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Sleep is one of the most important things triathletes can do – after all, our best recovery happens when we’re snoozing. As Ironman legend and coach Mark Allen says, sleep “can bump your athletic performance up by greater amounts than you would get if you were to take EPO. And the good news is that sleep is legal!”
Most people assume that the more active a person is, the better they sleep. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, a person can be physically tired and yet wide awake. When this happens, it’s a good idea to investigate what might be causing your insomnia – and a good place to start is your food. Caffeine and other energizing foods are obvious sleep-hindering culprits, but your insomnia may also be caused by something you didn’t eat. If you’re looking for foods to help you sleep, you’ve got to make sure you’re choosing the right ones.
The brain depends on a complex array of nutrients to ensure peaceful, uninterrupted slumber. So, the food you eat throughout the day – and the foods you eat right before you head to bed – can have a direct effect on how well you sleep. Choosing foods that provide sleep-inducing or sleep-enhancing nutrients can help you drift off to sleep more easily, wake up well-rested and feel more energized throughout the day.
Wondering where to start? We’ve got your guide to foods for good sleep. If you’re battling nighttime wakefulness, eat these foods 1 to 4 hours before bed to sleep more soundly.
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This dark leafy green veggie is high in magnesium, which naturally relaxes the nerves and muscles, to calm the body and encourage sleep. Magnesium can also help prevent leg cramps, a common cause of nighttime waking. Additionally, spinach is a good source of calcium, which helps the brain use tryptophan to manufacture melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone; research suggests being calcium deficient may make it difficult to fall asleep.
Purée a handful of spinach with milk or almond milk and a frozen banana for a soothing bedtime smoothie; sauté spinach with cooked chickpeas, diced sweet potatoes and toasted almonds; toss chopped spinach with hot pasta and olive oil and top with cheese. You can also make spinach a central part of your nighttime meal with recipes like Spinach Salad with Crispy Artichokes & Basil Dressing or Shrimp, Spinach & Mushroom Barley.
2. Nutritional yeast
Have you tried incorporating nutritional yeast into your diet? It’s surprisingly nutritious. This kind of yeast is rich in B vitamins – just 2 tablespoons contains more than the full daily value (DV) for vitamin B12 and 480% of the DV for vitamin B6. Vitamin B12 is crucial for the nervous system, and studies show that B12 intake is significantly correlated with duration of sleep. Vitamin B6 is necessary for the production of serotonin, and research suggests deficiencies can promote psychological distress and ensuing sleep disturbances.
Toss hot popcorn with nutritional yeast for a cheesy flavor; stir nutritional yeast into hummus; add to a spinach and cheese omelette for a sleep-inducing dinner. Need more ideas? Check out this guide to using nutritional yeast.
Chickpeas are rich in tryptophan, an amino acid that acts as a precursor to serotonin, which plays a crucial role in the modulation of sleep. Food sources of tryptophan may be even more effective than supplements: In one study, dietary tryptophan significantly reduced insomnia, especially when combined with complex carbohydrates. Because chickpeas contain both tryptophan and carbs, they’re a great food for promoting sleep. They’re also high in fiber: Studies show a low-fiber diet is associated with light, less-restorative sleep and more nighttime wakings.
Spread hummus on flatbread and top with chopped Kalamata olives; mix with cooked chicken and serve in lettuce cups; mix with vegetable broth, add vegetables and heat for an easy, creamy soup. Or, turn hummus into a whole meal! Hummus Fatteh turns the dip into a creamy, bread-pudding like dish, while hummus bowl recipes turn different types of hummus into delicious creations.
4. Almond butter
Almonds and other nuts are very high in magnesium – ¼ cup contains 24% of the DV – and rich in sleep-promoting tryptophan. They’re also high in potassium, which can significantly increase sleep efficiency and decrease awakenings after falling asleep, and B vitamins, which promote restful sleep.
Slice an apple crosswise into rounds then spread with almond butter for a simple bedtime snack; toss hot soba noodles, shredded carrots and minced scallions with almond butter; cook sweet potatoes in coconut milk until tender then add almond butter, purée until smooth and season with curry powder. You can also incorporate almond butter into everything from pancakes like Apple Cinnamon Walnut Pancakes with Almond Butter Spread to snacks like Chocolate Almond Butter Granola Bars to muffins like Almond Butter and Banana Muffins.
Tart cherries are a fantastic food to help you sleep. They’re naturally high in melatonin, which is critical in regulating the sleep- wake cycle. In one small double-blind, randomized study, volunteers who drank tart cherry juice for 7 days had significantly elevated melatonin levels and significant increases in total sleep time and sleep efficiency compared to a placebo. Another study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that tart cherry juice was as effective as the sleep herb valerian. Sweet cherries are also high in melatonin and may have many of the same sleep-promoting effects.
Purée frozen cherries with whole milk and raw honey for a soothing bedtime smoothie; simmer tart cherries in balsamic vinegar and honey until tender then serve with vanilla yogurt; combine chopped cherries with minced red onion, jalapeño peppers, cilantro and lime juice for a savory salsa. You can also try tart cherries in recipes like Chai Oatmeal with Coconut & Cherries, Not-Your-Average Quinoa Salad with Cherries and Creamy Vinaigrette or Sweet & Sour Chocolate Bark.
Kiwi fruit are rich in sleep-promoting phytochemicals. In a study published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, volunteers who ate two kiwi fruits an hour before bed for four weeks significantly decreased the amount of time it took to fall asleep and increased total sleep duration and sleep efficiency. Kiwi are high in serotonin (as are plantains, pineapple, banana, plums, walnuts and tomatoes), but because serotonin can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, it’s likely that the fruit’s high antioxidant content is responsible for its sleep-promoting activities: Studies show that poor sleep is linked with lower levels of antioxidants.
Layer kiwi slices in a parfait glass with vanilla yogurt and granola; purée peeled kiwi with chamomile tea for a sleep-promoting bedtime beverage.
7. Organic corn
Skip non-organic ears of corn in favor of the organic variety, and you just might achieve better sleep. Organic corn is high in carbs, which can promote sleep when eaten the right way. Carbs stimulate insulin, which indirectly makes tryptophan more available; higher-glycemic carbs are more effective than low-glycemic carbs. But sugary carbs like cookies and candy can upset blood sugar and interrupt sleep later in the night. Corn is a good choice because it has a moderate glycemic index – a measure of how quickly or slowly a food causes increases in blood glucose levels.
Stuff a warm corn tortilla with leftover chicken salad for an easy nighttime snack; sauté corn, chopped spinach, diced red peppers and cubes of chicken then top with cotija cheese. Organic ears of corn are fantastic for recipes like Choose-Your-Own Flavor Corn Ribs with Creamy Cilantro Dip, but it’s also a great side in recipes like Old Bay Scallops with Roasted Corn & Lemon Aioli.