Sleep is an essential part of good health. Poor sleep quality can make you grouchy and clumsy, and if you have chronic insomnia or sleep disturbances, you’re at higher risk of having an accident or developing serious health conditions, like clinical depression or diabetes.

Your lifestyle, including your eating habits, helps determine how well you sleep. Irregular eating habits, little variety in food choices, obesity, and a diet high in fats and refined sugar, have all been linked to poor quality sleep.

But while certain foods may keep you up at night—particularly those containing caffeine or alcohol—others foods can help you relax and get a good night's rest. For the most part, the foods that help you sleep are those that supply the amino acid tryptophan, or promote the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin. All of these natural chemicals play a role in normalizing your sleep-wake cycle.

If you're looking to improve your sleep quality, try including some of these foods in your regular diet:

Turkey, Chicken, Fish, Eggs, Milk, Cheese and Nuts

Poultry, fish, dairy products and nuts are all rich in tryptophan, which your body uses to make both serotonin and melatonin. One study found that increased blood tryptophan levels in the evening resulted in more alertness upon wakening the next morning. The researcher concluded this may be due to better quality sleep. To get the greatest benefit, snack on individual portions of these foods alone, on an empty stomach, about an hour before you go to bed.

Tart Cherry Juice

Melatonin levels decrease with age, one reason why older people often have trouble sleeping. In several studies, reconstituted tart cherry juice, consumed twice a day, or just at night, significantly increased melatonin levels, increased sleep time and improved sleep quality in young and old participants—and especially in the elderly.

Valerian and Chamomile Teas

Both valerian and chamomile teas are sometimes used as natural sedatives and sleep aids. Although there is little science available to help us understand exactly how these plants work in the body, both seem to interact with neurochemicals and receptors in the brain that are involved in stress responses, and there is much anecdotal evidence suggesting these herbal remedies help reduce stress and anxiety, allowing for a better night’s sleep.

If you have trouble sleeping, or feel tired when you wake up every morning, speak with your health care provider to be sure there isn’t an underlying medical condition at the root of your troubles. At the same time, you can discuss your diet and whether or not including some of these sleep-inducing foods or herbs could help you.

Alison Massey, MS, RD, LDN, CDN reviewed this article.


Massey, Alison MS, RD, LDN, CDE. Email to author September 14, 2015.

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Mary Alice Cohen, MD. Woman’s Health Group. Women’s Hospital of Texas.