Acharya Charaka, one of the fathers of modern Ayurveda, believed that so much of what we seek—happiness, strength, vitality, intellect, potency—depends on proper sleep. More than 2,300 years later, many of today’s scientists agree. “Sleep influences everything about us,” says Michael Grandner, PhD, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona. “It’s essential to physical, mental, and emotional well-being.” Researchers have even found that poor sleep affects physical appearance (for example, sleepy participants were rated as looking unhealthy), though you probably don’t need to read an academic study in order to back this up.
Here’s where you may need a little convincing: Your dietary habits can play a serious role in your sleep patterns. “Many people are missing out on essential vitamins and minerals from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” says Angel Planells, MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “This means their bodies are probably not functioning as well as they should be, both day and night, which could cause sleep disturbance.” Research is starting to bear this out. For instance, a study published last year in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that diets low in fiber and high in saturated fat and sugar were associated with lighter, less restorative sleep. Researchers speculate that an abundance of nonfibrous carbs and sugars tampers with core body temperature, reducing secretion of nighttime melatonin, the hormone that signals your body to sleep.
Conversely, eating lots of fiber-rich foods is associated with deeper, more restorative sleep. It’s possible that fiber-rich foods simply edge out less healthy fare in your diet, aiding in your body’s melatonin-secretion process, says lead researcher Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University. “We need more research in order to understand for certain what’s going on, but there’s really no downside to eating less sugar and more high-fiber foods.” St-Onge recommends getting as much produce and high-fiber carbs (quinoa and bulgur are great options) into your diet as possible.
Beyond eating an overall healthful diet, there are some strategic food choices you can make if you’re often struggling to fall, or stay, asleep: Most diet-sleep research points to foods that boost serotonin (a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of relaxation and well-being) or contain melatonin or tryptophan (a sleep-supporting amino acid that’s essential for the production of serotonin).
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For instance, a study published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating two kiwis an hour before bedtime for four weeks significantly improved the sleep of the participants. Kiwis—like bananas and walnuts—contain a high concentration of natural serotonin. Another study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that over a two-week time period, drinking eight ounces of melatonin-rich tart cherry juice both in the morning and at night was associated with improved sleep. Additional research suggests that vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids are also important for the regulation of serotonin and sleep.
A few more nutrients worth piling on your plate: magnesium, potassium, and vitamin B6 (see “Eat Better, Sleep Better,” at right). They help your body produce serotonin and relax nerves and muscles, putting your body in a state that’s conducive to sleep, says Grandner.
Finally, don’t discount the naturally soothing powers of certain foods and drinks. Warm herbal teas or soft foods, such as smoothies or rice pudding, can be comforting, which may invite sleep. And research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that eating carbs high on the glycemic index four hours before bed helped some people get to sleep faster, possibly due to their ability to increase tryptophan and serotonin production. If you go this route, aim for nutritious high-glycemic choices such as melon or jasmine or basmati rice, as opposed to cake or other sweets. Or, if you want to experiment with how melatonin-rich foods (such as cherries and bananas) may affect sleep, Grandner recommends eating those an hour or two before bed.
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Beyond what you eat, how much you eat is also key to getting better zzzs: Hunger pangs can keep you awake at night, and researchers caution against restrictive diets that lack variety because we still don’t know the full list of nutrients that are essential for restful sleep. Conversely, if you eat too much, or fill up on heavy, rich, or spicy foods at night, you may experience sleep-disrupting acid reflux when you lie down. Plus, your body will have trouble relaxing if it’s busy digesting, says John Douillard, an Ayurvedic doctor in Boulder, Colorado. It’s best to eat a light dinner—like a piece of fish and a small side dish or a salad with a fiber-rich grain—two to four hours before bedtime. If you feel hungry as you head off to bed, Planells recommends a light, healthy snack: a cup of milk, a bit of cheese, or a slice of turkey—all rich in tryptophan.
To start eating your way to sounder sleep, try the recipes on these pages for lunch or dinner. Each one contains sleep-supporting nutrients that will help you wind down and prep for a good night’s rest. And eating slowly and mindfully may help enhance the meal’s effects: “Relaxing requires taking your time, and that means eating in a peaceful way,” says Douillard. “What you eat, how you live, and how you sleep is all about balance. Encourage your body to work the way nature intended.”
Abigail Wolfe is a writer and recipe developer in Los Angeles.