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The best foods to make you sleepy

Updated: Mar 8

“Sleep is the best meditation," Dalai Lama.

We all know sleep is critical for good health and a sense of well-being. But for breast cancer thrivers, medications, anxiety, and menopausal symptoms, all conspire to make sleep just a dream away.

For breast cancer survivors, sudden menopause from hormonal therapy such as aromatase inhibitors comes on like a high-speed train. Symptoms such as hot flashes are more persistent and cause heavy sweating and frequent waking up at night that interfere with sleep. For example, among Taiwanese women, nearly half were dissatisfied with their sleep in peri and post menopause, and had higher anxiety associated with poor sleep quality.

Woman can't sleep

How do hot flashes lead to decreased sleep quality? Hot flashes are the response of the central nervous system to levels of estrogen. A reduction in estrogen levels activates the central sympathetic nervous system. As serotonin is reduced, this impacts mood, sleep, and the stress response.

Sleep allows the cells in your brain, muscles and more, the time to rest, clean out waste, and repair. Only when you are able to get enough quality sleep, will your body reduce inflammation and lower the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, depression, metabolic syndrome, and high blood pressure.

The great thing about being well-rested is you can feel it. Good sleep promotes physical and mental energy, attention, and productivity. Sleep supports your memory, immune system, and fights cancer fatigue. It can also help you to better manage anxiety from a cancer diagnosis.

In short, getting enough quality sleep every day optimizes just about everything for your body and mind.

When you don't sleep well, you'll often reach for less nutritious foods in an attempt to gain more energy. This is partly due to sleep’s impact on appetite hormones, leading to increased hunger and cravings, and decreased feelings of satiety. Lack of sleep also increases levels of stress hormones like cortisol, which tends to store more fat.


The ideal amount of sleep adults need to maximize health and wellness is 7-9 hours each night. Why is this the magic number? During sleep, our brains cycle through different stages. These stages include rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). High quality sleep involves 3-5 cycles of REM sleep to non-REM sleep (and back again) every night, and this needs 7-9 hours uninterrupted. Adults who get at least 7 hours of sleep each night have reduced risk for many chronic conditions.

Read on for the best foods to make you sleepy

Woman sleeping

The best foods for better sleep

Several foods and drinks will impact the quality and amount of z’s you get. Lifestyle and dietary choices like the foods and drinks which promote better sleep (and which do the opposite) are nutrition strategies to consider if you’re trying to get better quality sleep.


Enjoy these nutritious foods and drinks for better sleep (and overall health)


While there isn’t a magical food or drink that helps you get very sleepy very quickly, eating a nutritious diet - and eating enough - has a positive effect on sleep quality. Here is a list of specific foods that can help promote better sleep.


Cherries. Several studies have looked at people who eat cherries and found that eating them may help improve sleep. This sleep effect of cherries is thought to be because they contain serotonin and melatonin, along with phytonutrients (plant-based nutrients).


Fun fact: Melatonin is a natural sleep-inducing neurotransmitter (sometimes called a “sleep hormone”) that helps to set your sleep-wake cycle and tells your brain when to get ready for sleep. Melatonin is made from the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, serotonin. 


Fatty fish. Eating fatty fish is also linked to better sleep. Fish like salmon, mackerel, and trout contain essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, as well as vitamin D. These are thought to influence serotonin secretion, leading to drowsiness.


Whole grains. Johns Hopkins suggests eating complex carbohydrates like whole wheat bread and pasta, oatmeal, or brown rice before bed. That’s because complex carbohydrates can trigger the release of serotonin. (Simple carbohydrates like sugary and starchy foods and desserts are linked to insomnia, increased stress hormones, and can reduce serotonin levels—none of which are good for sleep.) Plus, whole grains contain fiber which seems to help increase the time spent in deeper sleep.


Beans and pumpkin seeds. Serotonin and melatonin are made from the amino acid tryptophan. Eating foods that contain tryptophan ensures that it’s readily available when those neurotransmitters are needed to improve mood and induce drowsiness. Some foods that contain tryptophan include fish, eggs, beans, and pumpkin seeds.


Soy, nuts, and seeds. The essential mineral magnesium is thought to help improve sleep quality. Foods high in magnesium include whole grains, fish, spinach, avocados, legumes, soy foods, and nuts and seeds.


Herbal teas. Sometimes a small cup of a soothing warm beverage can help you feel sleepy before bed. The Cleveland Clinic recommends an herbal tea like chamomile or peppermint. (But don’t drink too much liquid if it’s going to wake you up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.)

woman asleep at laptop


Foods and drinks that can disrupt your sleep


Good sleep isn’t only about neurotransmitters that impact your brain and sleep patterns. How your body digests and eliminates foods and drinks can also impact your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. 


  • Don't eat large meals or troublesome foods (like spicy or acidic foods) within three hours of bedtime.

  • If you need to wake up in the night to go to the bathroom often, consider getting all of the fluids you need earlier in the day so you can stop drinking two hours before bedtime. 

  • Be strategic about when to enjoy caffeine. Coffee and caffeinated energy drinks are the obvious sources of higher quantities of caffeine, but many teas, sodas, chocolate, and even decaffeinated coffee contain some caffeine. Those effects can last for 10 hours or more. That’s why I recommend cutting back on the java and other sources of caffeine around noon.

  • While alcohol may help you fall asleep, it doesn’t mean you’ll get a good night’s sleep. Alcohol suppresses your essential REM sleep, lead to more vivid dreams and nightmares, sleepwalking and other disruptive sleep disorders, insomnia, and even breathing problems like sleep apnea. In fact, as more alcohol is consumed, sleep quality tends to get worse. If getting more, high-quality sleep is important to you, consider cutting down on alcohol—especially before bedtime.

Other lifestyle changes just as important for good sleep include exercising regularly (but not within 3 hours of bedtime).


Sweet dreams

Bottom line about sleepy foods

Sleep is crucial for optimal health and wellness. Many thrivers struggle to get the coveted 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night and don’t wake up feeling refreshed and energized. But there are things you can do to start turning that around.


By making some changes to what and when you eat and drink, you can positively impact your body’s ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Keep caffeine to the mornings, enjoy a nutritious diet that includes a few foods to help regulate your sleep, and cut way back on alcohol. Talk to your doctor about medications such as antidepressants too.

You can look forward to waking up rested and recharged while caring for your body and mind.

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As a registered dietitian nutritionist who works with people experiencing cancer, I’d love to help. I offer clients support to plan, shop, and prepare more nutritious and healthy meals for yourself or your family. Here is my link to book a chat about making sure to meet your nutritional needs.

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