Can’t drift off to dreamland? Insomnia — defined as a persistent inability to fall and stay asleep — is distressingly common in the US, with roughly 60 million people saying they have at least mild issues with falling or staying asleep. Sleeping pills are a go-to option for 9 million Americans, and come with a slew of side effects such as headaches, dizziness, daytime sleepiness, dry mouth, constipation and more that may pose a risk to your health. Is there a better way to get a good night’s sleep without a pill? Try one or more of these nutritionist-backed remedies.
1. Reach For Some Walnuts
Walnuts are good for heart health, and add crunch and a dose of beneficial fat to all sorts of dishes, but they’ve also been found, in research, to contain their own form of melatonin, a hormone that helps our bodies regulate a healthy sleep-wake cycle. “Try snacking on a small handful about 20 minutes before bed to help you relax and reach a deeper state of restful sleep,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies.
2. Make Sure You Get Enough Vitamin B6
“When we fall asleep, levels of serotonin rise and adrenaline levels fall. Serotonin, the relaxing hormone, is partly made from the amino acid tryptophan, which is activated by vitamin B6,” says Mary Hartley, RD, a consulting nutritionist from Providence, RI. “B6 deficiency is rare in the United States, but it can happen to anyone who eats a poor quality diet. Vitamin B6 is found in a wide variety of foods such fortified breakfast cereals, potatoes, fish, chicken, bananas, beans, peanut butter, and many vegetables.”
3. Nosh on Bananas
“Bananas help fight insomnia in three powerful ways. They are packed with magnesium, serotonin, and melatonin, which all help promote sleep in their own way. Melatonin helps to naturally regulate your body’s sleep-wake cycle,” says Palinski-Wade. “Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate sleep as well as mood and appetite and magnesium promotes sleep by helping to decrease the level of cortisol in the body, a hormone that is known to interrupt sleep.”
4. Try Tart Cherry Juice
This refreshing juice contains melatonin, which promotes sleep. recent research in the journal of Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, a small sample of older adults with insomnia who were given 8 ounces of tart cherry juice, twice a day, slept an average of 87 minutes longer per night [than those given a placebo], says nutritionist Kayleen St. John, RD at Natural Gourmet Institute, a health-supportive cooking school in New York City. “Other study data has shown a significant elevation in melatonin in groups consuming cherry juice, leading to increased total sleep time. This isn’t to say we should all increase our juice intake (like all juice, it contains a lot of sugar), but consider adding tart cherry juice to a smoothie, or having a small serving in the evening to see how it affects your sleep.”
5. Befriend Basil
“This plant actually contains sedative properties, which can help you fall asleep and stay asleep. And as a bonus, it not only helps promote sleep, but is great for reducing indigestion,” says Palinski-Wade, which is itself a major sleep-interruptor. “Research on this shows the sedative properties come mostly from the hydroalcoholic extract and essential oil of O. basilicum (basil). So we possibly can say incorporating essential oil from basil seeds would be the best way to gain these benefits. There are liquid basil extracts available on the market that can be used to flavor food, as a supplement, or as an essential oil,” she adds.
6. Maximize Magnesium
“Look for foods higher in magnesium. Up your intake of foods like seeds, nuts and leafy greens for a better night’s sleep, since research has shown that even a slight lack of this mineral can prevent your brain from ‘turning off’ at night,” says St. John. “A study in the Journal of Research and Medical Science found that supplementation of 500mg of magnesium appears to improve insomnia in the elderly — in food terms, that’s about ½ cup of pumpkin seeds and 1 cup of cooked leafy greens daily.”
7. Eat an Hour Before Bed
Enjoying a small and nutritious snack could help you fall and stay asleep. “Getting in a small snack an hour before bed helps to stabilize blood sugars,” says Lisa Hayim, registered dietitian and founder of The Well Necessities. “When blood sugar is low, or even too high, we become anxious and irritable, which will not promote sleep.” Make sure you steer clear of anything greasy, fried, caffeinated or sugar-laden. Hayim recommends an apple with a tablespoon of nut butter or half a banana with four crushed walnuts.
8. Drink a Glass of Milk
“Milk may help control melatonin production since it is a great source of calcium, a mineral that plays a role in the regulation of melatonin in the body,” explains Palinski-Wade. “Milk is also rich in the amino acid tryptophan which has a calming effect on the body.”
BONUS: Know Your Caffeine Limit
You already know that caffeine stimulates your system (after all, if you drink coffee, tea or cola, the pick-me-up caffeine provides is probably a good part of the reason you do so). But while many people claim they can down coffee an hour before bed and sleep just fine, that’s not true for most of us (and may not be true for those who brag they can sip espresso and then slip off to sleep; the stimulating effect of caffeine is likely interrupting their sleep, says Hartley. “Many people lose sleep when stimulants are taken during the afternoon, at large doses, or at all.” It’s not just coffee; be aware of hidden sources of caffeine, like chocolate or coffee ice cream. To promote sleep, try cutting off your caffeine intake by 1 pm for a week, and see how it affects your ability to fall asleep. Tweak accordingly from there as you zoom in on the limit that optimizes your body’s ability to function.
Perri O. Blumberg is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. She was the former food editor at Reader’s Digest, where she convinced a mainstream audience that eating vegan isn’t crazy, and recently graduated New York City’s Natural Gourmet Institute, the leading plant-based, health-supportive culinary school in America. Follow her on Twitter @66PerriStreet.