Have you ever used melatonin to help yourself get a good night’s sleep? Nowadays, melatonin is practically a household name for its use as a natural sleep aid. But pills and gummies aren’t the only way for you to supplement your body’s melatonin— did you know you can get melatonin from the foods you eat too?
It’s true! Some foods are high in sleep-promoting compounds such as tryptophan, magnesium, and yes, melatonin. Eating these foods can help you get a better night’s sleep by naturally boosting your body’s melatonin level, but be careful— there are some foods you will want to avoid also.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone, often nicknamed the “sleep hormone.” Melatonin regulates your sleep-wake cycle and responds to light and darkness— more melatonin is produced when it gets dark to help you sleep, and less is produced as the sun rises and your eyes are exposed to light to help you wake up.
Melatonin production is mainly carried out in the pineal gland, it’s also produced in your gut and in most of your body’s cells. But it’s the melatonin that’s made in the pineal gland that regulates your circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle.
I have written a lot about melatonin in the past, so if you’re interested in learning more about this amazing hormone, check out some more of my articles about melatonin after you finish this one.
What Foods Contain Melatonin?
I’ve previously written an article about the best foods for sleep, focusing on vital nutrients for sleep and what kinds of foods to limit for better rest. There I also refer to the Mediterranean Diet and how it’s been associated with higher sleep quality. But this time we’ll focus on specific foods that naturally contain melatonin and other sleep-promoting compounds.
As well as eating a healthy diet, eating melatonin-rich foods can also help you get more restful sleep each night. Here are 10 foods that naturally contain melatonin— you may even have most of these in your kitchen already!
Note: While these foods are known sources of dietary melatonin, the actual melatonin content of each food can vary depending on a number of factors, including where the food was produced, when it was produced, et cetera.
A glass of warm milk is a well-known and common sleep remedy, and for good reason! Milk is one of the best dietary sources of melatonin. It also contains the amino acid tryptophan, which increases concentrations of melatonin and serotonin and helps you drift off to sleep easier.
Interestingly, milk from cows that were milked at night may contain higher melatonin content than that from cows milked during the day. This is because like people, other animals produce more melatonin at night as they prepare for sleep— this elevated melatonin level then goes into the milk.
Unfortunately, you can’t tell what your carton of milk’s melatonin content is at a glance nor if the cow was milked at night. But whether the cow was milked during the day or at night, milk remains a great source of natural melatonin.
If you are lactose intolerant you may want to skip the milk, but fortunately there are plenty more choices for you.
Many nuts including cashews and almonds contain melatonin, but pistachios have a higher amount than the others. Pistachios are also high in vitamin B6, which helps convert tryptophan into melatonin.
Pistachios are great sources of fiber, omega 3 fatty acids— which are linked to higher sleep quality— and antioxidants too.
As their name states, tart cherries are more sour than other sweeter cherries you can also find at the grocery store. Not only are they high in melatonin, but tart cherries are also rich in anti-inflammatory compounds that can help keep you healthy.
It’s not just the cherries themselves that can help you sleep either. Tart cherry juice is a melatonin-rich food as well. According to one study examining seniors with insomnia, drinking tart cherry juice increased participants’ sleep time and sleep efficiency. A compound in the juice, procyanidin, increased tryptophan availability in participants and also reduced inflammation in their bodies.
Tart or otherwise, cherry juice can be high in sugar though, so it’s important to keep that in mind if you’re considering incorporating tart cherries into your diet.
Fatty fish like salmon and tuna are not only melatonin-rich foods, but they’re also high in vitamin B6, omega 3 fatty acid, magnesium, and vitamin D— all of which are important to regulating serotonin, promoting healthy sleep, and promoting better function during the day.
One study found that participants who ate salmon three times a week slept better and showed improved daytime functioning compared to participants who did not.
Not all carbs are created equal. While some carbohydrates like junk food or sugary beverages can potentially harm your sleep, rice notably does not. Its carbohydrate content is actually conducive to sleep, as well as its melatonin and tryptophan content.
What you eat with the carbs may matter more than the carbs themselves though. For example, sweets before bed can negatively affect your sleep, while consuming rice with a tryptophan-containing protein, such as salmon, may encourage better sleep. More research is needed to determine the effects different carbohydrates have on sleep, but you should always prioritize eating healthier, more complex carbs over refined ones.
Goji berries are powerful sources of natural melatonin. Considered by many to be a superfood, these berries originally native to China are also rich in antioxidants, protein, and fiber.
Goji berries may also help improve depression or anxious behavior, which can also help sleep by calming your mind and allowing you to drift off more easily.
Like rice, oats are a “good” carbohydrate that can help lead to better sleep. Whole oats are a great source of melatonin, as well as tryptophan. Oats are also high in fiber, B vitamins, and lots of minerals.
A bowl of oatmeal is a great way to start your day, and it can be a great way to help you sleep too!
Mushrooms are rich in melatonin, and also contain tryptophan. They’re also great sources of protein, fiber, and antioxidants.
Whether you like portabella mushrooms, button mushrooms, or their more exotic relatives, all kinds of mushrooms contain the same health and sleep benefits.
Whether you enjoy it off or on the cob, corn is another melatonin-rich food. Corn also contains tryptophan which is, of course, also conducive for sleep.
Corn is also high in vitamin C, antioxidants, magnesium, and fiber.
Bananas are an amazingly healthy fruit. Bananas contain melatonin, tryptophan, vitamin B6, and magnesium, which are all great for producing serotonin and helping you sleep.
Bananas are another “good” carb that can not only help you sleep, but feel more alert during the day. This is because bananas contain complex carbohydrates, which can give you energy all day long.
Bonus: If you boil the banana and make my famous banana tea, the skins contain significant magnesium which is very supportive for sleep. While it may sound odd, banana tea is delicious— or as my daughter says, “Dad, this is very banana-y!”
5 Foods to Avoid Before Bed
It might seem like a no-brainer to avoid certain foods before bed, such as caffeine and alcohol. But there are other foods that can ruin your sleep and you may not even realize it. Try avoiding the following foods before you go to bed each night.
Spicy foods can be very acidic and can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort, which you don’t want while you’re trying to sleep. They can also trigger acid reflux or IBS, so it’s best to steer clear of anything too spicy before bedtime.
Chocolate is delicious, there’s no doubt about that. Unfortunately though, chocolate is high in sugar and often contains caffeine, both of which can keep you up at night.
Even the relatively healthier dark chocolate can cause sleep problems. Dark chocolate tends to have a higher caffeine content than other types of chocolate, which, of course, can keep you awake longer.
While tomatoes are a healthy fruit that contains many vitamins, minerals, and melatonin, they’re also highly acidic. This can be problematic to those who suffer from acid reflux or a sensitive stomach.
To prevent any reflux or digestive issues at night, avoid tomatoes or tomato-based foods before bed.
Pizza is a popular and easy solution for when you’ve had a long day and the kids ask “what’s for dinner?” But you may want to reconsider how close to bed you enjoy a few slices.
I just discussed how tomatoes can hinder your sleep, and earlier I discussed how carbohydrates can do so as well. Unfortunately, pizza is a perfect storm of foods that can potentially ruin sleep— refined carbs in the crust, the tomato-based sauce, and all the high-fat toppings like cheese and pepperoni, which can slow your digestion and cause inflammation.
You can prevent this by enjoying a healthier pizza, such as one with cauliflower crust, a non-tomato-based sauce, less cheese, and lighter toppings like veggies. Otherwise, you’ll probably want to steer clear of pizza too close to bedtime.
Citrus is still very good for you as a whole, but you should avoid it before bed. This is because citrus is a natural diuretic, which means that consuming it too close to bedtime can cause you to wake up during the night to use the bathroom.
Of course, this is something you don’t want if you’re hoping to sleep through the night!
A Word About Melatonin Supplements
Melatonin supplements have become a popular alternative to prescription sleep aids, and when the correct dosage is taken at the right time, it may help you fall asleep more quickly. However, melatonin is not a sedative, and melatonin supplements are not an instant fix for your sleep problems.
You want to make sure you’re practicing good sleep hygiene, going to bed at the right time, and sleeping in an ideal sleep environment to really get the most out of your melatonin.
Melatonin supplements also come with a few side effects, like daytime sleepiness, irritability, and mild headaches. These usually come from taking the wrong dosage amount or not timing your dosage correctly.
Here are my recommendations if you take a melatonin supplement:
- Melatonin pills: Take 1/2 mg to 1 1/2 mg 90 minutes before bedtime. I like and recommend Herbatonin, a plant derived melatonin that I find to be incredibly effective.
- Liquid melatonin: Take the same dosage, but half an hour before bedtime
How much melatonin you should take also depends on why you’re taking it. For example, I take a light dose of melatonin to help combat jet lag when I’m traveling over multiple time zones.
Generally, I don’t recommend taking large doses of melatonin supplements— keep your dosage low when you first start out and increase it as needed, up to 5 mg a day with permission from your doctor.
You should always consult your doctor before taking a new supplement or making changes to your medication or supplement routine.
Remember, supplements aren’t the only way to boost your melatonin levels. When combined with proper sleep hygiene and a healthy diet, the foods you eat can help you get a good night’s sleep too.
Consider this a little food for thought the next time you go grocery shopping.
Michael J. Breus, PhD, FAASM
The Sleep Doctor
Michael Breus, Ph.D - The Sleep Doctor is a Diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a Fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and one of only 168 psychologists to pass the Sleep Medical Specialty Board without going to medical school. Dr. Breus is a sought after lecturer and his knowledge is shared daily in major national media worldwide including Today, Dr. Oz, Oprah, and for fourteen years as the sleep expert on WebMD. Dr. Breus is the bestselling author of The Power of When, The Sleep Doctor’s Diet Plan and Good Night!