• Allison Fahrenbach

Fighting Insomnia Through Food

Did you know that one in four Americans develop insomnia each year? Or that 68% —or an estimated 164 million Americans—struggle with sleep at least once a week? And never more so then now, in the wake of COVID-19. As a coach, I have been working alongside my clients to combat sleeplessness and difficulty with insomnia these last few weeks.

Insomnia is characterized by a difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for at least three nights a week for at least two consecutive weeks. Insomnia becomes chronic when it occurs at least three nights a week for more than three months.

While pharmaceutical interventions are often touted as the way to go, nature offers a wide range of safe and simple strategies to help achieve sound sleep each night, one of which is through the foods we eat.

There are four main vitamins and minerals that can be found in food that aid in promoting sleep: tryptophan, magnesium, calcium, and B6.

Some of these substances help the body produce biochemicals that orchestrate relaxation like serotonin, dopamine, GABA and melatonin, the hormone that is responsible for regulating your circadian rhythm (sleep/wake patterns). When you're close to bedtime, melatonin production naturally increases to help you sleep. In the morning when you're ready to wake up, melatonin production tapers off to allow you to be awake and alert for the day.

Melatonin levels naturally decline with age. Reduced melatonin levels are not just tied to insomnia, but also several degenerative diseases like cancer and arthritis. And unfortunately research has demonstrated that supplemental melatonin is not the same as endogenous (produced by the body) melatonin. It’s best to support your body’s ability to produce melatonin versus just taking a pill.

One way to do this is through the foods you eat. Eating certain foods at certain times can help you fall asleep easier and stay asleep longer.

TRYPTOPHAN is an amino acid that, when ingested, gets turned into the neurotransmitter serotonin and then converted into the hormone melatonin. Some of the best foods loaded with tryptophan are:

  • Dairy products (milk, low-fat yogurt, cheese)

  • Poultry (turkey, chicken)

  • Seafood (shrimp, salmon, halibut, tuna, sardines, cod)

  • Nuts and seeds (flax, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, cashews, peanuts, almonds, walnuts)

  • Legumes (kidney beans, lima beans, black beans split peas, chickpeas)

  • Fruits (apples, bananas, peaches, avocado)

  • Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, onions, seaweed)

MAGNESIUM is a powerful mineral that is instrumental in sleep and is a natural relaxant that helps deactivate adrenaline. A lack of magnesium has been directly linked to difficulty falling and staying asleep. Excellent sources of magnesium are:

  • Dark leafy greens (baby spinach, kale, collard greens)

  • Nuts and seeds (almonds, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, cashews, pine nuts, flaxseed, pecans)

  • Wheat germ

  • Fish (salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel)

  • Soybeans

  • Banana

  • Avocados

  • Low-fat yogurt

CALCIUM is another mineral that helps the brain make melatonin. A lack of calcium can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty returning to sleep. Calcium rich diets have been shown to help patients with insomnia. Dairy products that contain both tryptophan and calcium are among the best sleep inducers. Sources of calcium include:

  • Dark leafy greens

  • Low-fat milk

  • Cheeses

  • Yogurt

  • Sardines

  • Fortified cereals

  • Soybeans

  • Fortified orange juice

  • Enriched breads and grains

  • Green snap peas

  • Okra

  • Broccoli

Vitamin B6 also helps convert tryptophan into melatonin. A deficiency in B6 has been linked with lowered serotonin levels and poor sleep. A deficiency in B6 is also linked to symptoms of depression and mood disorders which can lead to insomnia. Highest sources of B6 are:

  • Sunflower seeds

  • Pistachio nuts

  • Flaxseed

  • Fish (tuna, salmon, halibut)

  • Meat (chicken, tuna, lean pork, lean beef,)

  • Dried Prunes

  • Bananas

  • Avocado

  • Spinach

  • Oats

WHAT ABOUT MELATONIN? Many of the vitamins and minerals that are on this list are there because they help aid in the production of turning serotonin into melatonin. However, there are a few excellent sources of naturally occuring melatonin in foods:

  • Fruits and vegetables (tart cherries, corn, asparagus, tomatoes, pomegranate, olives, grapes, broccoli, cucumber)

  • Grains (rice, barley, rolled oats)

  • Nuts and Seeds (walnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, mustard seeds, flaxseed)


It's not just foods that are great for sleep. Many drinks contain essential vitamins and minerals that help aid with sleep. A few of the ones to try are:

  • Warm milk

  • Almond milk

  • Valerian tea

  • Chamomile tea

  • Tart cherry juice

  • Passion fruit tea

  • Peppermint tea

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