Even though most people would rather avoid taking sleeping pills, insomnia can be so unnerving that many sufferers will do almost anything to get some sleep.

But now there’s even more to worry about than the pills’ possible side effects, such as headache, nausea and diarrhea.

Startling new research: In a study of more than 34,000 men and women, regular use of prescription sleeping pills was linked to a more than fourfold increase in death and a 35% increased cancer risk over a two-and-a-half-year period.

Fortunately, there is a safer and better way to get a good night’s sleep—it can be as simple as eating the right foods at the right time.


Certain foods contain compounds that interact with your body’s natural chemistry to trigger the sleep process or to help maintain it. Include in your meals…

Tryptophan. Found in turkey, this essential amino acid is widely believed to be responsible for the sleep-inducing spell that overcomes people after feasting on the big bird at Thanksgiving. The postprandial drowsiness is, in fact, more likely due to carbohydrate-rich foods served with the meal. However, a diet that includes plenty of tryptophan-rich foods will help you feel less anxious and more relaxed, which can help promote sleep.

Tryptophan acts as a building block for the sleep hormone melatonin and the calming neurotransmitter serotonin.

EXTRA: For 28 more articles with a wide variety of information on helping you sleep, go to Bottom Line’s Guide to Better Sleep…No Sleeping Pills Needed.

Surprisingly, chicken and beef have about the same amount of tryptophan as turkey. Other sources include most animal protein and dairy products, such as milk and yogurt. Dates, peanuts and tofu also are good sources. What foods contain the most tryptophan per gram? Spinach, shellfish and egg whites.

Complex carbohydrates. When you eat complex carbohydrates, the body releases insulin, which not only metabolizes sugar but also removes amino acids that compete with tryptophan. This process allows more sleep-promoting serotonin and melatonin to enter the brain.

Complex carbohydrates include whole-grain bread, whole-grain pasta, beans, peas and brown rice.

Don’t make this mistake: Eating a heavy, fatty meal within four hours of bedtime—the body must work hard to digest a heavy meal, so your attempts to sleep will be disrupted.


Though scientists are not sure why, the spices garlic, nutmeg and turmeric have been shown to promote sleep—and so have the herbs dill, parsley and sage.

Consider cooking with these spices and herbs whenever you can. Drinking herbal tea with nutmeg a few hours before bedtime is also a good sleep promoter.


The vitamins and minerals essential to getting restful sleep every night include…

B vitamins, such as B-3 (niacin), B-6, B-12 and folic acid, which regulate the body’s use of tryptophan and other types of amino acids. Vitamin B–rich foods include: Broccoli, potatoes and whole grains.

Vitamin D acts as a sleep-promoting hormone in the body. The body produces vitamin D in response to exposure to sunlight. Getting 15 minutes of sunlight a day is important for adequate vitamin D—and for sleep. Foods that contain vitamin D include: Herring, salmon, tuna and vitamin D–fortified milk and cereals.

Calcium, which aids the brain in using tryptophan to produce serotonin. Calcium-rich foods include: Dairy products, leafy green vegetables and salmon and sardines canned with their soft bones.

Magnesium, which calms nerves and relaxes muscles to help promote quality sleep. Magnesium-rich foods include: Avocados, bananas, halibut, pineapple, almonds and tofu.

Zinc. A deficiency of zinc is associated with insomnia, so it helps to include foods with an abundance of this mineral in your diet. Zinc-rich foods include: Calf’s liver, oysters and other shellfish, wheat germ and pumpkin seeds.

My advice: Most people can get an adequate amount of these sleep-regulating vitamins and minerals by eating a balanced diet of whole, nonprocessed foods. Taking a multivitamin/mineral supplement that has these vitamins and minerals also helps ensure that you are getting enough of the nutrients.


It is best to stop eating three to four hours before bed so that the sleep process does not have to compete with the digestion process. However, if you had only a small dinner or ate early, don’t go to bed hungry. This elevates levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which will keep you awake.

The best bedtime snack has a small amount of protein plus some complex carbohydrates. It should have no more than 200 calories and be eaten at least one hour before bed so digestion doesn’t interfere with sleep.

Good bedtime snacks: Yogurt with banana slices, almonds and granola…a small helping of warm oatmeal with milk and banana slices…or, my personal favorite, a slice of cheesecake (this tasty treat’s carbs do the trick for me—just make sure it’s a small slice!).

Don’t make this mistake: Drinking alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol should be avoided within three hours of bedtime. Drinking it right before going to bed reduces the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is the time your brain organizes and stores memories.


If you’re trying to lose weight, you must get a good night’s sleep. A recent study published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that dieters who spent only five-and-a-half hours sleeping each night lost 55% less fat compared with those who slept for eight-and-a-half hours a night. The dieters who slept less had higher levels of ghrelin, a hormone that promotes hunger.