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).
See also 15 Poses to Help You Sleep Better
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.
See also 11 Simple Ways to Get Better Sleep
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.”
Serves 2 (12-oz servings)
Blending fiber-rich frozen fruit creates a creamy texture similar to a soft sorbet. Magnesium-rich yogurt and potassium-packed bananas may help relax your nerves and muscles for sounder sleep. Once frozen, the fruit can be transferred into zipper bags for easy storage. Freeze extra so you can enjoy a smoothie any time.
2 just-ripe bananas, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch slices
6 oz fresh blackberries
1 orange, peeled, pith removed, cut into 1/4-inch slices
2 tbsp ground flaxseed
1 cup coconut water or water
1/2 cup low-fat Greek yogurt
1. Arrange bananas, blackberries, and orange in a single layer on a small sheet pan and freeze for at least 1 hour.
2. In a bowl, whisk together ground flaxseed and coconut water; let stand for 1 minute.
3. In a blender, purée frozen fruit, yogurt, and flax water until very smooth. Serve immediately.
272 calories per serving, 5 g fat (1 g saturated), 53 g carbs, 11 g fiber, 10 g protein, 50 mg sodium
Lemon-Sesame Salmon with Avocado and Greens
When it comes to sleep-enhancing foods, salmon reigns supreme. The fish supplies a slew of nutrients that support serotonin, including vitamins D, B6, and omega-3 fatty acids. For a crispy salad garnish, incorporate baked salmon skin: Buy salmon with the skin on, peeling it away with a sharp knife before baking. Sprinkle both sides of skin lightly with salt and pepper, and lay it flat on a small baking tray lined with parchment paper. Bake 15 minutes until crispy. Let cool on tray, 1–2 minutes.
4 salmon fillets (5–6 oz each)
1/4 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 lemons, 1 sliced, 1 juiced (3 tbsp)
8 sprigs parsley, plus 4 tsp minced parsley leaves
2 spring onions, 1 quartered (bulb and pale-green
stem only), 1 minced (4 tsp)
2 cups low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey
4 tsp black sesame seeds
1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
6 cups mixed baby greens
2 avocados, diced
1. Arrange salmon in a shallow baking dish; top with salt and lemon slices, parsley sprigs, and quartered spring onion. In a small saucepan, bring broth to just boiling; pour over salmon. Cover baking dish tightly with foil. Bake until salmon flakes and is just cooked through, 10–15 minutes. Uncover and let cool in poaching liquid. Remove and discard lemon slices, parsley sprigs, and quartered spring onion.
2. In a bowl, whisk together lemon juice, mustard, honey, sesame seeds, and minced parsley and spring onion. Drizzle in sesame oil and whisk to combine.
3. In another bowl, toss greens with 4 tsp lemon-sesame dressing and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper; divide among 4 plates. In the same bowl, combine avocados and 4 tsp lemon-sesame dressing. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
4. Place a salmon fillet on each bed of greens. Top with avocado mixture; drizzle remaining 4 tsp lemon-sesame dressing over each bowl. Garnish with crisped salmon skin if desired.
453 calories per serving, 27 g fat (4 g saturated), 18 g carbs, 9 g fiber, 38 g protein, 437 mg sodium
See also 3 Simple Seafood Shopping Strategies
Bulgur and Kale Salad with Honey-Yogurt Dressing
This fiber-packed recipe featuring bulgur, kale, and chickpeas also includes almonds and cherries for their sleep-promoting magnesium and melatonin, respectively. For a vegan version, substitute unsweetened almond-milk yogurt for the Greek stuff.
1 bunch (4 cups) Tuscan kale, stems and thick ribs removed, leaves thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 cup bulgur
1/2 tsp salt, divided
3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp honey
1/2 cup halved, pitted cherries
1/4 cup low-fat Greek yogurt
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 cup cooked or canned chickpeas
1/4 cup mint leaves, thinly sliced
1. In a medium saucepan with a steamer basket, boil water; steam kale until bright green, 30–45 seconds. Arrange kale on tray or plate in a single layer and refrigerate until ready to serve. Place bulgur in a heat-safe bowl; add ½ cup boiling water and ¼ tsp salt. Stir, cover, and let stand, 1 hour (alternatively, let stand 10 minutes at room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight).
2. Make the dressing: In a bowl, whisk together apple cider vinegar and honey. Stir in cherries; let sit 30 minutes. Strain cherries, reserving liquid. In another bowl, combine yogurt, turmeric, and remaining ¼ tsp salt. Add reserved liquid to yogurt and whisk to combine.
3. In a small sauté pan over medium-low heat, toast almonds, stirring often, until fragrant and lightly browned, 1–2 minutes.
4. In a mixing bowl, combine kale, bulgur, cherries, almonds, chickpeas, and mint. Pour in half of honey-yogurt dressing and toss to combine, adding more dressing as needed to thoroughly coat salad. Split salad among 4 bowls or plates. Serve additional dressing on the side.
281 calories per serving, 8 g fat (1 g saturated), 46 g carbs, 9 g fiber, 11 g protein, 513 mg sodium
Green Tea and Jasmine Rice Porridge
Enjoy this adaptation of rice pudding. Its creamy warmth may help calm you, and the jasmine rice may hasten sleep when eaten four hours before bed. Fold in some kiwi (contains serotonin), pear, and mango; or, for a more savory version, add sweet potatoes (rich in potassium).
2 tbsp honey, plus more to taste
1 lime, zested and juiced
4 decaffeinated green tea bags
1/2 cup jasmine rice, rinsed and
1/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup toasted* coconut flakes
1 cup sliced kiwi (optional)
1 cup diced mango (optional)
1 cup diced pear (optional)
1. In a medium saucepan, bring 3 cups water, honey, and 1 tbsp lime juice to a boil. Add tea bags and remove from heat; cover and steep, 5 minutes. Gently squeeze liquid from tea bags into saucepan; discard tea bags.
2. Stir rice into tea and return to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally until rice is very tender and liquid is still soupy, 20–23 minutes. Remove rice from heat and stir in coconut milk. Divide rice among 4 bowls. Garnish with coconut flakes and 1 tsp lime zest; sweeten with honey and top with sliced kiwi and diced pear and mango if desired.
194 calories per serving, 7 g fat, (7 g saturated), 32 g carbs, 2 g fiber, 2 g protein, 18 mg sodium
See also Chia Seed Breakfast Bowl
Abigail Wolfe is a writer and recipe developer in Los Angeles.