If you find yourself popping sleeping pills and still tossing and turning all night, you may want to look at a few foods you can add into your diet that will help you get a longer, deeper sleep.
Allow your sweet tooth to help you sleep: Who says we can't indulge a little and improve our health at the same time? Chocolate contains tryptophan and the brain chemical phenylethylamine known to promote our feelings of attraction, excitement and love. Chocolate is, in fact, one of the richest dietary sources of magnesium, a natural sedative that can greatly improve sleep. A deficiency of magnesium can result in difficulty sleeping, constipation, muscle tremors or cramps, anxiety, irritability, and pain.
Unsweetened cocoa powder provides almost 500 milligrams of magnesium per 100-gram serving. Other foods rich in magnesium are legumes and seeds, dark leafy green vegetables, wheat bran, almonds, cashews, blackstrap molasses, brewer's yeast and whole grains.
Move tea time later in the day: Though some teas contain caffeine, there are a few sleep superstars when it comes to tea. The next time you feel ramped up at night, instead of calm and relaxed, try a cup of lemon balm, sage, chamomile or Valerian tea (or, take a trip to your local tea store and get a variety of these teas).
As an added benefit, chamomile tea has been found to improve a range of ailments, from colds to menstrual cramps according to researchers in England. Drinking the tea also was associated with an increase in urinary levels of glycine, an amino acid that has been shown to relieve muscle spasms and act as a mild sedative. Meanwhile, scientists in Japan and the United Kingdom have reported that can improve blood glucose levels and reduce complications from diabetes. Opt for the fresh herbs and a tea infuser for a more potent blend. Steep for five to 10 minutes and add a dash of milk if desired. Consume 30 minutes to one hour before bedtime.
Go nuts for melatonin: Raw nuts such as almonds and walnuts are an excellent choice for healthful, filling snacks. And like seeds, certain nuts will not only help balance your blood sugar levels but are also high in both melatonin and tryptophan. Research from the University of Texas Health Science Center found walnuts are a (surprising) source of melatonin. Melatonin not only improves our sleep but it also offers antioxidant protection. So walnuts just might be your secret weapon against sleeplessness nights, as well as cancer, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, cardiovascular illness and type 2 diabetes.
The right type of juice: If you have seen the rows of tart cherry juice popping up in your local grocery store, there's a good reason why. In one study published in Natural Medicine Journal, participants drank 30 millilitres of Montmorency cherry juice one half-hour after waking and one half-hour before their evening meal (boosting exogenous melatonin intake by 85 micrograms daily). The results? Significant increases in time in bed, total sleep time and sleep efficiency with the cherry juice supplementation. I recommend drinking ½ - 1 cup an hour before bedtime for best results.
The seeds of relaxation: The body uses the amino acid tryptophan to produce serotonin and melatonin, both hormones that are essential for sleep. Serotonin is required to transmit nerve impulses from the brain and regulate mood in general. If you have trouble staying asleep or wake frequently throughout the night, you are likely low in these two hormones. The good news is that certain seeds rank really high in tryptophan, which will not only help you sleep but relax you overall.
For example, 100 grams of sesame seeds boasts over 1,000 micrograms of tryptophan. The same amount of chia seeds have over 700 mgs of tryptophan, while pumpkin seeds have almost 600 mg. Pumpkin seeds also contain zinc, which can assist the brain in converting tryptophan into serotonin. In fact, pumpkin seed powder is the new 'warm glass of milk' when it comes to sleep remedies (this is available at most health food stores). For a powerful evening snack mix ¼ cup of pumpkin seeds (or powder) with 1-2 tablespoons chia seeds and ¾ cup of unsweetened Greek yogurt.
Pack in some protein before bed: Carbohydrate-rich snacks such as breads, cereals, muffins, cookies and other baked goods prompt a short-term spike in blood sugar, followed by a sugar crash later on. When blood sugar drops, adrenalin, glucagon, cortisol and growth hormone are released to regulate blood glucose levels. These hormones can stimulate the brain, causing you to awaken and possibly stay awake. Try to avoid eating for at least two hours before going to bed. A high protein snack such as Greek yogurt or a protein smoothie with a few nuts and berries will provide a source of tryptophan while the sugars from the fruit may help the tryptophan reach your brain and take effect more readily.
Don't be thrown off by the scaly skin -- the exterior of this heart-shaped green fruit isn't for eating. Once ripe (it will feel soft to the touch), the skin turns brown, ABC News reported, and <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/WellnessNews/story?id=7095647&page=1#.UbdBpvY4U4c" target="_blank">inside will be a creamy flesh</a> that gives the cherimoya its nickname, the custard apple. The fruit tastes like a <a href="http://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/photos/15-fruits-youve-probably-never-heard-of/cherimoya" target="_blank">cross between a banana and a pineapple</a>, according to Mother Nature Network. (Don't eat the black seeds, either.) It boasts more fiber than an apple with seven grams per fruit, and it packs <a href="http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1860/2" target="_blank">60 percent of your daily recommended vitamin C</a> to boot.
Technically called the carambola, this tropical fruit is more commonly known as the star fruit, thanks to the shape of its slices. It can add <a href="http://www.womansday.com/food-recipes/cooking-tips-shortcuts/carambola#slide-5" target="_blank">tart flavor to seafood or meat dishes</a>, registered dietitian Mira Ilic told Woman's Day, and makes a tasty jam or chutney. Fresh, a medium-sized fruit packs only 28 calories, plus some <a href="http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1858/2" target="_blank">potassium, fiber and more than half your daily recommended vitamin C</a>, with the watery goodness of a watermelon and the <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/WellnessNews/story?id=7095647&page=4#.UbdGyPY4U4c" target="_blank">crunch of a cucumber</a>, ABC News reported.
Who shrunk the oranges?! These miniature bites may look cute, but they pack serious flavor in that tiny package. While they appear to be in the citrus family, <a href="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18828304" target="_blank">some botanists classify them as Fortunella</a> instead, NPR reported. Still, they share similar health benefits with lip-puckering citrus, namely <a href="http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1935/2" target="_blank">vitamin C and fiber</a> -- especially since <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/WellnessNews/story?id=7095647&page=3#.UbdGkfY4U4c" target="_blank">you can eat the whole thing, rind and all</a>. Just stay away from the "candied" variety; the syrupy sugar added to mitigate that natural tartness really only adds empty calories. Try kumquats sliced raw into salads or cooked into a chutney for seafood or meat dishes, NPR suggests.
Technically called a pitaya or pitahaya, this cactus -- yes, cactus! -- is a <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/11/dining/dragon-fruit-has-a-knack-for-getting-noticed.html" target="_blank">hot-pink showstopper</a>. "From the outside the fruit looks like a hot pink bulb ringed with a jester's crown of curly greenish petals," The New York Times wrote in 2011: <blockquote>Slice it open, and there's a white (or, on rare occasions, fuchsia) scoop of sweet pulp speckled with tiny black seeds. Either way, it suggests an Easter bonnet that Cruella de Vil might wear in a drag remake of "101 Dalmatians."</blockquote> Its taste, however, is much less flashy, which is why dragon fruit is often added to dishes (or drinks) with "soft" flavors, according to the Times, like strawberry or even rose petal. It's rich in fiber and antioxidants, CBS reported, and <a href="http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/07/16/the-latest-superfood-craze-pitaya/" target="_blank">may contain some healthy pre-biotics</a>.
This finger-like fruit has a lemony taste without the pulpy texture of citrus. The rind works well for zesting, registered dietitian Jennifer Dimitriou told Woman's Day, since it packs even more flavor than a more traditional citrus fruit. Plus, it's <a href="http://www.melissas.com/Products/Products/Buddha-s-Hand.aspx" target="_blank">loaded with vitamin C</a>. Just one tablespoon provides 13 percent of your daily recommended intake.
This spiky fruit could pass for a video game hazard. Also known as a horned melon or an <a href="http://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/photos/15-fruits-youve-probably-never-heard-of/african-horned-cucumber" target="_blank">African horned cucumber</a> (or "blowfish fruit," for obvious reasons), you only eat the juicy green insides, which <a href="http://www.womansday.com/food-recipes/cooking-tips-shortcuts/carambola#slide-6" target="_blank">taste like a mix of zucchini, cucumber, kiwi and banana</a>, according to Woman's Day and Mother Nature Network. Since the fruit is mostly water, kiwano can help keep you hydrated on a hot day, especially since it's <a href="http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/2462" target="_blank">rich in potassium</a>. The fruit also boasts <a href="http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/2462" target="_blank">vitamins A and C and some iron</a>.
The largest fruit to grow on trees <a href="http://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/photos/15-fruits-youve-probably-never-heard-of/jackfruit" target="_blank">can reach up to 80 pounds</a>(!), according to Mother Nature Network. Described as having a "buttery flesh," jackfruit is somewhat starchy and makes for tasty homemade chips. A number of curry recipes call for the fruit, although it <a href="http://blogs.villagevoice.com/forkintheroad/2011/07/you_dont_know_j.php?page=2" target="_blank">can also be eaten raw</a>, the Village Voice reported. It's a <a href="http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1930/2" target="_blank">good source of vitamin C and manganese</a>, a mineral found in the bones, liver, kidneys and pancreas that is also <a href="http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/manganese-000314.htm" target="_blank">essential for brain and nerve function</a>.
This lesser-known <a href="http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton/rambutan.html" target="_blank">relative of the lychee</a> deserves a share of the spotlight. The grape-like flesh can be eaten raw right out of the anemone-looking exterior -- <a href="http://www.womansday.com/food-recipes/cooking-tips-shortcuts/carambola#slide-10" target="_blank">just discard the seed</a>. The fruit contains some vitamin C, iron and manganese, but beware canned varieties which may be packed in sugary syrup.
Underneath that tough shell, the fruit of the mangosteen is <a href="http://www.mnn.com/food/healthy-eating/photos/15-fruits-youve-probably-never-heard-of/mangosteen" target="_blank">"sweet, tangy, citrusy and peachy,"</a> according to Mother Nature Network. It packs some fiber, iron and vitamin C and is a <a href="http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Folate-HealthProfessional/" target="_blank">good source of folate</a>, a B vitamin especially important for pregnant women. It can carry a hefty price tag fresh, but keep in mind that <a href="http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1953/2" target="_blank">canned versions often are packed in syrup</a> (read: sugar).
You've probably come across it in powdered form on your spice rack, but that turmeric actually starts out as a pretty gnarly looking root. It will take a little grinding or grating, but you can toss it into any number of dishes (or <a href="http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/831529" target="_blank">even smoothies</a>) to reap a number of health benefits. Those perks are likely due to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/curcumin-diabetes-type-2-turmeric-curry-spice_n_1720326.html" target="_blank">curcumin</a>, the active ingredient in turmeric, which acts as a powerful antioxidant. There's some research to suggest curcumin could help <a href="http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/herbsvitaminsandminerals/turmeric" target="_blank">fight off some types of cancer</a>, arthritis and even Alzheimer's disease, among other ailments, according to the American Cancer Society. Like other <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/08/healthy-herbs-spices-healthiest_n_2089007.html" target="_blank">herbs and spices</a>, turmeric is a way to add lots of flavor without lots of calories, salt or fat.
Follow Natasha Turner, ND on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drnatasha