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5 Foods That Help You Sleep Through the Night as You Age

5 minute readLast updated September 2, 2021
Written by Kara Lewis

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. About 48% of older adults exhibit signs of insomnia, compared to less than one-third of the general population, according to the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

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A healthy amount of sleep enables the body to fight off disease, and not enough sleep leads to more than just tiredness. Several health conditions linked to lack of sleep include diabetes, obesity, and an increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Daily exhaustion can also lead to irritability and an increased risk of developing depression.

For seniors in particular, insomnia can aggravate symptoms of dementia, including confusion, depression, and anger, according to the National Institutes of Health. Insomnia can also make sundown syndrome more pronounced. Minimize these risks and protect the health of your senior loved one by incorporating these five, sleep-inducing foods into your loved one’s diet.

1. 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 also contain magnesium and potassium. Does magnesium help you sleep? The answer is a resounding “yes.”

Proven to help calm the nervous system by regulating stress levels, foods rich in magnesium are an excellent natural sleep remedy for the elderly and can help attain deep sleep easier.

Here are some standout, sleep-inducing fruits:

  • Apples and peaches are high in magnesium.
  • Kiwis are rich in antioxidants and minerals, most notably vitamins C and E, potassium, and folate.
  • Tart cherriesand tart cherry juice contain high levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, and they also include magnesium.
  • Bananas are one of the best 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.

2. 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, by preventing blood sugar fluctuations that may interfere with rest.

Look out for these 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 falling asleep. 
  • Beans and potatoes drive the production of two amino acids that induce sleep and can even overcome the effects of common sleep antagonists like caffeine, according to a 2018 study in the journal Nutrition Research and Practice.

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3. Increase serotonin and glycine with lean protein

Have you ever heard of a Thanksgiving turkey coma? You can attribute this sleepy sensation to an abundance of tryptophan. 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, which induces sleep.

Your sleep cycle will love other lean proteins, including fish, meat, and eggs. Allare 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.

4. 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 consuming healthy unsaturated fats before bed, they caution against saturated fats and trans fats like pizza, french fries, and cake, which can enhance sleeplessness.

Consider these favorite “good fat” foods for sleep:

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

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

Foods to avoid before bed

Just as some foods can stimulate sleepiness, many foods may keep you awake.

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Avoid 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 certain 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 Sleep Association. “High-Protein Diet Leads to Better Sleep and Weight Loss.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How Does Sleep Affect Your Heart Health?

Sleep Foundation. “How Magnesium Can Help You Sleep.”

Sleep Foundation. “The Best Foods To Help You Sleep.”


Meet the Author
Kara Lewis

Kara Lewis is a former copywriter at A Place for Mom, where she wrote dozens of articles related to senior living, with a special focus on veterans, mental health, and how to pay for care. Before covering senior living, she worked in journalism, media, and editing at publications. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The information contained on this page is for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical, legal or financial advice or create a professional relationship between A Place for Mom and the reader. Always seek the advice of your health care provider, attorney or financial advisor with respect to any particular matter, and do not act or refrain from acting on the basis of anything you have read on this site. Links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader; A Place for Mom does not endorse the contents of the third-party sites.

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