Sweet dreams: What to eat for a good night’s sleep

Read Time:   |  20th August 2018

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Claire Kelly from Indigo Herbs shows you how diet can help you sleep. 

foods that help you sleep

Our sleep cycle can be disturbed by various factors that are out of our control, such as noise, temperature, shift work, jet-lag and even a loved one snoring. However, did you know that your quality of sleep has something to do with the foods you eat? Studies show that nutrition can have far reaching effects on our state of mind. As our sleep can often be disturbed by anxiety, stress and pain, it’s good to know which foods and herbs can help facilitate our body’s systems and overactive brain switching into rest mode.

The healthy sleep cycle

Sleep is governed by the circadian rhythm that triggers the brain to produce melatonin, the sleep hormone at your normal bedtime. Your brain depends on melatonin to initiate sleep and there are also foods that can support or inhibit your brain doing this. Stress also plays a part in preventing restful sleep, as the stress hormone cortisol inhibits the production of melatonin. Foods, herbs and essential oils can be used to combat stress and prime your body, mind and soul for a natural wind down cycle and good night’s sleep.

foods that help you sleep

Green tea

Cutting caffeinated drinks out of your diet ensures that your nervous system is not over-agitated when it comes to bedtime. Caffeine disrupts the receptors in your brain that receive the brain chemical adenosine. Studies show that the neurotransmitter adenosine has a major influence on non-REM sleep. Replacing tea and coffee with green tea has other brain boosting benefits too. Nutritionist Jenny Tschiesche BSC(Hons) Dip(ION) FdSc BANT says “Green tea contains a brain relaxing chemical called L-Theanine, which encourages the production of alpha waves.

foods that help you sleep

These are the brain waves we produce when we are relaxed.” Further benefits from the brain relaxing effects of L-Theanine can be found in matcha tea, which is the youngest highest grade leaves of the same plant. Matcha contains up to five times as much L-Theanine as regular green tea and both matcha and green tea can be consumed throughout the day and even into the evening, unlike other caffeinated drinks, and still promote relaxation and wellbeing leading to a good night’s sleep.

Pumpkin seeds

Pumpkin seeds contain the sleep inducing, mood enhancing phytochemical L-Tryptophan, and are also rich in zinc, which helps the body use this important nutrient. Nutritionist Jenny Tschiesche says “Foods rich in the amino acid L-Tryptophan have been found to improve sleep, because they provide the amino acid that is the precursor to both serotonin (our happy hormone) and melatonin (our sleep hormone).

foods that help you sleep

Foods rich in L-Tryptophan include seeds, nuts and beans.” Including pumpkin seeds in your diet can aid sleep and they can easily be eaten raw or roasted, scattered over salads, or packed into a flapjack. The recommended daily serving of pumpkin seeds is 1-2 tbsp per day.


Nutritionist Jenny Tschiesche says “Potassium has been linked with improved sleep. Food sources of potassium include leafy greens, avocados and bananas. Including these foods is a good idea to help improve your quality and length of sleep.”

foods that help you sleep

Liquorice root

Herbal adaptogens such as liquorice do just that, help the body adapt to extremes like stress. Nutritionist Jenny Tschiesche says “Modern living places a lot of strain on our adrenal glands. Liquorice root has been found to help regulate cortisol, the stress hormone produced by adrenal glands.

foods that help you sleep

Chewing liquorice root can serve two purposes, because while it’s giving our adrenals a break it can also distract from the state of anxiety by providing something to hold and chew. Liquorice can be enjoyed as a tea by infusing the shredded or powdered root in boiling water.”


This pungent smelling herb has a long history of use as a sedative because of its GABA boosting effects on the brain. Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a neurotransmitter that can dampen and reduce the activity of the brain’s neurons. The most popular use of this versatile herb is as a sleep aid.

foods that help you sleep

It also has pain-relieving and muscle relaxant properties that can bring relief if these are contributing to sleep loss. Valerian can be drunk as a tea by simmering the root in water for 15 minutes or as a herbal tincture.


Lavender oil consists of mainly linalyl acetate and linalool, both phytochemicals that are absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream. Research shows that these compounds inhibit several neurotransmitters causing a sedative effect. In folklore and traditional herb use, lavender has long been associated with peace and protection.

foods that help you sleep

Lavender essential oil can be added to a hot bath before bed or inhaled by putting a few drops on a handkerchief or in an oil diffuser. Lavender is especially effective with babies and small children and can form a relaxing part of a bedtime routine.


This pretty flower is a herbal sedative and can suppress the over-excitation of the nervous system. A 2011 study published in European Neuropsychopharmacology showed that the phytochemicals in chamomile have three effects on the central nervous system that contribute to the herb’s sedative properties. It binds to the GABA receptors, which in turn reduces the activity of the cells in the sleep centre of the brain.

foods that help you sleep

10 ways to have a better nights sleep

  • Cut out caffeine as this inhibits your brain’s sleep-time signals.
  • Get active, as physical activity supports healthy natural sleep triggers.
  • Beat the daytime stress as this can inhibit sleep.
  • Drink a calming herbal tea in the evening and help the nervous system relax.
  • Take a hot bath with magnesium salts and lavender oil before bed.
  • Don’t go to bed hungry as low blood sugar can trigger stress.
  • Try 5 minutes mindfulness or deep breaths before turning off the light.
  • Make bedtime a digital detox zone, as the light from screens can disrupt melatonin production.
  • Make sure your bedroom is properly dark with no light coming in, especially in summer.
  • A bedtime routine, association and repetition can establish positive sleep behaviour.

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