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5 Types of Food That Fight Senior Symptoms of Insomnia

Kara Lewis
By Kara LewisJuly 31, 2020
Elderly woman getting ready to take a bit of a red apple.

Getting a good night’s sleep can boost mood, energy levels, physical health, and mental well-being. With so many benefits to staying rested, sleeplessness — especially common in seniors — can pose serious problems. According to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 48% of older adults exhibit signs of insomnia, compared to less than one-third of the general population.

While a healthy amount of sleep enables the body to fight off disease, symptoms of insomnia include an increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and other conditions, warns Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. Daily exhaustion can also lead to irritability.

For seniors in particular, insomnia can aggravate symptoms of dementia and sundown syndrome, including confusion, depression, and anger, according to the National Institutes of Health. Minimize these risks and protect the health of your senior loved one by offering these recommended foods to eat before bed and throughout the day.

Turn to fruits to calm the nervous system

Wondering how to fall asleep fast? Reach for the fruit bowl. Not only are fruits a healthy, natural stand-in for sweet cravings, but many contain magnesium and potassium.

Does magnesium help you sleep? The answer is a resounding “yes.” These foods that help you sleep calm the nervous system by regulating stress levels, making deep sleep easier to attain.

Standout sleep-inducing fruits:

  • Apples and peaches are high in magnesium.
  • Cherries boast magnesium, as well as a high level of the sleep hormone melatonin.
  • Bananas remain one of the top-suggested fruits to eat before bed. They contain potassium and tryptophan, an amino acid that helps induce sleep. Tryptophan also helps the body produce serotonin, the brain chemical that triggers tiredness.

Speed up sleep naturally with complex carbs

Complex carbohydrates promote sleep in a couple ways: by triggering natural chemical reactions involving amino acids and, in many cases, preventing blood sugar fluctuations that may interfere with rest.

Complex carbs to help you sleep:

  • Brown rice, oatmeal, and popcorn contain high levels of the amino acid tryptophan. The whole grains found in these foods also naturally stimulate insulin production. This regulates blood sugar levels, a key part of how to fall asleep fast. 
  • Beans and potatoes drive two amino acids that induce sleep and can even overcome the effects of common sleep culprits like caffeine, according to a 2018 study in the Nutrition Research and Practice journal.

Increase serotonin and glycine with lean protein

Have you ever heard of the Thanksgiving “turkey coma?” You can attribute this sleepy sensation to an abundance of tryptophan, as well. Researchers at Purdue University found a strong connection between high-protein diets and high-quality sleep. Proteins like turkey are also considered melatonin foods because serotonin is used to make melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone.

Other lean proteins your sleep cycle will love

  • Fish, meat, and eggs are frequent snack recommendations of Michael J. Breus, a clinical psychologist and fellow at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Their high levels of glycine help lower body temperature, a key component in preparing the body for sleep.

Benefit from heart-healthy fats

Encourage your senior loved one to boost both their heart health and their serotonin levels with unsaturated fats. Note: Though sleep experts suggest health-conscious unsaturated fats before bed, they caution against saturated fats and trans fats, like pizza, french fries, and cake, which can enhance sleeplessness.

Favorite “good fat” foods for sleep

  • Avocados and nuts lead to an increase in the body’s serotonin. Specifically, pistachios’ melatonin levels make them a nighttime favorite.

Relax with a warm, soothing drink

A glass of warm milk is a classic bedtime ritual for a reason, but it’s not the only beverage that eases the nervous system.

Drink in good sleep with these calming concoctions

  • Herbal teas, especially chamomile and peppermint, can relax the mind and body to prepare for sleep.
  • Warm milk with honey acts as a natural sedative.

However, it’s best to introduce these remedies two hours before bed to limit late-night trips to the bathroom.

Foods to avoid before bed

Just as some foods can stimulate sleepiness, there are many foods that keep you awake.

Intense flavors and large meals that counteract sleepiness

  • Acidic and spicy foods can intensify the struggle to fall asleep, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine warns.
  • Heavy meals late in the evening can overwhelm seniors’ digestion. For help with sleep, turn to snacks.

Families can take extra care by consulting a doctor or dietitian. While these foods to eat before bed can help most seniors, experts can account for more specific dietary concerns.


American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Study suggests what you eat can influence how you sleep.”

American College for Advancement in Medicine. “To Sleep or Not to Sleep.”

American Sleep Association. “New Study: Improved Sleep with Weight Loss and High-Protein Diet.”

Breus, Michael J. “4 Sleep Benefits of Gylcine.”

Hong et al. “Two combined amino acids promote sleep activity in caffeine-induced sleepless model systems.”

Patel et al. “Insomnia in the Elderly: A Review.”

Kara Lewis
Kara Lewis
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