Can't Sleep? Eat These Food Combos

Three substances that can help lull you to sleep—serotonin, tryptophan and melatonin—are found in many commonly-available foods. Try these diabetes-friendly, late-night snacks next time you need help catching some zzz's.

Sleep is a complicated process. Lose too much sleep, and you risk developing depression, intestinal issues, and a weakened immune system. Sleep too much, and you increase your risk of developing risk factors for chronic diseases, including poor glucose control associated with type 2 diabetes. For adults, too little sleep is generally defined as 6 hours or less and too much as 9 hours or more, with “normal” somewhere in the range of 7 to 8 hours a night.

Many individual factors—including your brain chemistry, activity level, overall health status, and bedroom conditions—can affect whether or not you get the amount of restful sleep your body needs. Although the connections aren’t fully understood, the amount of sleep you get can affect your food choices, and your food choices, in turn, can also the amount of sleep you get.

sleep foodsDrift off to la-la land with foods that contain sleep inducing substances.

A high-fat, high-refined carbohydrate diet or random eating habits can prevent you from getting enough sleep, as can environmental issues such as light, noise and temperature in the room where you sleep. If you adjust for all these factors and still can’t sleep, a small nighttime snack of unrefined carbs combined with just a little protein and fat, an hour or so before bedtime, may help you doze off.

Specifically, foods that contain or promote the production of the brain chemical serotonin, the hormone melatonin, and the amino acid (protein) tryptophan—all of which play a role in relaxation and sleep quality—may work better than a lullaby. And although there’s not enough of these substances in normal amounts of any food to knock you out, they can help get the process going.

Researchers also suggest that these chemicals, which are also found naturally in your body, are not working alone to help bring on the zzz’s. Rather, they work best in tandem with antioxidant nutrients such as vitamins C and E, and phytochemicals such as resveratrol, often found in the same foods. (Phytochemicals are plant chemicals—substances found in plants that are not nutrients but appear to play a role in fighting disease and maintaining good health.)

These light, diabetes-friendly, nighttime snacks combine foods that are rich in nutrients and other naturally-occurring substances in food that can help send you to slumberland and perhaps stay there a little longer. Each of these snacks weighs in at 20g or fewer carbs per serving:

Cherries and Cheese

Cherries are a good source of tryptophan.

Enjoy ½ cup melatonin-rich tart cherry juice with an ounce of cheese, which contributes tryptophan. Any kind of cheese—reduced fat or regular—will do. But be mindful of the portion size: One ounce of cheese is approximately the size of a 1-inch cube.  

Fruit and Walnuts

For a fruit salad rich in melatonin, choose grapes and bananas.

In a small bowl, combine 1/3 cup banana slices,1/4 cup halved grapes and 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts. Grapes and bananas contribute melatonin and antioxidant vitamins; walnuts supply tryptophan and vitamin E. Grapes also have resveratrol.

Peanut Butter Toast with Low-fat Milk

A little smear of peanut butter provides protein and tryptophan.

Enjoy a small (4 oz) glass of low-fat milk with a smear (2 tsp or less) of peanut butter on a thin slice of multigrain toast. Milk and peanut butter contain tryptophan; whole grain toast contributes the antioxidant vitamin E. Be sure to check the label and buy peanut butter without added sugar. 

Kiwi and Almonds


Snooze through the night with kiwi which has both serotonin and tryptophan.

In a small bowl, combine a peeled, sliced or diced serotonin-and vitamin C-rich kiwi fruit, with 2 tablespoons of sliced or chopped almonds, which contribute tryptophan and vitamin E.

Updated on: March 10, 2016
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