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What Foods Naturally Promote Sleep?

April 4, 2014

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Hi, I’m Maria Marlowe, a Certified Health Coach and author of Detox without the Deprivation. This is my weekly “Ask Health Coach Maria” series, in which I answer frequently asked questions that relate to health and wellness. Have a question? Ask me here

Dear Health Coach Maria,

I’m currently in grad school, and mother to a bubbly 2 year-old baby girl. Needless to say, I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in ages. I lie in bed for hours tossing and turning before I finally fall asleep, and then it feels like the alarm goes off very soon after. I don’t want to start taking medication to help me—are there any foods that naturally promote sleep? Help!

- Lin, New York City

Can’t sleep? You’re not alone. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 30-40% of adults in the U.S. suffer from occasional insomnia, and 10-15% have trouble sleeping all the time. With our busy schedules and hectic lifestyle, the average American only gets 6 hours of sleep a night, which puts them at increased risk for colds and flu, diabetes, heart disease, mental health, and even obesity.

With numbers like these, it’s tempting to reach for the sleeping pills, so good for you for resisting the urge! Pills not only inhibit the full sleep cycle, they also often leave you groggy and lethargic the next day. So what’s a tossing and turning full time mom and student to do? While many natural remedies exist, ranging from melatonin supplements to sleep-promoting yoga, you can also help yourself get some shut-eye by simply adjusting your diet. Choose these natural sleep-inducing foods to help normalize your internal clock!

The Best Foods for Sleep                        

In general, foods that are high in tryptophan will send you peacefully off to Dreamland. It’s a sleep-enhancing amino acid that helps in the production of the sleep-regulating hormones serotonin and melatonin, as well as the minerals magnesium, which relaxes the nerves and muscles, and calcium, which plays a key role in melatonin production. Here are 6 of my favorite sleep-inducing foods:

Lavender: Lavender’s peaceful scent can be found in many perfumes and body care products. Its popularity is owed to the calming effects it has on the mind, and studies show it can be beneficial in treating insomnia and depression when used in aromatherapy or as a tea. Try sipping lavender tea a couple of hours before bed or keeping a lavender sachet under your pillow.

Chamomile: This floral herb has been used for centuries as a natural sleep remedy. When steeped as a tea, chamomile releases glycine, a chemical that calms the nerves, acting as a natural sedative.

Almonds:  Almonds contain tryptophan, the amino acid noted for its ability to induce sleep. Additionally, they are rich in magnesium, which helps you stay asleep once you’ve drifted off. Because carbohydrates make tryptophan easier for the body to absorb, try smoothing some almond butter on millet toast at least 2 hours before bedtime.

Chickpeas: Like most beans, chickpeas are a great source of tryptophan, because they also contain complex carbohydrates, which allow the tryptophan to be absorbed more easily. Spread hummus on brown rice crackers, use it as a dip for crudités, or simply sautée chickpeas in turmeric, cumin, and cayenne for a spicy Middle Eastern-inspired side dish.

Walnuts: In addition to being an abundant source of tryptophan, walnuts also contain melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep cycle. You may have heard of melatonin supplements as a sleep aid, but a handful or two of raw walnuts in or after dinner may do the trick for you.

Dark Leafy Greens: Spinach and other leafy greens like chard, kale, and collards, are loaded with both magnesium and calcium, perfect for sleep-time woes. Include at least 2 servings of greens into your diet daily, either in salads or cooked, and you may just find it easier to drift off naturally. Try me warm and spicy kale with chickpeas recipe for dinner, to get two sleep-inducing foods in one meal!

Additionally, note that caffeine can throw your sleep off, even when drank many hours before bedtime, so I would also skip the afternoon Starbucks run. And, while not food-related, stress is a very real deterrent from restful sleep, (which as a mom and grad student, I’m sure you know a lot about!), so make sure you are managing and limiting it as much as you can.

Lastly, turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary by shutting off all TV’s, computers, iPads, and iPhones two hours before bed, as the blue light their screens give off can throw off your sleep cycle. Try reading an enjoyable print book (not your textbooks!) to help relax your body and mind before you turn in.

Bon appétit and sweet dreams!

Maria Marlowe is a Certified Health Coach and regular Wellness Today Contributor. Get your health question answered in her next column by sending her an email at