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Best Foods for Sleep and Why When You Eat Is More Important

The best foods for sleep include nuts, seeds, fish, and turkey. But when you eat may be even more important. Avoid eating two to three hours before bed.
Published
2023-03-02
18 MINS
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists.
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Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Woman drinking chamomile tea to help her sleep better

We all know caffeine can keep us up and a large meal can make us feel sleepy, but beyond that, what are the best foods for sleep? 

While more research needs to be done, there are some foods you could choose — and others you should cut down on or avoid altogether — to improve your sleep. But to get the best night’s sleep possible, you need to think beyond what’s on your plate and consider meal timing, too.

Below, we’ll dive into the best foods for sleep and why you need to think about when you eat, as well as what you eat. Plus, we’ll share how the RISE app can help you nail your meal timing for a good night’s sleep.

What Are the Best Foods for Sleep?

Choosing what to have for dinner? Here are some foods that may help you sleep.

Heads-up before we dive in: There’s not a lot of research into the best foods for sleep. And the research we do have isn’t conclusive. 

Even the foods that have been shown to help you sleep may not really help in everyday life. You may have to eat extremely large portions of them to get the sleep-boosting benefits, for example, or they may be eaten as part of a large meal, and this is what makes you feel sleepy. 

Plus, it’s hard to isolate specific foods in people's diets to find out how they’re affecting sleep. Other foods they eat may be having sleep-promoting effects.

We’ll dive more into this later, but here’s what we do know. 

1. Nuts 

Nuts are a good plant-based source of melatonin, your body’s sleep-promoting hormone. Melatonin helps to prime your body and brain for sleep and keep your sleep-wake cycle in check.

Reach for walnuts, pistachios, almonds, pine nuts, and chestnuts in particular. 

While it’s not entirely clear whether melatonin from your diet could help your sleep, one paper on the topic states: “The consumption of foods rich in melatonin could not only improve insomnia, which affects one third of the general population worldwide, but also provide other health benefits.”

Even if they don’t help your sleep, nuts are a source of healthy fat, protein, fiber, and — when eaten in moderation — can be a part of a healthy overall diet that supports your sleep.

2. Fish 

Fish is also a good source of melatonin. A 2019 study found a lower risk of poor-quality sleep was linked to eating more fish and seafood. This link was found as part of a wider diet that included greater food diversity, eating more fruits, and eating less eggs — rather than just fish and seafood alone. So, it’s hard to pinpoint specific foods and their sleep benefits here. There’s also no agreed-upon definition for sleep quality

Fatty fish in particular, like salmon, tuna, and mackerel, contains vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, which help to regulate serotonin, a building block for melatonin in the body. 

3. Turkey 

Turkey may be partly to blame for the sleepiness you feel after Thanksgiving day dinner.

Turkey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that gets converted into serotonin and melatonin.  

More research needs to be done, but one paper states 1 gram (0.03 ounces) of tryptophan may improve sleep latency, or the time it takes to fall asleep. About 300 grams (10.5 ounces) of turkey contains this amount. 

But the average serving size of turkey is 2 to 3 ounces, so you may need to eat a lot of it (3-5+ servings) to get any sleep-boosting benefits.

4. Pumpkin Seeds 

Pumpkin seeds are also a good source of tryptophan.

The paper above states about 200 grams (7 ounces) of pumpkin seeds contains the 1 gram (0.03 ounces) of tryptophan that may help improve sleep latency. 

Pumpkin seeds are also high in magnesium and fiber, two things linked to better sleep.  

A typical serving size of pumpkin seeds is 1 ounce, however. So, again, you’d have to eat a lot to get the amount of tryptophan that could help your sleep.

Not a fan of pumpkin seeds? Tryptophan can also be found in sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, chicken, eggs, milk, peanuts, and soybeans. But again, you may have to consume these in large quantities to get the direct benefit. Instead, consider eating them as part of a healthy diet that will support your sleep overall. 

5. Kiwis 

Diets higher in fruits have been linked to better sleep, but kiwis may help in particular. This may be because they boost serotonin and are high in antioxidants. 

One study had participants eat two kiwis an hour before bedtime for four weeks. At the end of the experiment, subjective sleep quality, time awake during the night, and sleep latency were significantly decreased. Sleep duration and sleep efficiency (the time you spend in bed actually sleeping) were significantly increased.

This is one of the very few studies that looks at one food in particular, but it does come with a few problems. It’s extremely small — only 24 subjects! — the participants had sleep disorders, and nothing else in their diets was controlled for or measured. The researchers don’t know for sure why kiwis may be having a sleep-boosting effect, so other foods may impact sleep as well, or impact it even more.

6. Chamomile Tea 

You may have heard a cup of warming herbal tea can help you drift off, and there may be some science behind it.

A 2022 study found chamomile tea may help those in their third trimester of pregnancy overcome insomnia. 

A 2019 study found it may help menopausal women with sleep problems. It helped reduce sleep latency, number of awakenings during the night, and total sleep time. We’ve covered more on menopause sleep problems here. 

Stomach pain keeping you awake? A 2022 study found chamomile tea may improve the quality of sleep for those with abdominal cramps. 

Chamomile tea may also reduce symptoms of depression in cancer patients. And depression (and other mental health disorders) can hugely impact your sleep. 

7. Tart Cherry Juice 

Tart cherry juice may also increase your melatonin levels. 

One study asked participants to consume two 1-fluid-ounce servings of tart cherry juice for seven days, one within 30 minutes of waking up and one 30 minutes before their evening meal. The results showed they had more time in bed, more total sleep time, and increased sleep efficiency compared to those who consumed a placebo. 

A small study from 2022 found consuming tart cherry juice five times over a 48-hour period could improve sleep quality. 

8. Bananas 

Bananas are another source of the sleep-promoting nutrients tryptophan, melatonin, fiber, and magnesium. 

Research from 2021 found bananas may help to decrease sleep disorders in the elderly. Participants ate either nothing, 4.5 ounces of banana a day, or 9 ounces of banana a day for 14 days (a medium banana is about 4 ounces). The bananas were eaten at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day. The results showed those who ate bananas saw a decrease in sleep disorders, with those eating more bananas experiencing a higher decrease. 

Bananas are also high in potassium. And one study found taking 96 MEq of potassium supplements for a week increased sleep efficiency and reduced time awake during the night. 

9. Rice 

Foods with a high dietary glycemic index, a measure of how quickly food affects your blood sugar levels, have been linked to better sleep. And rice is one of these foods.

One study found higher rice consumption was linked to better sleep quality compared to bread and noodles. 

10. Water

Water keeps everything in your body running smoothly. It can prevent constipation and the related pain and discomfort keeping you up, and it can keep your energy higher during the day, meaning you’re more likely to do sleep-boosting activities like exercise. 

Hydration has even been directly linked to sleep. Sleeping for six hours a night has been linked to higher odds of being dehydrated compared to sleeping for eight hours.

Just be sure not to drink water too close to bedtime or you may find yourself waking up needing to use the bathroom. 

11. Supplements 

If you don’t get certain nutrients from your diet, your sleep may suffer. And this is where supplements can help. 

A 2020 review found zinc supplements may improve sleep latency, polyphenols may reduce sleep disturbances and increase total sleep time, and crocetin may reduce how often you wake up during the night. But, more research needs to be done to confirm as there are some contradictory results. 

Speak to your healthcare provider or a dietitian if you’re missing out on key nutrients and need supplements. 

12. Overall Diet 

There’s more research into how your overall diet affects your sleep than how specific foods affect it. 

One paper states: 

  • High-carbohydrate diets may shorten sleep latency. 
  • High-protein diets may improve sleep quality. 

A 2019 study found eating a better quality diet, greater food diversity, more fruits and fish, and fewer eggs were associated with a lower risk of poor-quality sleep.

Another study found higher fiber intake was associated with more deep sleep.

And finally, a 2022 review found diets rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and anti-inflammatory nutrients, and lower in saturated fat were associated with better sleep quality. 

While there’s no set amount of food that’s necessarily best for sleep, you should keep any late-evening snacks or meals to under 600 calories to reduce the chances of them keeping you awake.

What Are the Worst Foods for Sleep?

Here’s what to cut down on or avoid for a better night’s sleep. 

1. Caffeine 

RISE app screenshot telling you when to limit caffeine intake
The RISE app can tell you when to have your last coffee each day.

We all know coffee can keep us awake, but caffeine lasts in your system longer than you think. Cut yourself off in the early afternoon to make sure you aren’t still breaking it down at bedtime.

Watch out for caffeine in chocolate, tea, decaf coffee, and energy drinks

We’ve covered when you should stop drinking coffee here.

The RISE app can tell you the ideal time for you to have your last cup of coffee each day. 

​​RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their limit caffeine reminder.

2. Alcohol 

Alcohol may make you feel sleepy, but it fragments your sleep, meaning you wake up more often during the night. 

Plus, alcohol suppresses rapid-eye-movement sleep, or REM sleep. And REM is important for things like memory consolidation and emotional regulation.

We’ve covered how long before bed you should stop drinking alcohol here.

RISE can tell you when to have your final alcoholic beverage of the day to stop it from impacting your sleep.  

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their avoid late alcohol reminder.

3. Spicy, Fatty, and Rich Foods 

Spicy, fatty, and rich foods are a common trigger for digestive issues like indigestion, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome, IBS. And these digestive issues can easily keep you up at night.  

4. Eggs 

Eggs contain melatonin and tryptophan, and they’re a great source of protein, but it’s not clear if they can help or hurt your sleep. A 2019 study found lower egg consumption was linked to a lower risk of poor sleep quality. But this link was found as part of a wider study of diets that included fruits, fish, seafood, and overall diet diversity. So, more research needs to be done to be sure. 

For now, if you don’t like or don’t eat eggs, there’s no reason to rush to put them back on the menu.

We’ve covered the best side to sleep on for digestion here and how to improve gut health naturally here.

5. Overall Diet 

There is some research into how your overall diet can sabotage your sleep. 

For example, a high-fat diet may reduce total sleep time.

One study found people who slept less than six hours a night ate more carbs and less fiber, fruits, whole grains, and beans.

And another study found more saturated fat intake was linked to less deep sleep, and higher sugar intake was linked to waking up more often during the night. 

Your overall diet also affects your weight, which affects your sleep in several ways. If you’re overweight, you’re more likely to develop sleep apnea — a sleep disorder that causes you to temporarily stop breathing during the night. And you’re more likely to snore, which disturbs both your sleep and the sleep of anyone who can hear you.

We dive into the link between sleep and weight here.

When Should You Eat for the Best Sleep?

When you eat is likely to be more important for your sleep than what you eat. There are two sides to that: dinner time and your overall eating window.

Finish Dinner Two to Three Hours Before Bed 

RISE app screenshot showing you when to have your last large meal of the day
The RISE app can tell you when to have your last large meal each day.

Why is dinner timing so important? There are a few reasons. 

  • You may take longer to fall asleep: Research shows high-calorie food intake 30 to 60 minutes before bed was linked to taking longer to fall asleep.  
  • You may wake up more often during the night: Eating in the hours before bedtime lowers your arousal threshold, meaning you’re awoken more easily during the night. A 2021 study found eating or drinking within an hour of bedtime increased the odds of waking up during the night. 
  • There’s an increased risk of acid reflux: Your body produces stomach acid to digest your food and if you lay down shortly after eating, this stomach acid can more easily travel up into your esophagus, causing heartburn. We’ve covered how to sleep with acid reflux here. 
  • Sleep may be less restorative: If your body is busy digesting while you sleep, blood is diverted from the brain to the gut to help. But then your brain has fewer resources to clear out waste, which it does while you sleep. 
  • You may not digest foods as well: When you eat when your body isn’t expecting you to (i.e. late at night or at night), your digestive system won’t be primed and ready for the meal. Your digestive system also slows down when you sleep, so eating late means you won’t digest the food as well. We’ve covered what helps with digestion here.
  • You throw your circadian rhythms out of whack: Your circadian rhythm is your body’s roughly 24-hour biological clock. You have a master clock in your brain that dictates your sleep cycle. But you also have circadian rhythms in almost every other tissue and organ in your body. These are known as peripheral clocks. When you sleep and eat at odd times, these clocks can get out of sync with each other. This circadian misalignment can lead to everything from weight gain to IBS to low energy. 
  • You may worsen sleep apnea: If you have sleep apnea, eating late may make symptoms worse. In those with the sleep disorder, late eating may also increase your sleep latency, time awake during the night, and light sleep. 

Late-night eating can not only sabotage your sleep, it can make maintaining a healthy weight hard to do. Firstly, late-night eating is often unhealthy eating (hello, midnight sugary snacks). But even healthy meals late at night can cause sleep loss and circadian misalignment, both of which up your odds of weight gain. We’ve covered more on that and why you can’t lose weight here.

Top tip: In general, avoid eating two to three hours before bedtime. 

Going to bed hungry isn’t ideal, either. Hunger pangs can wake you up in the night and a rumbling empty stomach isn’t a recipe for a peaceful evening. If you find yourself hungry before bed, opt for a small light meal and remember to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and rich and spicy foods. 

Want to learn more? We’ve covered what time you should stop eating before bed here. And if you need tips on how to avoid eating late at night, we’ve covered that in our article on what time you should stop eating to lose weight.

The RISE app can remind you when to have your last meal each day and it can predict your circadian rhythm, so you can see when your body naturally wants to wind down for bed and sleep — and so when you shouldn’t be eating.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their avoid late meals reminder.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen.

Consider Time-Restricted Eating

Time-restricted eating is when you eat all of your meals for the day within a set window of time, such as 12 hours. 

You may have heard of intermittent fasting, which is often used interchangeably with time-restricted eating. While it doesn’t have a set definition, intermittent fasting often includes eating within a smaller time frame, such as eight hours or fewer, and restricting your calories.  

Time-restricted eating can help your sleep as it stops you from eating late at night. It also helps to keep your circadian rhythms in check, which will promote a healthy sleep-wake cycle. 

More research needs to be done to find the ideal window, but a 2019 review states eating within a 12-hour window may be good for you. That would mean eating breakfast at 8 a.m. and being done with dinner by 8 p.m. 

Should You Worry About the Best Foods for Sleep?

Getting enough sleep is important for just about everything you want in life: energy, productivity, a good mood, and physical health. So, anything you can do to improve your sleep is great. 

But, worrying about which foods to eat may not be the best way to improve your sleep. Firstly, anxiety can easily keep you up at night. You don’t want to be so worried about what foods you eat for sleep that the worry itself keeps you up more than the food. We’ve covered how to sleep with anxiety here. 

Secondly, there’s not a lot of research out there focusing on specific foods. Much of the research focuses on diets as a whole. And the research we do have on specific foods has a few problems. 

Studies may be small, use self-reported data, or focus on sleep quality, which doesn’t haven’t a set definition. Some studies look at the sleep of people with health problems, sleep disorders, or those who are pregnant, for example, so it’s not clear if these foods could help the wider population’s sleep.

It’s also hard to control people’s diets in these studies. Even if one food is being studied, it’s hard to tell whether other foods in participants' diets are impacting sleep. Plus, their individual digestion and metabolisms play a role in how food affects them. 

Another problem is when healthy foods like fruits and veggies are found to be linked to good sleep. But people who eat a lot of fruit and vegetables may also do other health-boosting habits — like exercise or avoiding processed foods — and these may be causing the sleep benefits. This is called healthy user bias. 

And finally, as we’ve mentioned above, some foods may be good for sleep, but you have to consume them in huge quantities to get the benefits, which most of us just won’t do in day-to-day life.

Sleep Hygiene is More Important 

RISE app screenshot showing you when to get and avoid bright light
The RISE app can tell you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene behaviors.

Don’t get disheartened, though. There is a science-backed way to improve your sleep: sleep hygiene. 

Sleep hygiene is the set of daily behaviors you can do to help you fall and stay asleep. They’ve been more scientifically proven to help your sleep than eating certain foods, and the timing of eating is a key part of good sleep hygiene. 

In fact, before recommending specific foods, one paper focusing on sleep in athletes states: “In the first instance, athletes should focus on utilizing good sleep hygiene to maximize sleep quality and quantity.”

Here’s what to do: 

  • Get bright light first thing: This resets your circadian rhythm for the day, making sure you feel sleepy come bedtime. Aim for at least 10 minutes of light as soon as possible after waking up, and make that 15 to 20 minutes if it's overcast or you’re getting light through a window. 
  • Avoid light close to bedtime: Light suppresses melatonin production. To stop it from keeping you up, dim the lights and put on blue-light blocking glasses 90 minutes before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine, large meals, intense exercise, and alcohol too late in the day: All four can keep you up or wake you up during the night. 
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet: Wear earplugs and an eye mask, use blackout curtains, and set your thermostat to 65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit to create the ideal sleep environment.

The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits and the ideal time to do them based on your individual circadian rhythm. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications. 

Focus on When You Eat As Well as What You Eat 

What you eat can impact your sleep, but when you eat may play an even bigger part in helping you get the sleep you need. As a general rule, aim to be done with dinner two to three hours before bed. Avoid eating at night and focus on sleep hygiene habits beyond food to fall and stay asleep more easily. 

The RISE app can remind you when to do 20+ sleep hygiene habits — including when to have your last meal of the day — all based on the timing of your circadian rhythm. 

By maintaining great sleep hygiene, eating earlier in the day, and focusing on eating a healthy diet overall, you’ll be able to get the sleep at night you need to feel and function your best each day.

Summary FAQs

Foods that affect sleep

More research needs to be done into the foods that affect sleep. Foods high in melatonin, tryptophan, fiber, and magnesium may help you sleep. These include nuts, fish, turkey, seeds, and kiwis. Foods that are spicy, fatty, or contain alcohol or caffeine can keep you up or disrupt your sleep.

Best food to eat at night

Ideally, you should avoid eating two to three hours before bed for the best sleep. If you do need to eat, the best foods to eat at night are light, healthy foods. Opt for low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, fruit, or peanut butter. Nuts, kiwis, bananas, and chamomile tea have been linked to better sleep.

Best bedtime snacks

Ideally, you should avoid eating two to three hours before bed for the best sleep. If you do need to eat, the best foods to eat at night are light, healthy foods. Opt for low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, fruit, or peanut butter. Nuts, kiwis, bananas, and chamomile tea have been linked to better sleep.

Best foods for deep sleep

More research needs to be done into the best foods for deep sleep. Getting the right amount of sleep for you is the best way to get enough deep sleep. Higher fiber intake has been linked to more deep sleep, and caffeine may decrease it. Nuts, turkey, kiwis, bananas, and chamomile tea have been linked to better sleep overall.

Best foods for sleep apnea

More research needs to be done into the best foods for sleep apnea. When you eat may be more important than what you eat. Research shows eating close to bedtime may make sleep apnea symptoms worse. Eating a healthy diet overall can help you maintain a healthy weight, which can help with sleep apnea. Speak to a sleep expert or doctor if you think you have sleep apnea.

Chemical in food that makes you sleepy

Tryptophan is a chemical in food that makes you sleepy. It gets converted into serotonin and melatonin, which primes your body for sleep. You can find tryptophan in foods like turkey, chicken, eggs, milk, peanuts, seeds, and soybeans.

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