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The Best Bedtime Snacks—According to a Dietitian

A good bedtime snack can set you up for a sweet daytime sleep. But what to eat? Raina Beugelink has the answers.

My 5-year-old has this adorable habit – before we’ve even finished doing the dishes from supper, he asks what he can have for a bedtime snack. There’s just something comforting about that food before bed, especially if it involves warm milk.

You have probably heard mixed reviews on bedtime snacks. Things like, “Don’t eat before bed!” or “Don’t go to bed hungry!” Nutrition research can be a complicated and fast-changing world, and honestly, there is probably a little bit of truth in everything.

The link between food and sleep

Here’s one thing we do know for sure: there is a strong, cyclical connection between nutrition and sleep. Getting a bad night of sleep impacts your nutrition choices the next day, and the nutrients in your diet impact your sleep quality.

Keep in mind what you eat over the course of the day is going to have a greater impact on your sleep quality than what you eat right before bed. Diets that are deficient in certain nutrients (especially Vitamins D, B6, B12, zinc, and magnesium) will result in poorer sleep. Before you go shopping for supplements, know that all these nutrients are incredibly easy to hit through food. So as always, eating a good, balanced diet including all the food groups is the first step. There are some foods that are specifically linked to a good night’s sleep. So, let’s tackle the components of a good bedtime snack!

What makes a good bedtime snack?

You’ve probably heard of turkey being famous for inducing sleep (or maybe it’s just the food coma after Thanksgiving…). Truthfully, turkey is a rich source of the amino acid tryptophan, which is required to make serotonin and then melatonin. Any protein-rich foods that contribute to melatonin production are a good thing to include in snacks.

The magic of melatonin

Another good option is just foods that are rich in melatonin themselves. In general, diets rich in vegetables, fruits, and grain products contain considerable levels of dietary melatonin, but there are some clear winners that have higher concentrations. These include pistachios, walnuts, tart cherries, tomatoes, milk, salmon, grapes, and strawberries. Kiwifruit also seems to be a star when it comes to improving sleep quality!

What about that warm milk that my son loves before bed? Milk naturally contains hormones transferred from the cow at the time of milking, so there is some melatonin content in milk. Interestingly, the milk obtained from night milking is the richest in melatonin. I realize most of us aren’t trudging out to the barn to milk our own cows, but if you are, drinking that milk before bed can be very sleep-inducing!

The carbohydrate connection

The research around carbohydrates and sleep makes my head spin a little and it would take a sleep expert to interpret it correctly. Essentially, carb intake impacts different parts of our sleep (REM, NREM, slow wave, sleep latency etc). Low carb intake will improve some areas while high carb improves other areas.

Moderation in your carbohydrate intake here is the most common-sense approach. Choose carbs that have lots of fibre and nutrients (not just a chocolate chip cookie and warm milk). Why? You want to prevent a blood sugar spike right before bed because that will trigger an insulin spike, which can impact cortisol levels and inflammation.

Bedtime snack inspiration

All that is nice, right? But what do we eat?? Let’s pull it all together for some easy, balanced, sleep-promoting snack ideas:

Some of these may not seem to be traditional bedtime snacks, but the research does indicate that including fatty fish, cherries, kiwis, and nuts on a consistent or daily basis can help improve sleep quality!

Should everyone have a bedtime snack?

Now that we know what to eat, here’s the question: should everyone have a bedtime snack? Maybe not. Our bodies follow a circadian rhythm, which is strongly based on when are exposed to light and when we eat meals. Your chronotype (meaning whether you are a night owl or an early bird) determines your most natural rhythms and melatonin production.

Lean into your body’s feedback—you are always allowed to eat when physically hungry. Pay attention to how eating before sleep makes you feel. If you get a worse sleep, you might need to change what you ate, when you’re eating it, or how much. If you got a better sleep, great! That strategy might work well for you.

Eating even the most perfect bedtime snack won’t fix sleep issues caused by other things, but it just might help!

Last updated: 2023-10-16

Picture of Raina Beugelink, RD

Raina Beugelink, RD

As a registered dietitian working in private practice for almost ten years and now as an online dietitian, Raina brings her experience in weight management and chronic disease prevention to shift worker families across Canada. She's also luckily (and happily) married to a shift worker.

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