Eat This For That

What to eat to support restful sleep

07.14.20

So much healing happens during sleep — a good night’s rest can mean the difference between properly digesting and integrating foods and experiences from your day and not.


There are a few nutrients that are known to support the deepest, most restful sleep possible. Unfortunately, they’re becoming harder to come by in many of the foods we eat, which have been decreasing in nutrient density for a variety of reasons. 


Drawing on learnings from a number of disciplines (Western Medicine, Herbalism, Ayurvedic Medicine, and Traditional Chinese Medicine), we compiled a list of foods that are extra rich in sleep-supportive compounds and ideas about how you can incorporate them into your life for better sleep.

1) Find a way to enjoy some tart cherry. You’ve probably heard by now that melatonin, secreted by the pineal gland, is a crucial player in the regulation of the sleep-wake cycle. In addition to enabling the body to produce more melatonin naturally, finding food-based sources of this sleepy-time hormone can be a huge boost to sleep quantity and quality. Tart cherries contain 10x more melatonin per 100g than the next most abundant food-based source of melatonin, and they have been shown to significantly increase melatonin levels. One of the easiest ways to incorporate tart cherry into your life is to pour yourself a glass of tart cherry juice in the evening with or after dinner. It has a beautiful, rich crimson color that reminds us of a glass of wine. 


2) Eat something with nutmeg, and sesame, and/or sunflower seeds. Sesame and sunflower seeds are both extremely rich in magnesium and tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that, when ingested, gets converted into serotonin, which in turn supports production of melatonin. Magnesium is so instrumental to sleep that it’s been dubbed “the sleep mineral.” It is a natural relaxant that helps deactivate adrenaline, which is detrimental to falling and staying asleep. Nutmeg has been used as a natural sleep remedy for thousands of years. Modern chemistry explains why: the ligroin in nutmeg produces a sedative effect. These three powerhouse ingredients work together in our Cinnamon Maca Seasoning. We also love making the below tasty after dinner seed butter treat. Here’s our recipe:

    Sesame sunflower butter with nutmeg:
    ½ cup tahini (ground sesame paste)
    ½ cup sunflower seed butter or ground raw sunflower seeds
    ½ tsp nutmeg or Agni’s Cinnamon Maca Seasoning
    Optional: honey to taste
    Combine ingredients in a jar, stir until incorporated. Enjoy 1 tbsp in the evening for sleep support.

    3) Seek out catnip and valerian root tea. Studies show that valerian reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and improves sleep quality without the nasty side effects of commercial sleep aid medications. Valerian contains a chemical called linarin, which creates a sedative effect by increasing your brain’s levels of Gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. In large enough quantities it can cause a sedative effect, calming nervous activity. Thanks to a chemical called nepetalactone, catnip has a sedative-like effect, also inhibiting overactivity in the brain and naturally inducing deep and restful sleep. 

    4) Eat more mushrooms. Vitamin D is critical to everything from immune function to building and maintaining healthy bone density. It is also critical to sleep. The most reliable way to promote vitamin D production in the body is to get plenty of hours of sunshine directly on the skin. When it comes to food sources, many animal products contain vitamin D, but very few plants do. Mushrooms are one of the only plant-based sources of vitamin D, which means if you can’t spend every day at the beach, it’s a great way to supplement. 

    At Agni, we often expand our definition of “food” to nourishment of other kinds, too — experiences, habits, and thought patterns. According to the disciplines we study, these impact our health just as much as the literal molecules we ingest. Here are our favorite food-adjacent tips for better sleep. Try following these recommendations for just one week.

    1) Stick to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day for seven days. Plan your week around it. Ensure social commitments won’t keep you up past bedtime. Set a bedtime alarm if you need to. Wake up on time even if you are tired. A good night of sleep begins the moment you wake up. Dr. Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar, B.A.M.S., M.D. (Ayurveda) explains why in this discussion on the importance of your circadian rhythm.


    2) Ditch caffeine & alcohol. We don’t love to suggest eliminating things from one’s diet, especially if they spark joy and contentment. We very much believe that everything can be a medicine in the right dose at the right time for the right person — including coffee and wine. But when sleep is suffering, it can be very powerful to take a break from caffeine and alcohol. This is because caffeine (1) produces an adrenal response which tires the adrenal glands and makes it harder for them to function properly (aka shut off when you need shut eye) and (2) reduces the sleep pressure that builds up naturally and enables deep and restful sleep. If this feels drastic to you and you’re nervous about it, you could switch from coffee to tea, reduce the amount you drink (ideally by at least 50%), ensure you drink caffeine with food, and/or cutting consumption after 9am. 

    Although alcohol might relax you and make you drowsy, the type of sleep it induces is more like being under anesthesia than restful sleep. Alcohol prevents slow wave deep sleep that provides memory-boosting, creativity-inducing, sharpness-promoting benefits. Try sticking to water, herbal tea or seltzer + shrub.


    3) Avoid eating or exercising for at least 3 hours before bed. Digesting food requires an incredible amount number of energy resources. The act of digesting food takes priority over secreting the necessary hormones for sleep and can seriously disrupt sleep. Exercising raises basal body temperature, which stays elevated for hours afterward and is detrimental to falling asleep. 


    4) Create a sleep sanctuary. Yes, it might sounds fussy, but this is research-backed and can be a no- brainer. Make your room pitch black, lower the temperature to 65-68 degrees, and turn all devices to airplane mode — or better yet, leave them outside of the room entirely. 


      As always, these tips work best in conjunction with eating whole, fresh foods that you enjoy at regular times of day and striving for a healthy gut. Gut health is a critical underlying component of all forms of health and recovery, because it enables us to properly absorb and incorporate the nutrients our immune system needs to heal. For more about Agni’s food philosophy, check out What to Eat to Fuel your Agni.