When you find yourself hungry for a late-night snack, it's the most natural thing in the world to reach for the ice cream, a bag of chips or a nightcap. But would you be selective if you knew that your choice of late-night nosh could make a difference in how easily you fall asleep and stay asleep?
If you’re hankering for that late-night snack, you might want to put down the Dorito bag and grab one of these 5 natural sleep aid superfoods to help you fall asleep more quickly and your slumber last longer.
You may know that bananas are high in potassium, but you may not know they're also high in L-tryptophan, the same amino acid that supposedly sends you off to slumberland after your Thanksgiving turkey dinner. L-tryptophan, in turn, is metabolized to 5-HTP, a powerful trigger for the release of serotonin, the relaxation and feel-good brain chemical. Bananas are also high in the minerals potassium and magnesium, which soothe and relax the central nervous system.
Forget the glass of warm milk your mom used to give you -- eat a bowl of oatmeal topped with milk instead, and double the benefits. Oats are a fiber-rich complex carbohydrate, so they spike your blood sugar and then sustain that spike a bit longer than your typical carb. When your blood sugar rises, your body releases insulin, which then makes you feel sleepy and relaxed.
Oats also contain the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, as well as vitamin B-6, another relaxant. The healthiest oats are the least processed and most natural, so choose Irish or Scottish unsweetened oatmeal when possible. Then add a dash of honey, which has its own insomnia-fighting capabilities because it turns off orexin, a neuropeptide that keeps you alert. Finally, add milk because while milk isn't quite the all-powerful natural sleep aid it was once believed to be, it's rich in L-tryptophan, the serotonin booster, calcium and minerals.
There's a reason health gurus - and marketers - now tout cherry juice as a natural sleep aid. Recent research suggests that cherries, particularly tart dark cherries, are rich in melatonin, the slumber-inducing hormone that many people take as a sleep aid and jet-lag preventative.
Research has also shown that the antioxidants in cherries, called anthocyanins, work to reduce the inflammation and joint pain of arthritis. But drinking juice is always a mixed bag, as it's much more sugar-dense and has less fiber than eating the actual fruit. And in many cases cherries are peeled before juicing, and it's the peel that contains the anthocyanins.
Instead of cherry juice, eat a handful of cherries (frozen and dried cherries are great, too) or top a piece of whole-wheat toast with canned or jarred (unsweetened) morello cherries.
If it's really tricky to get cherries regularly where you live, or if you're one of the rare folks who don't like them, there are now tart cherry capsules on the market that will do the trick too.
One food high on the list of those containing L-tryptophan are pumpkin seeds, with sunflower and sesame seeds not far behind. Pumpkin seeds may seem like a seasonal treat, but with so much recent attention (Dr. Oz featured them on his show), they're turning up year-round in health-food stores.
In addition to enhancing sleep, pumpkin seeds have also been studied for their potential to reduce anxiety and stress. Sunflower seeds are the easiest snack in the world to keep around -- grab a handful before bed, or toss them on a salad at dinner. As for sesame seeds, you can even add a handful to the oatmeal to give your snack a unique taste.
Magnesium works as a muscle relaxant and nerve soother, so at night it's a wonderful relaxation aid. The typical American diet leaves many of us magnesium deficient, and a shortage of this key mineral can bring on the jitters and cause poor sleep by triggering the release of the stress hormone norepinephrine.
Look at a list of magnesium-rich foods, and almonds and cashews are near the top (after green vegetables). Almonds and cashews also contain lots of L-tryptophan, giving them a double dose of slumber power.A related article you may want to check out is Super Snacks: 5 Best Snacks for Mood.
Author: Melanie Haiken
Melanie is a senior editor at Caring.com, the leading online destination for caregivers seeking information and support as they care for aging parents, spouses and other loved ones. Melanie has written about health and family-related issues for numerous magazines and websites and has worked for San Francisco's renowned Center for Investigative Reporting.