Expert Q&A

Sleeping problems: Ways to alleviate them with diet?

I have trouble sleeping. Does my problem have anything to do with nutrition? Is there anything I can do to sleep better?

What you eat may have an effect on how well you sleep. Some foods improve sleep, while others make peaceful sleep difficult.

Foods that help you sleep

Foods that promote sleep include leafy green vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, mushrooms and fruits, especially berries. Even spices (such as dill, sage and basil) may help to promote sleep. The time-honored remedy of a cup of warm milk at bedtime is still a common aid for sleeplessness. Why? Tryptophan is an amino acid and is converted into serotonin (neurotransmitter in the brain that controls sleep, appetite and mood) and is a component of 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which increases REM sleep and deep sleep stages of sleep. Tryptophan-rich foods include milk, honey, turkey, egg whites and tuna. 

Not sleeping: foods to avoid

When you’re having trouble sleeping, avoid: 

  • Caffeine.  Foods and beverages that contain this stimulant—such as coffee, chocolate, cocoa, soft drinks and over-the-counter and prescription medications—will keep you awake. 

  • Spicy foods, pepperoni pizza and tomato sauce.  These foods can cause heartburn.
  • Overly sweet or fatty foods.  These foods can cause indigestion and/or bloating.
  • Alcohol.  Although alcohol may make you sleepy, it disturbs the sleep patterns later in the night and can cause severe sleep problems. 

Remember: One food does not cause the same reaction in all people. You should experiment to learn your individual “trigger” foods and beverages.

In addition to foods, food patterns—such as eating too much or too heavy of a meals—can disturb sleep because of the resulting indigestion, heartburn or discomfort.

Supplements can help to improve your sleep

To improve your sleep, you may want to try vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements. Increase your calcium intake with a calcium supplement. (A good one to try is Viactiv™ calcium chews.) Most adults need between 1,000-1,300 milligrams daily. Magnesium may help induce sleep and alleviate leg cramps that can keep you up at night. A supplement of 250 milligrams is generally safe. Food sources of magnesium include wheat bran, almonds, cashews and brewer's yeast. Vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 are beneficial and often used in the treatment of insomnia. Take a vitamin B complex supplement and increase your consumption wheat germ, bananas, sunflower seeds and tuna. Always check with your doctor before taking any of the supplements. The best way to get a good night's sleep is the natural way—through the foods you eat.




Minet-Ringuet J, Le Ruyet PM, Tome D, and PC Even. “A tryptophan-rich protein diet efficiently restores sleep after food deprivation in the rat.” Behav Brain Res. 2004 Jul 9;152(2):335-40.


Smith RL and CH Kennedy. “Increases in avoidance responding produced by REM sleep deprivation or serotonin depletion are reversed by administration of 5-hydroxytryptophan.” Behav Brain Res. 2003 Mar 18;140(1-2):81-6.

Michèle Turcotte, MS, RD/LDN
Contributing Expert

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