Desperate for Sleep? 10 Melatonin-Rich Foods a Nutritionist Loves for Quality Rest

It should come as no surprise that we love our beauty rest. From tips to getting a better night’s sleep to the best alarm clocks to help you quit your nighttime phone habit, we have the tools to help you clock your zzz’s. And given the busyness of our day-to-day lives, it’s especially important to prioritize sleep. After all, not clocking enough hours can lead to slower cognitive function, more cravings, and irritability. Along with establishing good sleep hygiene—like a nighttime routine—did you know that nutrition plays a role in how well you sleep? That’s right. Your diet can greatly impact the sleep you are (or aren’t) getting. Today, we’re diving into the power of melatonin and foods high in melatonin.

Ahead, learn everything you need to know about melatonin and delicious recipes to get you started. A good night’s rest might be a handful of pistachios away.

Featured image by Michelle Nash.

What is melatonin?

Known as the “hormone of darkness,” melatonin is produced in response to nighttime. It is essential for good sleep. In essence, melatonin helps with the timing of our circadian rhythm (24-hour internal clock). Located in the middle of the brain, this unique hormone is created by the pineal gland. It functions with the sun. Meaning, more melatonin is made when the sun goes down, and less melatonin is made when the sun comes up. Although most people produce enough melatonin for their general needs, research shows that foods high in melatonin can improve sleep. 

How Melatonin Affects the Body

Melatonin’s main job is to regulate night and day cycles. Said differently: Melatonin manages our sleep-wake cycles. Darkness causes the body to produce more melatonin, signaling the body to prepare for sleep. Light, on the other hand, decreases melatonin production. In turn, light signals the body to prepare for wakefulness. By viewing light first thing in the day (hello, sunlight!), you set in motion these two timers. One for wakefulness that starts immediately and one for sleepiness that starts later in the day. 

Image by Michelle Nash

Blue Light Exposure and Melatonin Suppression

Whether you’ve stayed up answering emails, finishing a lengthy work task, aimlessly scrolling through social media, or binging episodes of your favorite shows, we’ve all spent late nights in front of a screen. Thus, we’ve all felt the effects of too much blue light. Blue light is a portion of the visible light spectrum. It can have unique effects on alertness, hormone production, and sleep cycles. This wavelength of light is emitted by LED, fluorescent lights, as well as most electronic devices.

The issue with too much blue light, especially at night, is it makes falling asleep much more difficult. In fact, recent studies show that indoor room light (i.e., blue light from fluorescent bulbs) can elicit strong melatonin suppression. This suggests that individuals who habitually expose themselves to light during nighttime hours can experience reduced melatonin levels. In turn, perturbed sleep rhythms. Some ways to combat blue light exposure include:

  • Invest in a pair of blue blocker glasses.
  • Switch your device to “nighttime mode” after the sun goes down.
  • Make your bedroom a screen-free zone.

How Sleep Deprivation Impacts the Brain

Sleep deprivation is a typical consequence of melatonin suppression. Being sleep deprived leaves your brain exhausted and body hungry. Particularly when it comes to brain health, sleep is key. When you’re tired, your brain can’t perform its duties as well. You may also find it more difficult to concentrate or learn new things.

Furthermore, the signals your body sends to your brain may also be delayed, decreasing your coordination and increasing your risk for accidents. Long-term, clocking less than seven hours (consistently) means the brain has less time to clear beta-amyloid, and toxic levels can raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Image by Michelle Nash

Diet’s Role in Sleep

Everything from exercise, to time spent in the sun, to how many hours we spend looking at our phones can impact sleep. All of those factors, in combination with the foods and drinks we consume, make a difference. While it may seem obvious why a double espresso after dinner (or a greasy, late-night cheeseburger) isn’t the best for restful sleep, the connection between daytime eats and nighttime sleep is less straightforward. However, we know that eating a healthy and nutrient-rich diet affects our brain health and our blood sugar levels. These, in turn, affect the quality of our sleep.

Food Helps Regulate Our Circadian Rhythm

In essence, eating less fiber, more saturated fats, and more sugar throughout the day is linked with lighter, less restorative sleep. In one study, researchers tracked diet and sleep for a group of healthy adults over the course of five nights and found that indeed, food choices during the day negatively impacted sleep. 

As you can guess, there’s also a connection between sleep and how we metabolize food. Diet and food choices help regulate our circadian rhythm, meaning that what we eat helps us fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up ready to refuel.

Image by Michelle Nash

Do I need a melatonin supplement?

Stroll the vitamin aisle at your local grocery store or supermarket, and you’ll likely find melatonin supplements. Thanks in part to the pandemic, melatonin sales jumped 40% in 2020. At any rate, you might be wondering: My sleep isn’t great, should I take a melatonin supplement? This depends. 

Melatonin is generally safe for short-term use, but studies on its long-term effects are limited. The immediate side effects of melatonin are typically mild, but it can cause dependency, headaches, short-term feelings of depression, daytime sleepiness, dizziness, stomach cramps, and irritability. Additionally, melatonin can have strong effects on our sex steroid hormones (the pathways related to estrogen and testosterone). All in all, there may be more downsides than upsides to taking melatonin. Of course, speak with your doctor before adding melatonin to your supplement routine. 

10 Foods High in Melatonin

If you’re interested in altering your diet before trying a melatonin supplement, you’re in good hands. Luckily, you don’t need to fill your pantry and fridge with superfoods. Rather, think of the Mediterranean diet. Consuming a variety of plant and / or animal-based foods can do the trick—helping you naturally increase melatonin.

These foods are high in melatonin to help you sleep:

Tart cherries

Containing sleep-promoting properties, tart cherries are touted as a natural source of melatonin. In fact, researchers have found that tart cherry juice increases melatonin levels in the body and enhances sleep.

Recipe: Tart Cherry Juice Elixir by Abra’s Kitchen

Pistachios

Pistachios hit the sleep-inducing jackpot. The melatonin found in foods like pistachios won’t make you groggy, but it may signal your body that it’s time to sleep. Furthermore, pistachios contain protein, vitamin B6, and magnesium, all of which contribute to better sleep. 

Recipe: Ricotta with Pears and Honeyed Pistachios

Eggs

Among animal products, eggs are one of the best sources of melatonin. Eggs are also highly nutritious, offering protein and iron, among other essential nutrients. Plus, they’re a rich source of tryptophan, necessary for restful sleep.

Recipe: Spicy Mexican Baked Eggs

Milk

Like eggs, milk contains ample levels of melatonin and tryptophan. In fact, studies have shown that milk harvested at night (night milk) contains exceptionally high amounts of tryptophan and melatonin.

Recipe: Curcuma Golden Mylk

Sardines

Fish with bones, such as sardines, may help to promote healthy melatonin production when you need it. 

Recipe: Tomato Sardine Toast by Nomaste Hungry

Salmon

Containing more melatonin than other meats, salmon is a good source of vitamin B6, which promotes the production of sleep hormones. Plus, salmon is high in protein, helping keep you full throughout the night.

Recipe: Hot Honey Glazed Salmon

Almonds

Along with pistachios, almonds are a great source of melatonin and magnesium (sleep-enhancing mineral). Both of these properties support the notion that almonds are helpful to eat before bed.

Recipe: Charred Carrots with Honey-Lime Yogurt, Dates, and Almonds

Figs

Figs are rich in magnesium, fiber, and melatonin. These are all directly linked to improving the quality and duration of sleep.

Recipe: Get Figgy With It Smoothie

Oats

Grains in oatmeal trigger insulin production much like whole-grain bread. In essence, they raise your blood sugar naturally and make you feel sleepy. Oats are also rich in melatonin, which relaxes the body and helps you fall asleep.

Recipe: Apple Pie Baked Oatmeal

Sweet potatoes

Similar to oats, sweet potatoes stimulate melatonin production and gradually energize your body throughout the night, increasing the duration of your sleep. 

Recipe: Sweet Potato and Chickpea Bowl with Feta Yogurt

This post was originally published on October 13, 2021, and has since been updated.


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