Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your body’s sleep cycle. Foods that are rich in tryptophan increase the amount of melatonin your body produces and help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep throughout the night.
Eat These 10 Foods With Melatonin for a Better Night’s Sleep, Naturally
The “hormone of darkness” isn’t as scary as it sounds.
It should come as no surprise that we love our beauty rest. From tips to getting a better night’s sleep to tricks for falling asleep faster, we have the tools to help you clock your Z’s. And given the busyness of our day-to-day lives, it’s especially important to prioritize sleep. After all, not clocking enough hours can lead to slower cognitive function, more cravings, irritability, and more. Along with establishing good sleep hygiene—like a nighttime routine—did you know that nutrition plays a role in how well you sleep? That’s right. Your diet can greatly impact the sleep you are (or aren’t) getting. Today, we’re diving into the power of melatonin and foods high in melatonin.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about melatonin and delicious recipes to get you started. A good night’s rest might be a handful of pistachios away.
- Double-certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and Nutrition Consultant
Edie is the founder of nutrition coaching business, Wellness with Edie. With her background and expertise, she specializes in women’s health, including fertility, hormone balance, and postpartum wellness.
What Is Melatonin and Why Do We Need It?
Known as the “hormone of darkness,” melatonin is produced in response to nighttime. It is essential for good sleep. In essence, melatonin helps with the timing of our circadian rhythm (24-hour internal clock). Located in the middle of the brain, this unique hormone is created by the pineal gland. It functions with the sun. Meaning, more melatonin is made when the sun goes down, and less melatonin is made when the sun comes up. Although most people produce enough melatonin for their general needs, research shows that foods high in melatonin can improve sleep.
Melatonin’s Effect on the Body
Melatonin’s main job is to regulate night and day cycles. Said differently: Melatonin manages our sleep-wake cycles. Darkness causes the body to produce more melatonin, signaling the body to prepare for sleep. Light, on the other hand, decreases melatonin production. In turn, light signals the body to prepare for wakefulness. By viewing light first thing in the day (hello, sunlight!), you set in motion these two timers—one for wakefulness that starts immediately and one for sleepiness that starts later in the day.
Blue Light Exposure Leads to Melatonin Suppression
Whether you’ve stayed up answering emails, finishing a lengthy work task, aimlessly scrolling through social media, or binging episodes of your favorite shows, we’ve all spent late nights in front of a screen. Thus, we’ve all felt the effects of too much blue light. Blue light is a portion of the visible light spectrum. It can have unique effects on alertness, hormone production, and sleep cycles. This wavelength of light is emitted by LED, fluorescent lights, as well as most electronic devices.
The issue with too much blue light, especially at night, is it makes falling asleep much more difficult. In fact, recent studies show that indoor room light (i.e. blue light from fluorescent bulbs) can elicit strong melatonin suppression. This suggests that individuals who habitually expose themselves to light during nighttime hours can experience reduced melatonin levels. In turn, perturbed sleep rhythms. To improve sleep, invest in a pair of blue blocker glasses, switch your device to “nighttime mode” after the sun goes down, and make your bedroom a screen-free zone.
Sleep Deprivation: How It Impacts the Brain
If melatonin is suppressed, sleep deprivation is a typical consequence. Being sleep deprived leaves your brain exhausted, body hungry, and much more. Particularly when it comes to brain health, sleep is key. When you’re tired, your brain can’t perform its duties as well. You may also find it more difficult to concentrate or learn new things. Furthermore, the signals your body sends to your brain may also be delayed, decreasing your coordination and increasing your risk for accidents. Long-term, clocking less than seven hours (consistently) means the brain has less time to clear beta-amyloid, and toxic levels can raise the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
How Diet Plays a Role in Sleep
Everything from exercise, to time spent in the sun, to how many hours we spend looking at our phones can impact sleep. All of those factors, in combination with the foods and drinks we consume, make a difference. While it may seem obvious why a double espresso after dinner (or a greasy, late-night cheeseburger) isn’t the best for restful sleep, the connection between daytime eats and nighttime sleep is less straightforward. However, we know that eating a healthy and nutrient-rich diet affects our brain health and our blood sugar levels. These, in turn, affect the quality of our sleep.
Food Helps Regulate Our Circadian Rhythm
In essence, eating less fiber, more saturated fats, and more sugar throughout the day is linked with lighter, less restorative sleep. In one study, researchers tracked diet and sleep for a group of healthy adults over the course of five nights and found that indeed, food choices during the day did affect sleep—and not in a good way. As you can guess, there’s also a connection between sleep and how we metabolize food. Diet and food choices help regulate our circadian rhythm, meaning that what we eat helps us fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake up readying to re-fuel.
Do I Need a Melatonin Supplement?
Stroll the vitamin aisle at your local grocery store or supermarket, and you’ll likely find melatonin supplements. Thanks in part to the pandemic, melatonin sales jumped 40% in 2020. At any rate, you might be wondering: My sleep isn’t great, should I take a melatonin supplement? This depends.
Melatonin is generally safe for short-term use, but studies on its long-term effects are limited. The immediate side effects of melatonin are typically mild, but it can cause dependency, headaches, short-term feelings of depression, daytime sleepiness, dizziness, stomach cramps, and irritability. Additionally, melatonin can have strong effects on our sex steroid hormones (the pathways related to estrogen and testosterone). All in all, there may be more downsides than upsides to taking melatonin. Of course, speak with your doctor before adding melatonin to your supplement routine.
10 Foods High in Melatonin
If you’re interested in altering your diet before trying a melatonin supplement, you’re in good hands. Luckily, you don’t need to fill your pantry and fridge with superfoods. Rather, think of the Mediterranean diet. Consuming a variety of plant and / or animal-based foods can do the trick—helping you naturally increase melatonin. Melatonin is present in many ingredients, including tart cherries, eggs, milk, and fish. These foods are high in melatonin to help you sleep:
- Tart cherries: Containing sleep-promoting properties, tart cherries are touted as a natural source of melatonin. In fact, researchers have found that tart cherry juice increases melatonin levels in the body and enhances sleep.
- Pistachios: Pistachios hit the sleep-inducing jackpot. The melatonin found in foods like pistachios won’t make you groggy, but it may signal your body that it’s time to sleep. Furthermore, pistachios contain protein, vitamin B6, and magnesium, all of which contribute to better sleep.
- Eggs: Among animal products, eggs are one of the best sources of melatonin. Eggs are also highly nutritious, offering protein and iron, among other essential nutrients. Plus, they’re a rich source of tryptophan, necessary for restful sleep.
- Milk: Like eggs, milk contains ample levels of melatonin and tryptophan. In fact, studies have shown that milk harvested at night (Night milk) contains exceptionally high amounts of tryptophan and melatonin.
- Sardines: Fish with bones, such as sardines, may help to promote healthy melatonin production when you need it.
- Salmon: A better source of melatonin than other meats, salmon is a good source of vitamin B6, which promotes the production of sleep hormones. Plus, salmon is high in protein, helping keep you full throughout the night.
- Almonds: Along with pistachios, almonds are a great source of melatonin and magnesium (sleep-enhancing mineral). Both of these properties support the notion that almonds are helpful to eat before bed.
- Figs: Figs are rich in magnesium, fiber, and melatonin. These are all directly linked to improving the quality and duration of sleep.
- Oats: Grains in oatmeal trigger insulin production much like whole-grain bread. In essence, they raise your blood sugar naturally and make you feel sleepy. Oats are also rich in melatonin, which relaxes the body and helps you fall asleep.
- Sweet potatoes: Similar to oats, sweet potatoes stimulate melatonin production and gradually energize your body throughout the night, increasing the duration of your sleep.
Delicious Recipes for Restful Sleep
Tart Cherry Juice Elixir by Abra’s Kitchen
Along with cherries and chamomile, honey contributes to a restorative sleep by supporting the release of melatonin in the brain. Honey triggers small spikes in insulin levels which helps to stimulate the release of tryptophan in the brain, tryptophan is converted to serotonin, which is converted to melatonin. Add this delicious, soothing elixir to your nighttime routine.
Jessica’s Pistachio Oat Square by Love and Lemons
These six-ingredient pistachio oat squares are a lightly sweet healthy snack, breakfast, or dessert. They’re easy to make, vegan, and gluten free. The perfect evening treat.
Easy Breakfast Tacos by Gimme Some Oven
These delicious breakfast tacos come together in under 30 minutes, they’re naturally vegetarian (or you’re welcome to add meat), and are always a crowd fave. Breakfast for dinner, anyone?
Homemade Hot Chocolate by Celebrating Sweets
Who doesn’t love creamy, homemade hot chocolate? A combination of cocoa powder and chocolate chips makes this hot chocolate extra flavorful and delicious. Ready in minutes to satisfy your sweet cravings (and lull you to sleep).
Mediterranean Sardine Lemon Pasta by Tori Avey
Sardines, fresh lemon juice, capers, chili flakes, and olive oil combine to create a flavorful pasta dish. Best of all, most of the ingredients are probably in your pantry or fridge. The result? A light yet filling, nourishing, and melatonin-packed entree.
5-Minute Broiled Salmon With Curried Cauliflower and Greens
Short on prep by big in flavor, this salmon dish is nourishing, satiating, and loaded with omega-3s. Roasted cauliflower, crispy chickpeas, and lightly bitter arugula make this a complete meal—full of healthy fats, fiber, and protein, greens, fiber. All the good stuff.
Perfect Paleo Brownies by 40 Aprons
These gluten-free, paleo brownies are simply perfect: They’re fudgy and dense with a crunchy, crackly top and chewy edges. Not only that, but these brownies are quick and easy to make. Made with almond and coconut flour, they’re grain-free and dairy-free. Who said the best brownie couldn’t be healthy too?
Raw Fig Bars by The Healthy Maven
Not sure what to do with a pint of fresh figs? These raw fig bars are the answer. The entire recipe is raw and grain-free, and it only requires 30 minutes in the freezer before they’re ready. Vegan and gluten-free, they’re the perfect snack or healthy dessert. Foods high in melatonin never tasted so good.
Pumpkin Oat Bars by Erin Lives Whole
Black Bean Stuffed Sweet Potatoes by Food With Feeling
If you’re looking for an easy and filling vegetarian dinner idea, you’re going to love these black bean stuffed sweet potatoes. They come together with just a few simple ingredients and are very easy to customize based on your personal preferences.
Food With High Melatonin
No recommended dietary allowance (RDA) has been established for melatonin. When it comes to melatonin supplements, some experts recommend a dosage of around 0.5 to 3 milligrams for sleep-related issues. Higher doses may cause daytime drowsiness.
Most food databases do not list the amount of melatonin in foods, but according to available research, these six foods are good sources of melatonin:
- Tart Cherries
Tart cherry juice is one of the best-known sleep aids. Researchers have found that it increases melatonin levels in the body and enhances sleep. Keep in mind that cherry juice is high in sugar. Drinking it nightly could significantly raise your intake of calories. Eating cherries instead of drinking their juice is a healthier way of getting melatonin.
- Goji Berries
Produced by a plant native to China, goji berries have been touted for their anti-aging effects. They are also high in melatonin and may improve sleep.
Among animal products, eggs are one of the best sources of melatonin. Eggs are also highly nutritious, offering protein and iron, among other essential nutrients.
Warm milk is a traditional remedy for insomnia, so it’s no surprise that it’s high in melatonin. It could be a good option if you tolerate dairy.
Fish is a better source of melatonin than other meats. The best options are oily fish like salmon and sardines, which also provide valuable omega-3 fatty acids.
Most nuts have a good amount of melatonin. Pistachios and almonds are among the highest. Nuts also are an excellent source of many antioxidants, healthy omega-3 fats, and minerals.
Why You Need Melatonin
A lack of sleep negatively impacts your health. It impedes learning and increases insulin resistance, which can progress to diabetes. It can also disrupt hunger hormones, meaning you may end up eating more than you normally would.
Scientists are still learning about the importance of melatonin. Although it’s best known as a sleep aid, melatonin has a range of other potential health benefits:
There’s little evidence that melatonin is effective against chronic insomnia. But if you’re experiencing jet lag, it may help you return to a normal sleeping pattern. It can also help patients sleep before surgery.
Better Sleep Patterns in Adults
People with delayed sleep-wake phase disorder often stay awake until early morning and sleep until around noon. Melatonin may help them maintain a more normal sleeping pattern.
Better Sleep Patterns in Children
Melatonin may also help children with certain conditions that disrupt sleep. These include asthma, dermatitis, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Because melatonin is a hormone, children should not take it without a doctor’s approval.
Brain Health in Older Adults
Melatonin levels naturally fall with age. Boosting them could help prevent brain disorders later in life. Both animal and human studies have discovered that melatonin could lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease.
Melatonin performs several valuable functions in the human eye. Supplementation has shown benefits for those with age-related macular degeneration. Researchers think lower melatonin levels in older adults could contribute to the disorder.
Eat Foods with Melatonin & Improve your Health
Long-Term Supplement Use
While melatonin supplements are found over-the-counter in almost any health food store or pharmacy, there are questions regarding long-term supplementation.
Some experts report that if one uses melatonin supplements for a long period of time, the body will stop both producing and responding to its own melatonin – but there is little science to back this up.
While there have been studies done on long-term melatonin supplementation, there is no solid evidence that suggests melatonin production will decline after long-term use by healthy people. In fact, the reason why melatonin is an over-the-counter supplement is that there have been so many studies touting its safety.
There is, however, science suggesting that long-term side effects of melatonin do not exist. In one meta-analysis of more than 16,000 subjects from 19 studies, melatonin was shown to not lose its effectiveness with continued use.
While supplementation is very safe for short-term circadian sleep resetting and jet lag, establishing your needs and the correct dosage is very important. Melatonin supplements sometimes come in very large dosages, as high as 10mg per pill, which should be avoided until you know your personal needs.
M.I.T. studies by Dr. Richard Wurtman suggest that an effective dose of melatonin could be as low as .3mg to 1mg, suggesting that only a very small amount of melatonin may be needed to reset our circadian clocks. That said, there are many studies linking numerous health benefits of melatonin supplementation at higher dosages, which I will be addressing in future articles.
Before considering melatonin supplementation, I suggest getting your melatonin levels tested. Then, if your levels are low, try supporting your melatonin levels with melatonin-rich foods – see the list below.
Melatonin in Food
Since melatonin is one of the oldest molecules on the planet and every life form is dependent on the light/dark cycles, it is not surprising that melatonin is found in almost every plant. Some plants actually have quite a bit of melatonin and can be used very successfully (instead of resorting to a supplement).
In a study at M.I.T., researchers discovered that tart cherry juice was an effective sleep tonic. In a previous study, while measuring the effects of tart cherry juice for its anti-inflammatory benefits as a sports recovery drink, some of the subjects reported better sleep. Further studies revealed that the tart cherries were very high in botanical melatonin!
One study measured two groups of older men. One group received tart cherries and the other group received a placebo. The tart cherry juice group fell asleep faster and woke up less during the night compared to the placebo group.
To follow up that study, researchers measured melatonin levels after drinking the Montmorency tart cherry juice and, once again, saw improvements in sleep time, quality and efficiency that were very likely due to a boost in melatonin levels. Since this study was published, tart cherries have become quite famous for boosting melatonin and sleep quality, but there are many additional foods to consider to amp up your melatonin levels naturally!
According to Dr. Michael Greger, walnuts, flaxseeds and tomatoes are high in melatonin. Fenugreek and mustard seeds, as well as raspberries and almonds, are very high, but the highest of all are goji berries or Lycium berries.
Foods With Melatonin Table (ng/100g*)
|Tart (sour) cherry juice concentrate||17,535|
|Tart (sour) cherries||1,350|
|Underripe banana (pulp)||31.40|
|St. John’s wort||19.61|
|Ripe banana (pulp)||18.50|
|Concord grapes (skin)||3.24|
|Red grapes (pulp)||2.27|
|Red grapes (whole)||1.94|
|Concord grapes (pulp)||1.92|
|Concord grapes (whole)||1.71|
|Red grapes (skin)||1.42|
In general, diets rich in vegetables, fruits and grain products contain considerable levels of dietary melatonin. Vitamins and minerals from these foods contribute to the synthesis of endogenous melatonin.
Coffee and Melatonin
The studies on coffee are mixed. Coffee is a stimulant from the effects of caffeine, and melatonin is the body’s sleep hormone. Logic will tell you that caffeine will inhibit melatonin production—and it does. Many of the constituents in coffee actually help boost melatonin levels by as much as 32 percent, but other studies suggest that at night the caffeine will block melatonin production—neutralizing the naturally-occurring melatonin in coffee