Getting a great night’s sleep has become more and more problematic for many people who count on getting the sleep their body needs to power through a busy day. Melatonin comes up frequently as a potential sleep aid in the form of pills or foods.
What is melatonin, and why might supplementing it lead to better sleep? And, do you have to take it as a supplement or can you actually eat your way to a better night of shut-eye?
Put simply, melatonin is a ‘sleep’ signal your body makes, and taking it can give your body’s natural ‘sleep’ signal a boost.
Our bodies operate on a 24-hour internal clock that’s kept on track through light exposure and physical actions like sleeping, eating, and exercising. If the cycle is operating normally, chemical messengers peak at different points in the day. Two hormones play a huge role in just how much sleep you get each night.
- A stress hormone released from your adrenal glands
- Peaks in the morning
- Makes us feel alert and awake
- A hormone released from your brain
- Peaks at night (beginning about two hours before bedtime)
- Makes your body sleepy
- Requires darkness for natural production
Because melatonin plays a critical role in the sleep cycle, supplementing melatonin has been shown to help with some sleep disorders including jet lag, delayed sleep phase disorder, insomnia, and shift work disorder. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with a sleep disorder or not, melatonin likely deserves a place in your ‘sleep’ toolbox (right next to counting sheep).
But is supplementing melatonin the only dietary way to get more of it into your system?
Nope. It turns out you can also increase melatonin by eating berries, nuts, seeds, or seed spices an hour or so before bed.
Seven Foods to Increase Melatonin Production
- These bright green nuts are thought to promote sleep through their high melatonin content, which is the highest of any known nut (0.3 mg in two nuts!)
- Try: ⅛ cup, and build to a quarter cup (1 ounce) if needed
- Fresh raspberries also contain high levels of melatonin to induce a good night’s rest
- Try: a half cup (about 2 ounces)
3. Tart cherries
- Contain melatonin, and may reduce inflammation through their antioxidant characteristics
- Studies show drinking tart cherry juice results in increases in melatonin levels and better sleep
- Try: a cup of tart cherry juice (4-8 ounces, you’ll get lots of your daily vitamin A too!)
- In addition containing melatonin, almonds also have high levels of magnesium, a mineral that may lead to better sleep through reducing inflammation and production of the stay-awake hormone cortisol
- Try: handful (a quarter cup or 1 ounce)
- Promote sleep through giving your body the building blocks it needs to make melatonin (namely, tryptophan). Tryptophan is an essential dietary amino acid which contributes to melatonin production and lowers cortisol (awake!) levels.
- Try a quarter cup of roasted pumpkin, sunflower, or squash seeds as a snack (1 ounce)
6. Seed spices (mustard, fenugreek, fennel)
- Contain tryptophan
- Incorporate mustard, fenugreek, or fennel into your dinner in the form of a flavorful sauce or sprinkling
7. Nuts (pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts)
- Contain tryptophan
- Munch on a quarter cup of these nuts an hour or two before bed (1 ounce)
Incorporating one (or some!) of these seven foods into your diet might be enough to send you to sleep, but if a higher dose is desired, melatonin can also be safe and effective in the form of a melatonin supplement (though its long-term effects are unknown).
If you do choose to supplement, research suggests starting with a low dose (0.3 mg). Taking too much melatonin can actually impair sleep (and lead to side effects), so to find out if melatonin works for you, start small and snacky.
If you’ve managed sleep troubles using food, feel free to comment below on what has worked for you.
[For an article on the “happy chemical” serotonin and its role in the relationship between mood and food, check out this blog post!]