The right diet for insomnia is one that aims for calmness and stability in all body systems.
If you have chronic insomnia, your body, especially your nervous system, has been put on a state of alert.
Whether conscious or unconscious, there is something in your life that has caused this change. This whole site is devoted to helping you find out the many causes of chronic insomnia so you can adjust any part of your life – whether emotional, physical, environmental or behavioral – as necessary to cure insomnia for good. The right diet is an important part of this journey.
Start the Diet for Insomnia with the Bare Basics
There are two common-sense objectives in creating a diet for insomnia:
1) Avoid foods that could make it worse, and…
2) Consume foods that could make it better!
The Diet for Insomnia is First and Foremost a Healthy Diet
From a general health standpoint, it’s important to eat as healthy as you can and avoid processed foods with preservatives, flavor, color and texture additives (there are lots of these), sugar and sugar substitutes.
Changing your diet is easier when you approach it in a new way: think of good, healthy food as something you not only “need” but “deserve.”
Too many people approach dietary changes as punishment. But eating well is not punishment… quite the opposite; it is self-nurturing and therefore rewarding.
You deserve to eat well. You deserve the best food our planet has to offer. Your body is a wonderful work of miraculous nature, and it needs to be fed the best raw materials for optimum functioning.
Tips for Avoiding the Wrong Things
Tip #1: Avoid all foods with stimulant properties.
By stimulant, I don’t mean only the commonly known ones, like caffeine and sugar. I also mean anything that makes the body work harder to fulfill its daily digestive and cleansing functions.
Caffeine – in coffee, tea, cola, dark chocolate.
Caffeine is of course the most commonly known food-based stimulant. It is actually a toxic substance produced naturally by plants to act as a pesticide. It’s not really considered toxic to humans, but all insomniacs need to avoid it as much as possible.
Giving up coffee and chocolate is rough, and I feel your pain. But this is basic. An insomniac who refuses to give up caffeine even for the short term is either in denial or addicted. The diet for insomnia has no place for either caffeine or denial, but addictions will be dealt with in another article.
Sugar – in baked goods, deserts, sweet sauces, and more.
Sugar, especially refined sugar, is known to play havoc with your blood glucose levels, giving you highs and lows that affect your whole nervous system.
We all like to eat sweet things, of course, it’s practically a universal craving — but insomniacs need to stabilize blood sugar. The diet for insomnia must rule out refined sugar. If you must have something sweet, eat a piece of fruit.
Excessive protein – mainly in meats and soy-based meat substitutes
Too much protein stresses the digestion and elimination systems of the human body. It also can keep you awake at night. (See the text below about Tyrosine.)
Excessive sodium – mostly in processed foods, fast food, and any food you add a lot of salt or soy sauce to.
Sodium can increase blood pressure. You need lowered blood pressure for restful sleep. If you pay close attention, or if you are physically sensitive (as many insomniacs are, at least temporarily) you may notice an increase in pulse rate and a heavy feeling when you eat a lot of sodium.
Sugar substitutes – mostly in diet soft drinks, sugar-free deserts, or foods you add these ingredients to.
Sugar substitutes like aspartme, sacharine, Splenda, etc. simply aren’t good for you.
They’re not natural, and many people are unknowingly allergic to them. The diet for insomnia has no place for these substances. If you have diabetes, either make peace with your sugar cravings or use healthier substitutes such as stevia or sorbitol.
Tip #2: Read labels. The less processing your food goes through before it gets into your mouth, the better!
Tip #3: Avoid all additives, especially those with names you cannot recognize or pronounce.
- artificial flavor enhancements such as MSG and its equivalents
- artificial sweeteners
- artificial colorants
- texture enhancers, used to thicken or make smooth or creamy
Tip #4: Eat “nutrient dense” foods.
This means foods that provide a lot of nutrients in proportion to their caloric content. Dark leafy greens and sunflower seeds are good examples of nutrient density. Greens pack a nutritional wallop with very few calories. Sunflower seeds are high in fat, but nutritious enough so you don’t need to eat a great deal of them, and they’re good to add to green salads and fruit salads.
Eat more fruits and vegetables, which are not only nutritious, but are good replacements for artificial snacks.
What Foods to Choose in the Diet for Insomnia
Now for the real question: what certain foods actually help you sleep better? And what nutrients help achieve your goal of stability and calmness?
Amino Acid L-Tryptophan
Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps in the production of both serotonin and melatonin. These two substances have a relaxing effect in the brain and aid sleep. While you can take tryptophan as a supplement, it is beneficial to begin your insomnia diet by eating healthy tryptophan rich foods as often as you can. These include:
- Turkey and chicken breast, roasted
- Milk and dairy products (choose low fat yogurt for most nutrients per calories)
- Seafood, specifically snapper, cod, yellowfin tuna, salmon, shrimp and halibut (choose steamed, baked or broiled)
- Tofu, soy milk and cooked soybeans
- Chick peas (aka garbanzo beans) and hummus
- Nuts, especially hazelnuts, almonds, peanuts and cashews (beware the high fat content)
- Beans of all types – black, pinto, kidney, navy
- Lentils and split peas
- Seeds, specificallly sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds
- Whole grains, especially cooked cereals – wheat bulgar, oats, barley, millet
- Brown rice
- Spinach, mustard greens and collard greens
Complex carbohydrates have gotten bad press lately, but they do help you get sleepy, especially when eaten together with tryptophan-rich proteins.
In fact, many people who tried the low-carb diet when it was a craze not too long ago, did experience insomnia as a side effect. This was due not only to the lack of complex carbohydrates but also the excessive protein intake.
Most complex carbohydrates found in whole grains and vegetables are low-glycemic, which protects your blood sugar from highs and lows.
Calcium and insomnia
Calcium assists in calming the nervous system. It is helpful when taken as a supplement, but calcium rich foods are an important part of the diet for insomnia. If you do take supplements, make sure there is magnesium in there as well. Calcium without magnesium is not recommended, as it is not as well utilized by the body and may accumulate in soft tissues, according to some nutritionists and naturaopathic doctors.
Some good food sources of calcium…
- Low fat yogurt
- Almonds and almond butter
- Canned salmon (with bones)
- Canned sardines (with bones)
- Calcium-enriched orange juice
- Beans of all kinds
- Collard greens
- Tofu made with nigari
- Cooked soybeans
- Romaine lettuce
- Dried fruit
Magnesium for Insomnia
The diet for insomnia definitely endorses magnesium. It works well with calcium to help the nervous system function better. Magnesium for insomnia can have other benefits as well as better sleep.
Magnesium as a supplement can be taken alone or with calcium. Taken in supplement form, magnesium can have a laxative effect, so start out with small doses and work your way up. Or you could just get your magnesium from these delicious food sources…
- Wheat bulgar
- Buckwheat flour, buckwheat groats
- Beans of all kinds
- Chickpeas, hummus
- Brown rice
- Dried apricots
- Sunflower seeds
- Grapefruit juice
- Oranges and orange juice
The B-complex vitamins also help the nervous system to do it’s job properly. If you are vegetarian, B12 supplementation is recommended. B vitamins.
If you follow the diet for insomnia guidelines for foods containing tryptophan, calcium, magnesium and complex carbohydrates, you will probably get plenty of B vitamins in your meals and snacks.
You can also take a supplement for good measure, as toxicity is low for these vitamins — meaning, you can consume more than you need and the excess will just pass through the urinary system. There is not much evidence to support high-potency supplementation, but that’s a topic for a different article! I prefer the lower potency food-grown vitamins myself.
Some More Tips for Creating Your Own Diet for Insomnia
- You might notice that many of the foods with tryptophan are also high in calcium and magnesium – specifically, dairy, beans, lentils, dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds. All that is needed are some healthy carbohydrates, such as whole grain cereal and more fruit and vegetables, and you have a nice range of ingredients for dinner and snacks.
- If you like to have a snack before bed, consider peanut or almond butter on whole wheat crackers, or sunflower seeds. It is best to eat light meals in the evening, and your snacks should be small.
- Try to avoid excessive protein and fat with your evening meal or pre-bedtime snack. High protein meals may have too much of the amino acid tyrosine, which can be stimulating, causing to you stay mentally alert longer, something you don’t want at bedtime.
- Fat and protein take longer to digest, causing your stomach and intestines to stay active late into the night, which can interfere with a good night’s sleep.
- The best meal contains small amounts of tryptophan-rich protein, along with healthy (low-glycemic and nutritious) carbohydrates, such as vegetables, beans, brown rice, and whole grains.
(Of course, if you have allergies to any of the foods listed above, avoid them.)
To learn more about the diet for insomnia, check out the self-help section and insomnia tutorial.