the onset or duration of sleep.

But is there a magic food remedy that you can take before bed that will make you fall asleep instantly? Unfortunately not. The key to eating foods that help you sleep is to nourish your body adequately throughout the day (more on that later). Individuals who deprive their bodies of nutrients during the day are more likely to over-compensate later at night. Eating beyond the point of physical comfort may compromise a good night’s rest.

Food-related factors that contribute to poor sleep

Now that you know how food intake influences your body, let’s take a look at factors that might influence when and how we eat/drink:

  • Stress – Individuals that stress a lot sometimes forget to eat and replace meals with coffee. This has a double effect on the body. You see, the coffee acts as a stimulant and might make it difficult to fall asleep. Furthermore, your body doesn’t get enough nutrients during the day, so it can’t produce the correct hormones to induce sleep.
  • Food insecurity – Unfortunately, in the South African context, people go to bed hungry. And, as some of you might know, it is difficult to fall asleep on an empty stomach.
  • Over-filling – Conversely, many people tend to eat past their sensation of being full. This leads to a sense of physical discomfort that can make it difficult to fall asleep.

What is the latest one should eat before going to bed?

There is no specific time of day that classifies as the last time you can eat something. However, if you do eat something close to bedtime, try to make time to sit and eat with minimal distraction so you are better able to sense your fullness. If you are prone to indigestion, sitting upright for 30 – 45 minutes after your snack may be helpful before you lie down.

Sleep tips: 7 foods that help you sleep

A wooden platter full of foods that help you sleep, like salmon, seeds and nuts.

A balanced diet can do wonders for your sleep

Once again, keep in mind that the foods we are about to discuss do not act as a magic sleeping pill at the end of the day. If you don’t follow a healthy, varied diet, you might struggle to fall asleep even if you end off the day with a combination of foods that help you sleep. So, if you want to structure your diet in such a way that it promotes restorative sleep, try integrating these foods into your diet:

1. Animal protein

Most animal proteins contain tryptophan – an amino acid that is essential for the production of serotonin (the happy hormone), which in turn leads to melatonin (sleep hormone) production. Poultry, like chicken and turkey, contains high amounts of tryptophan. Milk is also a great source of tryptophan and calcium. Calcium aids in the brain’s use of tryptophan to make more melatonin.

2. Oily fish

Oily fish (or fatty fish) like salmon, tuna or pilchards contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can increase the production of serotonin. Moreover, fatty fish also contain high amounts of B Vitamins. It is also a source of iron, protein, and tryptophan – essential in the formation of melatonin.

Hint: Pilchards are much more affordable than salmon, so don’t let the price of fish deter you from getting in that much-needed omega-3.

3. Cowpeas

Also known as black-eyed peas, Cowpeas are rich in tryptophan and Vitamin B1. Tryptophan, as you now know, is required to produce the sleep-regulating hormone, melatonin and Vitamin B1 helps regulate energy and mental acuity.

4. Millet

Pearl Millet is a wholegrain that is rich in B Vitamins and fibre. It can be used to replace rice and porridge. It can also be used to bake sourdough bread. The fact that millet is high in magnesium makes it an excellent sleep-enhancing food. This is because magnesium helps reduce inflammation in the body (less pain equals better sleep) and reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

5. Oats

Oatmeal is a wholesome wholegrain that contains B Vitamins, magnesium and the sleep hormone itself – melatonin. Eating oats is a great way to contribute to your overall health and, of course, restorative and restful sleep.

6. Seeds

Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds have high tryptophan content, so they are great for promoting serotonin and therefore, melatonin synthesis. You can also add some chia seeds to the mix, because not only are they high in tryptophan, but they are also a natural source of omega-3.

7. Bananas

Bananas are a great source of magnesium, potassium, melatonin, and tryptophan. As you’re now aware, tryptophan is needed to synthesise serotonin, melatonin help induce sleep and magnesium helps fight inflammation and cramping. Potassium helps your muscles relax, which also leads to more restorative sleep.

Foods that help you sleep better – how big should the portions be?

Each person is different, so a specific prescribed portion might not be right for you but could be perfect for someone else. Rather listen to your body when you eat. Try not to eat in a rush, so you’re fully aware of feeling satisfied.

Should you drink tea before bed?

A cup of tea next to a porcelain teapot on a wooden tray.

There is something relaxing about brewing a cup of tea

If you do drink liquids before bedtime, try not to do so just before you switch off the lights. Because let’s face it, doing bathroom runs during the night is not conducive to restful sleep. And if you want to drink something warm, a cup of tea might even help you to relax and fall asleep faster! Here are some teas that you can try. Just remember – always listen to what your body likes and dislikes.

1. Herbal teas

In general, herbal teas like rooibos and chamomile tea are good drinks to have before bedtime. Both of these teas are high in antioxidants, fighting off inflammation. Moreover, chamomile tea has been used as a natural way to reduce stress and anxiety.

2. Ceylon tea

If you are not sensitive to caffeine, a cup of Ceylon tea (yes, it contains caffeine) with a spot of milk before bed can also be beneficial. Milk contains tryptophan and calcium – both agents that help you drift off to rejuvenating sleep. But if you’re sensitive to caffeine, rather give this one a skip come bedtime.

3. Green tea

Green tea, like rooibos and chamomile, is also rich in antioxidants that counter inflammation. It also contains an amino acid called L-theanine – a relaxing agent that helps stave off anxiety. The only downside is that green contains some caffeine, so if you are very sensitive to caffeine, drinking a cuppa green tea before bed might not be your best bet.

Healthy snacks before bed

Going to bed hungry is a sure way to get unrestful sleep and wake up feeling tired and grumpy the next day. This, in turn, may lead to a day spent drinking coffee and not eating enough nutritious choices, which leads to another bad night’s sleep and so the vicious spiral goes on. So if you are hungry you have permission to nourish your body.

Here are some suggestions to consider:

1. Banana

We now know that bananas contain nutrients that promote healthy sleep. So if you want to have a snack that doesn’t fill you up too much, a banana is an excellent choice.

2. Seeds and nuts

Chia seeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds are all high in tryptophan, an amino acid that is essential for sleep. You can also add almonds to the list, as they contain tryptophan and magnesium.

3. Yoghurt

Yoghurt is high in calcium, a source of protein and carbohydrate and a good dietary source of tryptophan all of which may contribute to restorative sleep. Combining the previous options listed mixed with the yoghurt may make a more satisfying scrumptious choice for those looking for a more substantial snack.

Nuts and seeds spilling out of overturned glass bottles.

Nuts and seeds make for very healthy snacks before bed

Foods that may be harmful before bed

It is important to know your body and how it reacts to different kinds of foods. For instance, if you know that you are sensitive to caffeine, don’t eat or drink caffeinated food close to bedtime. Likewise, if you have acid reflux, also known as heartburn, avoid those foods that aggravate your condition – especially close to bedtime.

Hint: Should you suffer from chronic pain after eating or if certain foods induce a painful response in your digestive system, seek medical attention.

But you might still be wondering…

What foods should I avoid before bed?

In general, avoid having too much of the following throughout the day, and definitely before bed:

Caffeinated drinks – Coffee and energy drinks taste great and can keep you going when you are under stress. However, having too much of it can give you a false sense of fullness but then result in you undernourishing your body’s needs.

Alcohol – Even though alcohol can make you drowsy and lull you off to sleep in no time, it does not promote restorative sleep. Many studies show that alcohol reduces the amount of sleep you get in a night.

In addition to limiting caffeine, fizzy drinks and alcohol, limiting the amount and how often you have the following foods may be helpful for those diagnosed with acid reflux, indigestion, a stomach ulcer or a hiatus hernia:

Fried fatty foods – Deep-fried, oily food tends to stay in the stomach for longer, so it could irritate your digestive system and trigger discomfort that may keep you awake at night.

Spicy foods – Similar to oily foods, spicy foods can often be a trigger for heartburn and indigestion.

Sleep tips from The Mattress Warehouse

Your main takeaway should be that to sleep well, you need to nourish your body with a wholesome, varied diet throughout the day. There are unfortunately no magic bullet kind of foods that help you sleep that you can eat at the end of the day to negate a whole day’s worth of bad eating and drinking. The Mattress Warehouse take sleep quality very seriously, which is why we stock top-quality bedroom products. Take a look at our full range of bed prices, if you’re looking to buy a bed. For more sleep tips or ways to fall asleep, visit The Mattress Warehouse online or on social media.

About the author

Gayle Landau

Gayle is a registered South African dietician. She holds a BSc (Medical Honours) in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Cape Town. Gayle is passionate about nutrition and the positive impact it plays on health and wellness.


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Roth, W., Zadeh, K., Vekariya, R., Ge, Y. and Mohamadzadeh, M., 2021. Tryptophan Metabolism and Gut-Brain Homeostasis. International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 22(6), p.2973.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Mattress Warehouse. 

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