Foods that help you sleep

By Christina A. Reiter, BSN, CCN

What you eat affects how you sleep. One of the keys to a restful night’s sleep is to get your brain calmed rather than revved up. Some foods contribute to restful sleep; other foods keep you awake. We call them sleepers and wakers. Sleepers are tryptophan-containing foods. Tryptophan is the amino acid that the body uses to make serotonin, the neurotransmitter that slows down nerve traffic so your brain isn’t so busy. Wakers are foods that stimulate neurochemicals that perk up the brain.

Tryptophan is a precursor of the sleep-inducing substances serotonin and melatonin. This means tryptophan is the raw material that the brain uses to build these relaxing neurotransmitters. Making more tryptophan available, either by eating foods that contain this substance or by seeing to it that more tryptophan gets to the brain, will help to make you sleepy. On the other hand, nutrients that make tryptophan less available can disturb sleep.

Eating carbohydrates with tryptophan-containing foods makes this calming amino acid more available to the brain. A high carbohydrate meal stimulates the release of insulin, which helps clear from the bloodstream those amino acids that compete with tryptophan, allowing more of this natural sleep-inducing amino acid to enter the brain and manufacture sleep-inducing substances, such as serotonin and melatonin. Eating a high-protein meal without accompanying carbohydrates may keep you awake, since protein-rich foods also contain the amino acid, tyrosine, which perks up the brain.

To understand how tryptophan and carbohydrates work together to relax you, picture the various amino acids from protein foods as passengers on a bus. A busload containing tryptophan and tyrosine arrives at the brain cells. If more tyrosine “passengers” get off the bus and enter the brain cells, neuroactivity will rev up. If more tryptophan amino acids get off the bus, the brain will calm down. Along comes some insulin which has been stalking carbohydrates in the bloodstream. Insulin keeps the tyrosine amino acids on the bus, allowing the brain-calming tryptophan effect to be higher than the effect of the brain-revving tyrosine.

You can take advantage of this biochemical quirk by choosing protein or carbohydrate-rich meals, depending on whether you want to perk up or slow down your brain. For students and working adults, high protein, medium-carbohydrate meals are best eaten for breakfast and lunch. For dinner and bedtime snacks, eat a meal or snack that is high in complex carbohydrates, with a small amount of protein that contains just enough tryptophan to relax the brain. An all-carbohydrate snack, especially one high in junk sugars, is less likely to help you sleep. You’ll miss out on the sleep-inducing effects of tryptophan, and you may set off the roller-coaster effect of plummeting blood sugar followed by the release of stress hormones that will keep you awake. The best bedtime snack is one that has both complex carbohydrates and protein, and perhaps some calcium. Calcium helps the brain use the tryptophan to manufacture melatonin. This explains why dairy products, which contain both tryptophan and calcium, are one of the top sleep-inducing foods.



These are foods high in the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan:

Dairy products: cottage cheese, cheese, milk

Soy products: soy milk, tofu, soybean nuts




Whole grains





Hazelnuts, Peanuts


Sesame seeds, sunflower seeds



Foods that are high in carbohydrates and calcium, and medium-to-low in protein also make ideal sleep-inducing bedtime snacks. Some examples:

cored apple with cinnamon and a dab of ice cream/milk (soy-based or otherwise)––my favorite

whole-grain cereal with milk

hazelnuts and tofu

oatmeal and raisin cookies, and a glass of milk

peanut butter sandwich, ground sesame seeds (It takes around one hour for the tryptophan in the foods to reach the brain, so don’t wait until right before bedtime to have your snack)



Meals that are high in carbohydrates and low-to-medium in protein will help you relax in the evening and set you up for a good night’s sleep. Try the following dinners for sleep:

pasta with parmesan cheese

scrambled eggs and cheese

tofu stir-fry

hummus with whole wheat pita bread

seafood, pasta, and cottage cheese

meats and poultry with veggies

tuna salad sandwich

chili with beans, not spicy

sesame seeds (rich in tryptophan) sprinkled on salad with tuna chunks, and whole wheat crackers


Lighter meals are more likely to give you a restful night’s sleep. High-fat meals and large servings prolong the work your digestive system needs to do, and all the gas production and rumblings may keep you awake. Some people find that highly seasoned foods (e.g., hot peppers and garlic) interfere with sleep, especially if you suffer from heartburn (See gastro-esophageal reflux). Going to bed with a full stomach does not, for most of the population, promote a restful night’s sleep. While you may fall asleep faster, all the intestinal work required to digest a big meal is likely to cause frequent waking and a poorer quality of sleep. We recommend eating your evening meal early.

Heed the sleep wisdom: “Dining After Nine is NOT Fine.”


Caffeine-containing foods top the list of foods that wake you up. Here’s why:

As a stimulant, caffeine speeds up the action of not only the nervous system, but of other major body systems, too. Within 15 minutes of downing a cup of coffee, the level of adrenaline in your blood rises, which triggers an increase in heart rate, breathing rate, urinary output, and production of stomach acids. Basically, caffeine’s effects are the reverse of what you want to happen as you go to sleep.

Caffeine also prompts adrenal hormones to release sugar stored in the liver, which stimulates sugar cravings to replenish the stores. Caffeine heightens the roller coaster effect of blood sugar swings, producing a quick high after a morning cup of coffee, followed by a downturn in the afternoon.

Caffeine’s effects in the body are sort of like the law of gravity: what goes up must come down. The morning jolt is often followed by afternoon doldrums. Caffeine also makes it difficult to sleep well.


Know your caffeine quota. Some individuals are more caffeine-sensitive than others. Many adults can take up to 250 milligrams of caffeine a day (the average amount in 2 ½ cups of coffee) and experience no sleep problems. Others get jitters after only one 8 ounce serving of cola.

Time your caffeine boost. For most people, the effects of caffeine wear off within six hours, so coffee in the morning will usually not interfere with sleep in the evening. Caffeine-containing beverages at lunch may not affect your sleep, but coffee, tea, or cola in the evening is likely to keep you awake.

CAFFEINE AND KIDSMany school-age children get squirrelly following a jolt of caffeine-containing cola. Kids who are already hyperactive may be bouncing off walls following a caffeine jolt. Best to limit children’s caffeine consumption to less than 50 milligrams a day, no more than one 12-ounce cola. Avoid beverages that have added caffeine, touted for their energy-boosting effects. Children should not be exposed to the addicting effects of a caffeine buzz.

Know what foods contain the most caffeine. As you can see from the chart, coffee, colas, and tea rank highest in caffeine content.

coffee, brewed, 6 ounces 105
coffee, instant, 6 ounces 55
Mountain Dew, 12 ounces 55
colas, 12 ounces 35-45
tea, 6 ounces 35


Contrary to what we are led to believe, chocolate is not high in caffeine. Two chocolate chip cookies may contain less than 5 milligrams of caffeine, a packet of cocoa mix contains 5 milligrams, and one chocolate candy bar contains around 10 milligrams. In fact, many people find chocolate desserts that also contain dairy products to actually be a sleep inducer because of the combination of tryptophan and carbohydrates.

To get the taste of tea with less of a caffeine jolt, recycle the tea bag. Discard the first cup of tea made from the tea bag, which contains the most caffeine, and make another cup. Also, don’t squeeze the tea out of the tea bag, as these drops of tea contain more caffeine. Try grain-based hot beverages and caffeine-free herbal teas as alternatives to coffee and tea.

Some over-the-counter cold and headache remedies are high in caffeine. Check the label or ask the pharmacist, especially if you are a caffeine-sensitive person.

Author Christina A. Reiter is TexasStar Pharmacy’s Certified Clinical Nutritionist.