8-minute read•July 1st, 2015
Whenever I just couldn’t sleep, a glass of warm milk has been my mom’s secret weapon for my entire youth. Why? Because milk helps you sleep!
I think we can all attest to the fact that some foods seem like a no-go right before bed, and some seem to work wonders. Enough reason for me to investigate further. Who knew that pizza can increase your chances of plummeting into a deep sleep as soon as you hit the pillow?
I’m listing the 7 best foods for a good night’s sleep, and we’ll get to the bottom of why they make us sleepy:
The most straightforward way to induce sleepiness is to eat cherries. Cherries are a great source of naturally occurring melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your day and night cycle.
Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the centre of the brain. Production is triggered by a lack of light: at dusk and at night. In day-active animals and humans melatonin promotes sleep. On the other hand in night active animals it actually promotes activity, thus gathering its nickname ‘The Hormone Of Darkness’.
As you can imagine the melatonin our body produces is responsible for how our biological clock runs. It turns out, that ingesting additional melatonin can even fix disruptions of your biological clock, such as insomnia or a jet lag.
So if you don’t want to let your jet lag ruin your vacation or you just need a good night’s sleep, go for the cherries!
2. Lean proteins
There is some truth to the Thanksgiving myth that turkey will make you sleepy. Although not as extreme as I described in the article about food coma’s, turkey and other lean protein can actually help you getting to sleep.
In nearly all lean proteins, such as fish, chicken, turkey and red meat, the essential amino acid tryptophan is present. As you might expect, an essential amino acid cannot be synthesized by the body and therefore must be part of a healthy diet. Apart from being a protein building block, tryptophan is closely involved in human sleep.
Through an enzymatic process tryptophan is converted into the neurotransmitter serotonin. Another process converts the same serotonin to melatonin. And by now we know what melatonin is good for: a snug and a solid night of sleep.
3. Pistachio Nuts
Apart from being delicious, pistachio nuts are a very good source of vitamin B6. The vitamin is present in many more foods, such as meats or fish. The reason why pistachio nuts are my first pick is because up to 50% of vitamin B6 is lost through cooking and storage. Plant foods lose the least vitamin B6 in these processes, because they contain the most stable form of vitamin B6: pyridoxine. Animal foods contain the less stable pyridoxal and pyridoxamine.
If tryptophan and serotonin were the fuel of our sleep-engine, eating a bag of pistachio nuts would be an oil change.
What our mothers told us was no lie! A glass of warm milk will actually make you sleep better.
While milk does contain the same tryptophan that is essential for the synthesis of melatonin, it comes in such small doses it will not have any noticeable effect on falling asleep. The reason why warm milk helps falling asleep doesn’t even have anything to do with the biochemical processes in our body!
The reason warm milk is so good for falling asleep, is because it’s warm. We associate warmth at the end of the day with sleep. Just imagine sitting near a fireplace or crawling under your blanket: the warmth will make you drowsy and eventually fall asleep.
Traditionally hot chocolate is a bedtime drink too, but it doesn’t work as well as milk. Chocolate milk contains high levels of xanthines, the mother of stimulants like caffeine.
Of course I don’t have to tell you you shouldn’t go for a coffee before nap time.
Bananas are good for inducing sleep, but not because it affects the production of certain neurotransmitters or hormones. Bananas are full of useful electrolytes, namely potassium and magnesium.
As I’ve described before in the article about muscle cramps, a specific set of minerals are very important to our muscle function: electrolytes. We’ve seen that magnesium and potassium, in particular, are responsible for the relaxation of a muscle.
Apart from being sleepy in your head, it’s equally important for your body to relax. Eat a banana and feel the relaxation flow through you.
This almost sounds too good to be true. While eating loads of pizza probably won’t get you in the best shape of your life, snatching a slice right before bed might actually send you right to your dreams.
The general consensus is that foods with a high glycemic index (GI) aren’t the healthiest. The GI represents the total rise in blood sugar level following the consumption of a food. Foods with a high GI will spike your blood sugar and then make it crash. The crash will make you hungry again, so you’ll quickly overeat. Not surprisingly, pizza has a high GI, according to Harvard scientists.
So does a blood sugar level that looks like a roller coaster help me get to sleep?
Researchers tested how low GI foods compared to high GI foods when consumed right before bedtime. They measured their results in the unit of Sleep Onset Latency (SOL), which is just a fancy term for how long it takes for somebody to fall asleep. Interestingly, it took candidates approximately 50% less time to fall asleep when they consumed a high GI meal before bedtime.
Building on that, it turns out that the large amounts of rice (high GI) consumed in Japan are significantly associated with the good sleep that Japanese people have.
High GI foods won’t get you in shape, but they might just let you enjoy some Japanese tranquillity.
Coined a superfood, the kiwi undoubtedly is more beneficial to your diet than a pizza. Recent research suggests that apart from being loaded with antioxidants, kiwis can make you fall asleep like a brick.
At Taiwan’s Taipei Medical University they specifically researched the effect of eating kiwis before going to bed. They found that eating kiwis on a daily basis was linked to significant improvements in both sleep quality and sleep quantity. It turns out eating kiwis for 4 weeks can:
– make you fall asleep up to 34% more quickly
– make you wake up 29% less when you’re supposed to be asleep
– make you feel like you’ve slept better, up to 42%
– make you sleep 13% more overall
While the researchers studied the effects on sleep, they didn’t map the biochemical process that caused improved sleep. Considering the fact that kiwis have one of the highest levels of serotonin, it probably has something to do with the eventual production of melatonin.
If there’s one thing we can agree on it’s that the body is very complex, also when it comes to sleep. While melatonin is ultimately responsible for making you sleepy, it is synthesised from several other biochemicals, such as serotonin and tryptophan. Those biochemicals are essential for the production of melatonin, as well as co-enzymes, mainly vitamin B6. If there’s another thing we can agree on it’s that this story probably isn’t the best to tell a 6-year-old when they ask you why milk makes them so sleepy.
The best advice for a solid sleep cycle is to maintain a nutritionally balanced diet and to make sure you’re getting all the essential ingredients for the production of melatonin. However, if you are in desperate need for a much needed nights sleep I recommend a pizza with tuna, filled with cherries, kiwi and banana, topped off with some pistachio nuts along with a glass of warm milk.
You can also simply order a box of Jake Shakes, to make sure you will get everything you need.