Might a better night’s sleep just be a nibble away?
Recent research says possibly.
Nutrition likely isn’t the first thing on your mind when thinking of snoozing, since factors like comfort, routines, and stress tend to be a bit more obvious. But certain nutrients or lack thereof do appear to affect many of the body’s sleep-wake rhythms and other aspects of rest.
Research on the subject of sleep and diet reveal interesting links, worthy of attention if better sleep is on your to-do list.
The science behind nutrition and sleep
Two of the more extensive studies on the subject come from University of Pennsylvania researchers, who looked at a large data set including diet information and sleep habits for over 4,500 people.
One study looked at specific nutrients associated with sleep duration and the other looked at nutrients and sleep issues. After researchers controlled for other variables, diets rich in the following showed the closest associations with healthy sleep patterns:
- Minerals: Selenium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium
- Vitamins: Alpha-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin D, folate, choline, lycopene, thiamin, lutein and zeaxanthin
- Dodecanoic acid
Eating a larger variety of foods and plain tap water was also associated with healthier sleep. While low calorie diets, special diets (like low/high fat), higher intakes of two nutrients found in butter and cheese, and higher alcohol consumption were linked with higher incidence of sleep issues or short or long sleep duration.
Sleep superfoods: 15 ways to support better rest
Based on these findings, here are a few nutrient-rich foods you can incorporate into your diet to support healthy sleep. While the studies looked at correlations only, all of these superfoods pack a wealth of nutrients that are known to help support healthy function. Information on foods and nutrient density comes from USDA’s Nutrient Database and is based on content per serving size.
Alpha carotene was one of the nutrients most closely associated with better sleep in the University of Pennsylvania’s research, and cooked pumpkin is the most potent source of it. Canned or steamed pumpkin also packs a punch of potassium, vitamin C, folate, choline, and much more. Pumpkin seeds serve sleep well, too — they’re a top source of magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium.
Carrots are a close second to pumpkin in alpha-carotene content, and they also bring potassium, calcium, vitamin C, folate, and choline to the table. Try them raw as crudites, in salads, steamed, or in fresh juices.
3. Dark chocolate
While theobromine is a mild stimulant, people who slept a normal amount tended to have diets highest in it. Its concentration is highest in pure cocoa powder, so the darker the chocolate the higher the theobromine. Cocoa powder also supplies potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium.
Coconuts are one of the richest sources of dodecanoic acid (aka lauric acid), including raw and canned coconut milk, raw or dried coconut meat, and coconut oil. Coconut also supplies potassium and small amounts of selenium, folate, and magnesium.
5. Lima beans
Think bananas are the powerhouse of potassium? A half cup of lima beans actually packs around triple the potassium of a medium banana. Lima beans also bring way more protein and fiber as well as good amounts of phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, selenium, folate, and choline.
While diets overly high in cholesterol were associated with some sleep issues, eggs deliver much more. The simple, unassuming egg is quite rich in a variety of sleep-supporting nutrients, particularly choline, phosphorus, folate, selenium, vitamin D, and important minerals.
7. Brazil Nuts
Brazil nuts are, hands down, one of the most potent sources of selenium, a mineral with important antioxidant benefits. These nuts are also rich in phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium. If Brazil nuts aren’t your thing, other good selenium sources are other seeds and animal proteins including poultry, pork, and tuna.
These sauce staples offer some of the richest sources of lycopene, a beneficial antioxidant. By serving size, canned tomato products rank highest on the USDA’s list (jarred products are likely similar for those who avoid cans), with sundried tomatoes and cooked fresh tomatoes also ranking well. Other benefits include high levels of potassium and smaller amounts of a wide range of minerals and vitamins.
9. Bell peppers
While spicy foods too close to bed might be bad for sleep, adding sweet bell peppers to your diet brings a punch of sleep-supporting nutrients. Bell peppers, particularly yellow ones, are high in vitamin C and also a source of potassium and folate.
10. Sunflower seeds
This snackable favorite is one of the richest non-animal sources of phosphorus (beans and whole grains are good options, too). It’s rich in thiamin and other minerals like magnesium, potassium, selenium, and others as well.
11. Acerola Cherries
Acerola cherries and cherry juice are very potent sources of vitamin C. They also deliver potassium and small amounts of magnesium, calcium, and folate. While not often found raw in the U.S., concentrated juice and powdered acerola cherry are widely available and perfect for smoothies.
The health world’s darling is also a sleep superfood, being one of the best sources of vitamins lutein and zeaxanthin. Cooked kale packs the most (think soups and sautés) and is also high in calcium and potassium. Spinach, chard, collards, mustard greens, and dandelion greens are all close contenders, too.
This tropical fruit is quite high in vitamin C, potassium, and lycopene with minor amounts of magnesium and folate, making it a potent sleep-supporting powerhouse.
When it comes to vitamin D, mushrooms are one of the most potent sources second to a couple types of fish (like halibut and salmon). Maitake and portobellos are highest in vitamin D according to the USDA, and they also offer phosphorus, potassium, selenium, folate, and choline.
15. Kiwi fruit
A study from Taipei Medical University found that consistent consumption of kiwi fruit improved total sleep time and sleep latency (time taken to fall asleep) in adults. It also fits in with the other nutritional information since kiwi packs vitamin C, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, folate, and choline.
Good sleep habits
Just like trying to stick to fairly regular bedtimes, minimizing bright electronics before bed, and getting regular exercise, eating your fruits, veggies, grains, and proteins is yet another way to support better sleep (and overall health).
Choosing a diverse variety and opting for whole, clean foods gives your body access to the broad range of vitamins and minerals it needs to do its job. And don’t forget to drink plenty of pure H2O!
How would you incorporate these sleep superfoods into your menu? Tropical fruit salads, dream-worthy trail mix, or savory stir-frys, anyone? Share your favorites in the comments!
Tune in to hear more food insights, in this latest Foodie -Philes segment on The Green Divas Radio Show.