10 best and worst foods for sleep, according to experts: From chocolate to ice cream

Sleeping charming caucasian woman dreaming in her bed of a modern flat
What you eat before bed can dramatically impact your quality of sleep.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

After a dreadful night’s sleep, most people blame stress, noise, or their partner’s snoring, tossing and turning. As it turns out, there’s another sleep-disruptor at play: dinner or late-night snacks.

We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat,” but according to Kimberly Toohey, a registered dietician, what you choose to eat before bed can dramatically impact your quality of sleep.

“There is evidence to suggest that certain foods with spice and caffeine, and lifestyle choices like large meals in the evening, can cause digestive upset,” says Toohey.

The good news is that by switching to certain foods later in the day, you can eat your way to a better night’s rest.

“If you’re having trouble sleeping, look into eating habits that support sleep like having balanced meals or re-thinking when you eat certain foods,” adds holistic nutritionist Sara Wilkinson. “Have an ‘all foods fit’ philosophy, where there are no ‘good’ foods or ‘bad’ foods, just educated food choices.”

Ahead of World Sleep Day on March 18, read on for a list of 10 of the best and worst foods for sleep, according to experts.

Worst foods for sleep

Chocolate

Dark chocolate stack, on wooden table,chocolate concept background
Chocolate contains high levels of caffeine.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the high levels of caffeine in chocolate make it a poor choice for dessert or late-night snacking. A 70 per cent dark chocolate bar can contain up to 79 milligrams of caffeine — over half of what’s in a standard cup of coffee!

“Caffeine consumption can hinder your body’s ability to shut down and prevent you from sinking into deeper stages of sleep,” says Toohey. This impact on REM — where deep sleep and dreaming occurs — could be why you wake up with a headache after a night of partaking in fudgy brownies. Other foods or drinks containing caffeine, including energy drinks, soda and coffee, should also be avoided a few hours before bed.

Need more proof? Learn the one major side effect caffeine has on your sleep, according to science.

Spicy foods

Finely chopped chili pepper with a paring knife on a wooden cutting board
Spicy foods can cause heartburn and digestive upset.

While spicy foods such as curries, jalapeño poppers and cajun chicken are popular takeout options, they’re also destroying your chances of falling asleep.

“Many popular spices and hot sauces contain capsaicin, a compound that raises body temperature,” explains Wilkinson. This can mess with the body’s thermogenic process and cause heartburn in some individuals, effectively disrupting your ability to slumber.

Can’t give up the heat? Try these flavourful recipes that are perfect for spice lovers at lunch instead of dinner.

Alcohol

French dry red wine, pours into glass, trendy pink background, space for text, selective focus
Alcohol can cause headaches and prevent a proper REM cycle.

While beers with friends or a relaxing glass of merlot might help you unwind and fall asleep faster, you might not sleep well at all.

Like caffeine, alcohol can prevent a proper REM cycle by making you more likely to wake up throughout the night. It can also cause headaches, night sweats, and nightmares. As alcohol is known to be a muscle relaxer, Wilkinson explains that it can also lead to excessive snoring.

Thinking about taking a break from alcohol? Read our guide on what it means to be sober-curious.

Ice cream

Salted caramel ice creams on blue plate
Sugar in ice cream can spike your cortisol and insulin levels.

That tub of Chapman’s hanging around your freezer isn’t doing your sleep schedule any favours. We all know that eating too much sugar has negative impacts on your health, but this late-night comfort food might also have an adverse affect on your body’s ability to rest.

“Ice cream is high in sugar which can spike your cortisol and insulin levels,” says Toohey. “High insulin levels can make it hard to fall or stay asleep.”

For a natural and tasty alternative, Toohey recommends whipping up a bowl of “nice cream” with frozen bananas, peanut butter, and almond milk.

Still not sure how to satisfy your sugar cravings without Ben and Jerry’s? Try one of these 11 sugar-free cookie recipes instead.

High fat foods

High-fat foods like burgers and french fries can cause indigestion and bloating.
High-fat foods like burgers and french fries can cause indigestion and bloating.

Say goodbye to a side of poutine on your next trip to a 24-hour diner. High fat foods such as pizza, nachos, burgers and fries are major culprits to a lousy night’s sleep.

“These foods disrupt the body’s natural digestion cycle and therefore take longer to break down,” says Wilkinson. “This can cause indigestion and bloating, especially when consumed a few hours before bed.”

If these foods make your heart sing, simply eat them earlier in the day to avoid these negative effects, or read this guide on how to make a burger healthy (yes, you read that right).

Best foods for sleep

Fatty fish

salmon steak as closeup in black iron fryer
Those who eat fatty fish regularly are known to fall asleep 10 minutes faster than non-fish eaters.

We’ve all been told there’s many fish in the sea, but eating a fish dinner before bed is also a great way to ensure a proper night’s rest.

A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine examined the effects of eating fatty fish on sleep, and discovered that those who consumed a 10-ounce portion of Atlantic salmon or herring three times a week fell asleep 10 minutes faster than those who ignored fish altogether. The study also found that fatty fish contains vitamin D and fatty acids necessary for serotonin production, an essential part of sleep regulation.

Don’t like the taste of fish? Try these two rules for how to cook salmon that even haters will love.

Turkey

Grilled chicken breast, French fries and vegetables
Turkey is an excellent source of protein and known for its sleep-inducing effects.

Instead of counting sheep to fall asleep, try eating turkey instead. According to Wilkinson, not only is turkey an excellent source of protein, it’s also known for its sleep-inducing effects. This is because turkey is high in tryptophan, an amino acid that calms the body, fights anxiety, and balances hormones. There’s a reason why everyone falls asleep right after a massive turkey meal!

Feeling inspired? Try this juiciest turkey recipe (that’s not just for Thanksgiving).

White rice

Cooked rice in a clay pot
The high glycemic index in white rice can help you fall asleep faster.

As a cupboard staple, white rice is high in carbohydrates, which help your body feel full. According to Toohey, it’s also "known to decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep due to having a high glycemic index."

Give fried rice a whirl on your next date night, or try the no. 1 best sushi takeout order according to dieticians.

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Sweet potato

Raw sweet potatoes on wooden background closeup
Sweet potatoes contain vitamins and minerals to relax your muscles and boost melatonin, a hormone connected to sleep.

As long as they’re not deep-fried, sweet potatoes — with muscle-relaxing potassium and easy-to-digest carbohydrates — are a sleeper’s dream.

“Potatoes, in particular sweet potatoes, contain vitamin B6 which boosts melatonin and mood, helping to make you sleepy,” says Toohey. “They’re also full of fibre, which will prevent you from waking up with a rumbling stomach in the middle of the night.”

For a simple, sleep-promoting snack, Toohey recommends a piece of sweet potato toast topped with banana and almond butter. Alternatively, try one of these 35 healthy sweet potato recipes.

Bananas

Bunch of Bananas on a blue backdrop. Space for copy.
Magnesium found in bananas is known to have a positive effect on sleep.

We’re bananas for bananas! As an excellent source of magnesium and potassium, eating a banana before bed can ease your body into a sleepy state.

“Magnesium found in bananas can certainly help your muscles relax, and is a vitamin known to have a positive effect on the quality of sleep in adult populations or those with insomnia,” says Wilkinson. “It’s also found in green leafy vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.”

Try this perfect banana bread recipe for both a delectable and restful treat.

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