Dana James featured in Elle.com
What if you could treat insomnia with food? We asked a team of experts to reveal the surprising edibles that combat snoring, sleeplessness, nightmares, and more. – BY VICTORIA DAWSON HOFF
“Melatonin does help induce sleep to a moderate degree,” says sleep specialist Steven Feinsilver, MD, which is why cherries, which are rich in melatonin, make such a good bedtime snack. According to nutritionist Dana James, MS, CNS, CDN, pumpkin seeds are also a great option. “They’re rich in magnesium which helps to induce a deeper sleep by relaxing the muscles in the body,” she says.
And finally, a good reason to get popcorn at a night movie: It’s high in serotonin, the chemical responsible for regulating our sleep cycle, says nutritionist Keri Glassman, MS, RD. (air-popped is your best bet, since the salt and butter in packaged popcorn could cause you to wake up throughout the night.)
Sometimes it’s not falling asleep that’s the problem—it’s waking up repeatedly throughout the night. It’s important to stay hydrated, but if you find yourself getting up repeatedly to run to the bathroom…well, that’s your answer. But going to bed on an empty stomach isn’t ideal either. “Often people leave too much time between their last meal and going to bed (it should be two hours) and they wake up because their blood sugar levels have dropped too low,” James says. “An apple with some almond butter gives just enough glucose to keep you sleeping through the night.” Glassman says that stress could also be the culprit. For this, apricots are a great option, since they’re rich in vitamin C, which can help with stress reduction. And try including asparagus in your dinner menu, since the folate content can help ease anxiety as well.
Are your dreams a tad too, er, intense? “Magnesium has been associated with decreasing nightmares so it could be inferred that magnesium-rich food may make dreams less vivid,” James says. Avocado is high in magnesium, as are leafy greens like kale and spinach. And try to avoid cheese if you can, Glassman says, since it contains opioid peptides—which send endorphins (and our imagination) into overdrive.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for some riveting content for your dream journal, go ahead and add that cheese back in. James also says that Vitamin B6 helps make dreams more vivid. “One of the richest sources of B6 is tuna,” she says. Enjoy a nicoise salad for dinner or tuna steak over Asian greens.” Bananas are also high in B6.
Snoring is a very common side effect of being overweight, but if the number on your scale checks out, try adding in some citrus fruit like lemon, orange, or grapefruit. “Vitamin C has been correlated with a reduction in snoring,” James says. She recommends a citrus salad or half a grapefruit with a sprinkle of coconut sugar before bed.
While you might protest that a glass of red wine tends makes you sleepy, alcohol is just a bad idea when you’re trying to get some undisturbed shut eye. “Alcohol does make it easier to fall asleep, but sleep quality is poor, and when the effect wears off in a few hours, one might be wide awake,” Feinsilver says. “It also brings out snoring and can cause or worsen sleep apnea.”
Caffeine should also be avoided—cut yourself off from coffee after noon, if you can. And swap your dessert cupcake or sundae for something a little lighter, since sugar-heavy foods can mess with your system. “Desserts that are too high in sugar will produce a corresponding drop in blood sugar levels several hours later,” James says. “This can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.”