Can’t Sleep Well? You Might Be Lacking These 5 Nutrients

Dietitians explain why adding these foods that help you sleep can help you catch zzzs.
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It's official: More than a third of U.S. adults log less than seven hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. That's a pretty big problem — especially because chronic sleep deprivation is associated with health issues like obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Less-than-ideal sleep patterns can follow from a whole host of causes. "These include but are not limited to poor diet leading to nutrient deficiencies, gastrointestinal distress that prevents sleep and the absorption of nutrients, poor nighttime routines, exercise routines and poorly managed stress and anxiety levels," says Jennifer Maeng, RDN, a New York City-based registered dietitian and co-founder of the private practice Chelsea Nutrition.

Find out the five nutrients that may help boost your snooze time and the foods that pack them in.

One Thing to Keep in Mind

Just because you might be low in a nutrient doesn’t mean that's the reason you’re struggling to get enough shuteye. Always talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about potential causes of your sleep challenges and ask your doctor for a blood test to measure your levels of each nutrient before taking any supplements. No matter how “natural” they seem, supplements can interfere with other medications and may not be appropriate for everybody.

1. Zinc

"Zinc helps the body absorb nutrients by facilitating metabolic pathways and aiding in the growth and repair of body tissues," says Jennifer Cholewka, RDN, a metabolic nutrition support dietitian at the Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. The mineral also promotes a healthy immune system by maintaining a barrier to the skin, supporting gene regulation and playing a crucial role in the synthesis and action of immune cells, adds Cholewka.

How's zinc related to your zzzs? "Zinc, as well as magnesium, plays a role in the endogenous synthesis of melatonin," Cholewka says. "Maintaining adequate amounts of zinc helps to [produce] adequate amounts of melatonin, a derivative of the amino acid tryptophan and hormone that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle."

Our bodies don't store zinc, so it's critical that we get the mineral from the foods we eat daily, Cholewka says. "Meat is an excellent source of zinc, with a three-ounce serving of cooked ground beef meeting about 50 percent of our daily requirements for the nutrient. Shellfish is another great animal source of zinc, especially oysters, shrimp, crab and mussels."

If you stick to a vegetarian diet, opt for chickpeas, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds, which are all high in zinc as well. One note: Plant sources of zinc also contain phytates that render their zinc harder for your body to absorb compared to animal sources of zinc. "Heating, fermenting or soaking beans can help enhance their bioavailability," notes Cholewka.

In other news: Whole grains like quinoa, potatoes, eggs, dairy and even dark chocolate also contain zinc. "The easiest way to ensure you are meeting your daily zinc [requirement] is to eat a diet full of color and variety," says Cholewka.

Top Food Sources of Zinc

  • Oysters
  • Beef chuck roast
  • Lobster
  • Crab
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Pork loin
  • Cheese

Recipes to Try

Read more: 5 Healthy Bedtime Snacks That Can Help You Catch Better Zzzs

2. Magnesium

Magnesium is having a moment and for good reason. "Magnesium plays many different roles in our bodies, especially in the bones, cell membranes and chromosomes," says Maeng. "It's also important in the metabolism and synthesis of carbohydrates, fats, nucleic acids, proteins and glutathione, an important antioxidant."

According to Maeng, most people are able to get enough magnesium through a balanced diet. "Plus, our kidneys are able to regulate how much magnesium we excrete, especially when intake is low."

That said, magnesium levels can be low in people who have GI disorders like Crohn's or celiac disease, or any condition that can lead to prolonged diarrhea and nutrient malabsorption. "Long-term use of diuretics and low levels of the parathyroid hormone, exercising too much, chronic fatigue and stress can all lead to low magnesium levels, too," Maeng explains.

Part of magnesium's calm-bringing abilities has to do with the fact that the mineral — which is often referred to as "the original chill pill" — helps increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter that slows down thought processes and nerve activity and promotes sleepiness, per the National Sleep Foundation.

One October 2019 review published in the journal Magnesium Research reported that magnesium supplementation appeared to reduce subjective ratings of anxiety among people classified as "mildly anxious," as well as those struggling with PMS-related anxiety.

"If you do try taking a magnesium supplement for better sleep, be mindful of the dosage," says Maeng. "I usually recommend people start with 150 milligrams per day and increase as tolerated to 350 milligrams per day. Just remember: Before you reach for magnesium for better sleep, be sure to evaluate your caffeine intake, stress and anxiety levels, exercise routine and eating habits first."

Top Food Sources of Magnesium

  • Almonds
  • Spinach
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Cashews
  • Black beans
  • Peanut butter
  • Edamame

Recipes to Try

3. Tryptophan

Tryptophan usually gets its 15 minutes of fame around Thanksgiving, when everyone blames their food coma on the sleep-inducing essential amino acid. Spoiler alert: The nutrient probably isn't the only reason you need a nap after your turkey dinner — and it's actually present in plenty of other protein sources besides turkey, too.

As for the relationship between tryptophan and a good night's rest, it has more to do with the fact that the body metabolizes some tryptophan to create niacin (aka vitamin B3), which is then used to produce serotonin, a sleep-inducing neurotransmitter.

Here's a fun fact for carb lovers: Eating foods high in carbohydrates may help boost your serotonin levels, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The reasoning is that carbs cause your body to produce insulin, which gets rid of other amino acids in the blood and thereby facilitating tryptophan's entry into the brain. Cue the subsequent serotonin production.

Don't face-plant into a bread basket in order to reap the benefits of serotonin, though. Instead, make an effort to incorporate more of these nutrient-dense sources of tryptophan in your diet.

Top Food Sources of Tryptophan

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Soy foods
  • Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Beef
  • Cheese
  • Eggs

Recipes to Try

Read more: 5 Simple Steps to Get the Best Night of Sleep Ever

4. Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 (aka pyridoxine) is required for converting the amino acid tryptophan into byproducts like serotonin and melatonin, both of which are known to influence your sleep/wake cycles, according to a January 2009 review published in the International Journal of Tryptophan Research.

"Pyridoxine levels can be low in people with increased alcohol consumption, malabsorptive conditions such as celiac, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease or during pregnancy," notes Maeng. "Since about 75 percent of the pyridoxine we get from food is bioavailable, following a well-balanced diet is really the best way to ensure an adequate B6 intake."

Luckily, B6 can be found in both plant and animal foods. "B6 is most commonly found in fortified cereals, meat, fish, starchy vegetables and non-citrus fruits," Maeng adds. "Adults need about 1.3 milligrams of B6 per day, so one cup of cooked oatmeal (0.7 milligrams) with one ounce of sunflower seeds (0.23 milligrams) and one medium banana (0.43 milligrams) can provide 100 percent of your daily pyridoxine needs." Simple as that.

Top Food Sources of Vitamin B6

  • Chickpeas
  • Yellowfin tuna
  • Salmon
  • Chicken breast
  • Turkey
  • Bananas
  • Potatoes

Recipes to Try

5. Iron

Iron-deficiency anemia (IDA) and decreased iron intake have both been linked to shorter sleep duration in infants and adults, sometimes with long-lasting effects, according to a March 2017 review published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

For example, one longitudinal study published in Pediatric Research found that infants who used to suffer from IDA continued to experience altered rapid eye movement sleep (or REM) at four years of age, per the December 2007 research. What the researchers mean by "altered" REM is that their REM occurs during the beginning of the night and end of the night rather than in the middle — and they note that experiencing altered REM is linked to depression and anxiety.

Read more: 4 Ways Your Food and Your Mood Are Linked

To keep your iron intake up, make sure to include healthy sources of animal protein (think: oysters, chicken, turkey and lean beef) in your diet. If you're following a vegetarian or vegan diet, opt for tofu, spinach, beans, lentils and nuts. Be sure to pair plant sources of iron with vitamin C-rich foods like oranges and bell peppers, which help increase the bioavailability of the nonheme iron that's found in plant foods.

Top Food Sources of Iron

  • Lean beef
  • Oysters
  • Firm tofu
  • Beans and lentils
  • Dark chocolate
  • Spinach
  • Sardines

Recipes to Try