The best foods to help you get a better night’s sleep

What, when and how much you eat in the hours before bed have a big impact on your shut-eye, but new research suggests protein intake could also be key.

Whether you’re among the 48 per cent of Australians who struggle with sleep, or are just looking to catch more quality shut-eye, a 2022 study has found pre-bedtime protein could help.

The study found shift-working nurses slept better after eating protein before bed, suggesting this macronutrient could be the ingredient to a good night’s sleep.

While not all of us live the shift-work lifestyle, experts say these protein-powered findings are worth sleeping on.

How protein influences sleep

Protein is handy for the production of hormones – namely, sleep hormones.

“As protein is needed to synthesise melatonin (the sleepiness hormone), we need to be eating plenty of it,” sleep expert Olivia Arezzolo says.

Ultimately, we should be peppering our protein intake throughout the day for general health.

“Protein is essential for our energy, nervous system, immune health, muscles, hormones, bones, skin and hair, plus it keeps us feeling full and balances blood sugar,” nutritionist and naturopath Jean Jarrett says.

“Ensure all your meals include some protein and look at getting protein from a variety of foods.”

Most of us require 3-4 servings of protein each day and according to Jean, the usual suspects such as lean meat, poultry, eggs, fish, dairy, nuts and seeds are good go-to sources.

“Some of my favourite protein-rich snacks include protein balls, roasted chickpeas or seeded crackers,” she says.

“If you are really struggling, try a protein or collagen powder, which you can easily add to smoothies or drinks.”

What other foods can support sleep?

Fish is your friend! Jean says this nutrient-rich protein pairs perfectly with quinoa and salad for a dreamy dinner option.

“Fish is a great source of easily digestible protein,” she says.

“It also contains an amino acid called tryptophan, which we need to make melatonin.

“Quinoa is a good source of plant-based protein and fibre.

“If you follow a plant-based diet you can swap the fish for tofu or chickpea pasta – both are also sources of tryptophan.”

And for dessert? Dark chocolate satisfies both your sweet tooth and the body’s magnesium needs.

“I help my clients build positive sleep habits – these may include having a square of quality dark chocolate one hour before bed or in winter,” Jean says.

“A hot chocolate made with cashew nut milk is perfect.”

Magnesium helps the brain and body unwind before bedtime, according to a 2016 study.

“Magnesium-rich foods in the evening can be beneficial, as this helps the body relax at the time of ingestion,” Olivia says.

“Magnesium-rich foods include almonds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds, so a chia pudding is the perfect sleep-supportive dessert.”

Other diet tips to aid sleep

A quality sleep is one that meets the recommended 7-9-hour duration and restores the body.

“Ideally, you should be spending 20 per cent in slow wave (deep) sleep and 25 per cent in REM sleep,” Olivia says.

You can set the scene for a restorative sleep by paying attention to diet throughout the day.

“What you eat, when you eat and how much you eat in the hours before bed will most definitely influence your sleep, but you do also need to be mindful of what you eat throughout the day and how many stimulants you are having,” Jean says.

“Along with protein we also need B vitamins, magnesium, calcium and zinc for sleep and many people are deficient in these vitamins and minerals.”

When it comes to timing, Jean recommends your final food be consumed at least an hour before sleep.

“If you eat dinner early you might need a small snack one hour before bed,” she says.

“This helps produce melatonin and balance your blood sugar.”

Written by Hayley Hinze.