There’s an easier way to fall asleep fast and sleep straight through the night than popping a sleeping pill or downing a glass of vino: Just eat something.
Well, okay, not just anything—chow down on the wrong stuff and you’ll be up all night. For example, a University of Cambridge study found that eating protein-rich foods fires up the cells in your brain (called orexin cells) that make you alert and energetic. And if you drink before bed, 4 hours into sleep the alcohol wears off, leaving you in a more activated state, says Men’s Health advisor Christopher Winter, M.D., medical director of the sleep medicine center of Martha Jefferson Hospital.
But the right bedtime snacks can put you in prime position for a stress-free evening—one with hours and hours of sleep ahead.
So where do you start? Here are six surprising sleep-inducing foods to add to your grocery list today.
A little sugar counters the effects of your orexin cells, says Dr. Winter. Try a banana before bed—it will give you just enough sugar to calm your orexin cells, plus magnesium and potassium to help to relax your muscles.
An Australian study found that when people drank a cup of either passionfruit or parsley tea, the passionfruit drinkers slept more soundly. Researchers believe chemicals called harman alkaloids—high levels of which are unique to the passionfruit flower—act on your nervous system to make you sleepy. (From white to green and everything in between, discover the 9 Healthiest Teas.)
While L-tryptophan—the amino acid that supposedly makes you crash after Thanksgiving dinner—does make you sleepy, there are better sources than turkey. Consider elk instead, says Christine J. Jones, sleep researcher at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. At 746 milligrams (mg) a portion, it far surpasses turkey (333 mg). Game meats not your thing? Sesame seeds (120 mg) and hummus (usually about 600 mg) are packed with L-tryptophan too.
L-tryprophan works best when combined with carbs. Carbs trigger your body to secrete insulin, which uses up other amino acids in your bloodstream first, leaving more L-tryptophan to sedate, says Dr. Winter. The best foods for the job? Carbs that raise your blood sugar levels fast, since slow-acting carbs don’t produce the same kind of insulin response. Go for a healthy handful of dates—they’re high in carbs and have a fair amount of L-tryptophan. Fruit and air-popped popcorn are other healthy fast-acting carbohydrates.
GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in your body—in other words, it’s your brain’s brakes to calm the party down. It plays a role in regulating the excitability of neurons throughout your nervous system. The only problem: “It’s not found in food, so you can’t really eat GABA-rich products,” says Dr. Winter. Instead, you can eat foods high in glutamic acid—a precursor to GABA that turns into the neurotransmitter in your body. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is the salt of glutamic acid, and it’s usually added to Chinese food.
While MSG sometimes gets a bad reputation because it makes food “addictively” good tasting, the FDA has declared it a safe food additive. MSG can be made simply enough by putting salt on a tomato, Dr. Winter says. Other natural options: raw seaweed/spirulina (6,648 mg glutamic acid), Chinese cabbage (6,232 mg), or low-fat cottage cheese (7,455 mg). Still, if you experience the symptoms often associated with MSG, you should avoid it.
Recent research in the European Journal of Nutrition found that drinking an ounce of cherry juice twice a day—once in the morning and once at night—for a week helped people sleep an extra 25 minutes. Why? It’s laced with L-tryptophan, which can convert into serotonin, and eventually melatonin—the compound that influences your sleep cycle, says Jason Ellis, Ph.D., the director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research. Increase the melatonin circulating in your body, and you’ll increase the chances of a good night’s sleep, too. Try an ounce of juice or a cup of cherries before bed. Since there are no foods high in melatonin, you want to look for foods that can produce it, says Dr. Winter. A few to keep in mind: milk, yogurt, oats, eggs, and peanuts.
Writing by Cassie Shortsleeve. Additional research by Maren Kasselik.