If you want to fit sweet zzzs into your life on a more regular basis, there's one dinner sleep experts recommend you try: fish crusted with nuts — and bonus points if you add mushrooms on the side.
There are a number of reasons why this is, but first, to be clear, there's no food that will make you sleep. In fact, there's still much research that's needed to clearly determine which foods are best for sleep.
"You're not going to have trials that perfectly pair up patients, their weight, what they eat, how they eat, the dose of a given nutrient and what form it comes in," says Raj Dasgupta, MD, FAASM, a pulmonary and sleep doctor and associate professor at the University of Southern California. "No matter what I recommend, it's not going to guarantee by itself that you're going to get good quality and quantity of sleep."
Instead, diet is one of the many puzzle pieces that can contribute to or help alleviate insomnia, which is difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep or having multiple awakenings during the night, Dr. Dasgupta adds.
"If you wake up in the morning and feel fatigued, have difficulty getting the ball rolling or are sleepy during the day, then we're talking about quality of sleep — assuming you're getting good quantity," says Dr. Dasgupta. "As for insomnia, you have to think of it like solving a puzzle and figure out which one of your puzzle pieces is missing. Those pieces might be light, sound, comfort, the temperature of your room or your diet."
If you think diet may be affecting your sleep, here are the benefits of trying nut-crusted fish with mushrooms for dinner to promote healthy sleep.
Why Eating Fish for Dinner Might Help You Get Better Sleep
1. You’ll Get Natural Melatonin
Nuts are a natural source of melatonin, which has been reported to improve sleep efficiency — and pistachios are particularly high in it, per an April 2017 review in Nutrients.
"Melatonin is a natural hormone released by the pineal gland, and it really helps you regulate your sleep and wake cycles," Dr. Dasgupta says.
Exposure to light decreases the secretion of melatonin, which can interfere with your circadian rhythm and affect your sleep, per Harvard Health Publishing. Blue light, the kind found in screens and energy-efficient lighting, has especially powerful effects. Harvard researchers found that 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light suppresses melatonin for about twice as long as green light of comparable brightness, shifting circadian rhythms by 3 hours versus 1.5 hours.
"Eating something like nut-crusted fish for dinner, when one's natural levels of melatonin are starting to increase in preparation for sleep, could hypothetically make it easier to fall and stay asleep," says Grace Pien, MD, pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine physician and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "There are several studies in which people following a diet high in nuts and legumes were less likely to have insomnia, or less likely to complain of being sleepy during the day."
Getting melatonin through healthy foods may also be a better alternative to using melatonin supplements, which are generally safe for short-term use but can cause side effects like headache, dizziness, nausea and drowsiness, per the Mayo Clinic. Melatonin supplements can also interact with medications like anticoagulants and anti-platelet drugs, anticonvulsants, contraceptive drugs, diabetes medications and immunosuppressants.
2. You’ll Get More Relaxation-Inducing Magnesium
Nuts are a good source of magnesium, which is also found in fish like salmon and halibut, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). More research is needed, but magnesium may play a role in healthy sleep.
"Magnesium is a muscle relaxant and, of course, when you go to bed, you want to be relaxed," Dr. Dasgupta says.
Researchers randomly allocated 46 older adults with insomnia into groups that took 500 milligrams of magnesium or a placebo daily for eight weeks in a December 2012 study in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences. Compared to the placebo group, the magnesium group had statistically significant increases in sleep efficiency and concentration of renin and melatonin, both of which are hormones that play a role in sleep regulation.
3. It’s a Good Alternative to a Meaty Dinner
If you're used to chowing down on meat for dinner, fatty fish like salmon might be a good occasional replacement for better sleep.
Researchers tracked self-perceived sleep quality and daily functioning — as well as vitamin D status, EPA and DHA (omega-3 fatty acid) levels and heart rate variability — in 95 males in a May 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
The fish group ate Atlantic salmon three times per week from September through February, while the control group received an alternative meal such as chicken, pork or beef with the same nutritional value as their normal diet. The fish group reported better daily functioning than the control group post-test, and the vitamin D status in the fish group was closer to an optimal level than the control group.
Vitamin D status had a negative correlation with actual wake time and a positive correlation with sleep efficiency pre-test, as well as as a positive correlation with daily functioning and sleep quality post-test.
That doesn't mean fish will necessarily improve your sleep over what you usually eat — but it could help you fare better in catching zzzs than meat will."The sleep measures were about the same at the end as at the beginning in the fish-eating group, and somewhat worse overall in the meat-eating group," Dr. Pien says.
4. Adding Mushrooms on the Side Provides Extra Benefits
Serve your nut-crusted fish with mushrooms for a satisfying meal that further promotes healthy sleep patterns.
"Mushrooms are my favorite secret sleeping pills," says Michael Breus, PhD, a sleep specialist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "They are loaded with selenium, potassium and all the important B vitamins we know we need for sleep."
Mushrooms also provide vitamin D, which regulates sleep-wake cycles and is especially important when days are shorter in the fall and winter, Breus adds. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with a higher risk of sleep disorders in an October 2018 systematic review in Nutrients.
Here are more perks of the other important nutrients found in mushrooms.
Lower selenium levels may be associated with sleep difficulty, which has been supported by research showing reduced obstructive sleep apnea symptoms with selenium supplementation, per a May 2013 review in the journal Appetite.
However, it's best to get selenium through food, and you likely don't need a supplement. Most Americans consume enough selenium, and too much can cause selenium toxicity, which may lead to severe gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms, acute respiratory distress syndrome and hair loss, per the NIH. Talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements, including selenium supplements.
People with lower potassium levels showed significantly decreased time in the first stage of sleep, periodic leg movement during sleep related to waking up and increased REM compared to the group with higher potassium blood levels in a November 2018 study in the journal Hypertension Research.
Compared to women, there was a significantly strong correlation identified between potassium and REM sleep in men.
REM sleep occurs about an hour to an hour and a half after you fall asleep, and is when you have vivid dreams, per the Cleveland Clinic. On the other hand, non-REM sleep is when you sleep deeply and it's harder to wake up.
B vitamins also show some promise: Three months of a magnesium-melatonin-vitamin B complex supplementation had a beneficial effect in the treatment of insomnia in a September 2019 study of 60 people in the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences.
Research has also shown that vitamin B6 deficiencies promote psychological distress and ensuing sleep disturbance and that vitamin B complex can be a helpful treatment for nocturnal leg cramps, per a 2008 study in the journal Sleep Medicine.
3 More Tips for Improving Your Dinner for Better Sleep
- Work sage into your recipe. Herbs like sage may also contribute to a meal that supports overall healthy sleep, Dr. Dasgupta says. Although research is needed to confirm the link, sage has long been used in Iranian folk medicine for its sedative and digestive properties and has been said to be helpful for insomnia, per a 2016 review from the Shahrekord University of Medical Sciences. Add sage to the nut crust you mix together for your fish.
- Enjoy chamomile tea after you eat. "For a long time, we know chamomile makes you sleepy, and chamomile tea may help some people sleep," Dr. Dasgupta says.
- Skip that glass of wine with your fish. Even though it may make you feel sleepy at first, alcohol actually keeps you in lighter stages of sleep throughout the night, causing you to wake up more easily and more often, especially in the later half of the night, per the Cleveland Clinic. In the long-term, alcohol can disrupt your normal sleep patterns and lead to nightmares, sleepwalking and breathing problems during sleep (which increases the risk of sleep apnea).
- Nutrients: "Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin"
- Harvard Medical School: "Blue light has a dark side"
- Mayo Clinic: "Is melatonin a helpful sleep aid — and what should I know about melatonin side effects?"
- National Institutes of Health: "Magnesium"
- Journal of Research in Medical Sciences: "The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial"
- United States Department of Agriculture: "Usual Nutrient Intake from Food and Beverages, by Gender and Age"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is Fish Healthy for You? And the Best Kinds to Include in Your Diet"
- Appetite: "Dietary nutrients associated with short and long sleep duration. Data from a nationally representative sample"
- National Institutes of Health: "Selenium"
- Hypertension Research: "Decreased serum potassium may disturb sleep homeostasis in essential hypertensives"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Sleep Basics"
- Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences: "The Effects of Magnesium – Melatonin - Vit B Complex Supplementation in Treatment of Insomnia"
- Sleep Medicine: "Vitamins and Sleep: An Exploratory Study"
- Nutrients: "The Association between Vitamin D Deficiency and Sleep Disorders: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Shahrekord University of Medical Sciences: "A review study of therapeutic effects of Salvia officinalis L"
- Complementary Therapies in Medicine: "The effects of chamomile extract on sleep quality among elderly people: A clinical trial"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Why You Should Limit Alcohol Before Bed for Better Sleep"