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Can't Sleep? These 5 Essential Nutrients Can Help

If you’ve tried everything and good sleep is still eluding you, it may be time to examine your diet.

“Good nutrition is important for many aspects of health including sleep,” said Bonnie Buckingham, a registered dietitian with Samaritan Weight Management Institute. “It is common for people to start having sleep difficulties as they age. Making sure your diet is balanced can be a good place to start, especially since meal planning can become less of a priority if someone is no longer cooking for a family or a spouse.”

According to Buckingham, you don’t need to eat these foods right before bed. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that eating less than 60 minutes before bed resulted in a longer time to fall asleep, especially in women. Instead, incorporate a variety of beneficial foods throughout your day to help your body do its job to regulate sleep.

Nutrients You Need


Melatonin is the primary factor affecting your sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, your sleep/wake cycle is regulated by your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells your body when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to be alert. Your circadian rhythm is regulated by the hormone melatonin, which is produced in your brain. Melatonin is also present in many types of foods including pistachios, walnuts, tart cherries, grapes, strawberries, kiwi, tomatoes, bell peppers and corn.


Tryptophan is an essential dietary amino acid that the body uses to produce serotonin, a chemical that helps to regulate sleep, and melatonin. Tryptophan is found in protein foods and is most readily absorbed by the body when it is eaten with carbohydrates.

A study published in the journal Age found that people over the age of 55 who had difficulty falling asleep quickly or staying asleep had better sleep quality when they ate a diet high in tryptophan. Nuts and seeds like sunflower, chia, sesame and pumpkin, are high in this nutrient. Sprinkle two tablespoons of seeds on a salad with dinner or eat a handful of nuts and a banana as an afternoon snack. Cheese, tofu, red meat, poultry, eggs, beans and oats are also good sources of tryptophan.

B Complex Vitamins

The body needs a variety of nutrients to produce melatonin, including adequate B complex vitamins. I would discourage people from taking a B complex and instead get it from food sources. Especially since taking one before bed can keep you awake.

There are eight B vitamins in all, which also go by the names of thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12). You can find a combination of these B vitamins in foods like leafy greens, eggs, dairy, beans, poultry, meat and salmon.

Omega-3, Vitamin D

A study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found the combination of omega-3s and vitamin D from fatty fish like salmon improved sleep in participants. Researchers think it’s because of the effect of those nutrients on regulating serotonin. Flaxseed and chia seeds are other good sources of omega-3, while egg yolks, mushrooms and fortified dairy contain vitamin D.


Magnesium was the featured nutrient in a study published in the Journal of Research of Medical Science, which found that adding a supplement in elderly participants improved the symptoms of insomnia and sleep quality. Nuts, beans, seeds, tofu, bananas and whole grains are all good sources of magnesium.   

“A balanced diet with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean protein is the common thread that can help you get a better night’s sleep,” said Buckingham. “Look for ways to replace highly processed foods with whole foods to make sure you are giving your body what it needs.”

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