How To: When You Can't Sleep, Eat This

When You Can't Sleep, Eat This

Being able to sleep deeply and fully is one of the foundations for real health. When you go without it, you feel subhuman and incapable of dealing with the world—just ask a student who's had to pull an all-nighter or the parents of a newborn. In fact, many studies have shown that lack of sleep or irregular sleep is linked to acne, weight gain, and depression.

Video above: In the movie Fight Club, Edward Norton's character explains the pains and stresses of dealing with insomnia.

I dealt with insomnia for several years and it was, pun intended, a total nightmare. I was constantly irritable, exhausted, anxiety-ridden, and felt like I was performing only at a fraction of what I was really capable of. My ability to sleep drastically improved once I started practicing good sleeping habits (also known as sleep hygiene), cleaned up my diet, and committed to exercising every single day.

However, I still experienced sleeplessness more often than I liked. I don't like relying on pills or OTC medicines since most of them leave me groggy and hungover the next day. And while there are several food-based methods that can help alleviate insomnia, there's one sure-fire method that works for me every night, without fail.

Almonds Will Help You Get Your Zzzs

If, like me, you're the type of person who gets into bed and just can't fall asleep or get a truly restful deep night of sleep no matter how active you were during the day, eat an ounce of almonds about half an hour before bedtime. Raw almonds are best, but lightly roasted and salted work fine, although they may make you thirsty.

A couple of tablespoons of pure almond butter will work, too, if you don't have the whole nuts handy. I've heard almond milk will do in a pinch, but I haven't tried it out. Almond milk has undergone a lot of processing unless you make it yourself, and I prefer to stick with the whole food. Hands down, having a pre-bedtime snack of almonds is the most reliable method I've found for relieving insomnia.

From top to bottom: shelled and unshelled almonds. Image via Shutterstock

Almonds are little, er, almond-shaped nutritional powerhouses. One ounce, or about 23 whole kernels, have 76 mg of magnesium. (The general RDA is 300 mg/women and 400 mg/men, although it varies depending on age and pregnancy).

Could Magnesium Relieve Sleeplessness?

Magnesium is a crucial element that most Americans don't get enough of. It's vital for helping smooth muscles relax and has been studied for its ability to help alleviate insomnia in the elderly and restless leg syndrome.

In Magnesium and the Central Nervous System edited by Robert Vink and Mihai Nechifor, the researchers write that adults who have chronic sleep deprivation usually have very low levels of magnesium. They also note that magnesium is crucial for activating GABA receptors, which help your nervous system deal with fear and anxiety if your neurons are overstimulated.

Aside from magnesium, almonds also have copper, manganese, calcium, and potassium! Image via Shutterstock

The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University states most Americans are magnesium deficient. If you eat a diet high in processed foods, are elderly, or drink heavily, those may all contribute to possible magnesium deficiency. Leafy greens, nuts, and legumes are great sources of magnesium.

If you can't eat almonds or don't want to eat so close to bed, magnesium capsules work, too. 500 mg (the standard dosage in a single caplet) for mild insomnia is pretty effective. I've used them when I didn't have almonds handy or if I need a break from eating before bedtime.

These magnesium capsules are good to have around as a standby if you run out of almonds. Image by Karen Ahn/Food Hacks

If you're a hard case, I'd suggest going to up 1,000 mg, but be warned—some people say they've experienced diarrhea with higher doses. I myself prefer to eat almonds instead of taking capsules, mainly because I believe that eating whole foods makes the nutritional elements within them much more bioavailable.

Almonds Have Other Elements That Could Relieve Anxiety

However, while almonds are high in magnesium, they aren't the highest magnesium food around (pumpkin seeds most likely take that honor). Yet almonds are noted for being a superfood that cultivates calm, alleviates anxiety, and promotes relaxation and sleep.

Along with being a good source of magnesium, almonds contain a whole host of other crucial nutrients, like vitamin B12 (essential for regulating the brain and nervous system, copper (important for immune and nervous systems), and vitamin E (a powerful antioxidant that is crucial for immunity and protects cells from environmental damage and possibly aging).

Alternatives to Almonds & Magnesium Capsules

You can also make sure your diet is filled with other magnesium-rich foods to ensure a calm attitude during the day and an easy, restful sleep at night. Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, black beans, and dark, leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard are chock-full of magnesium and other incredible nutrients.

Confusingly, this variety of Swiss chard is named "perpetual spinach." Don't worry: either way, it's still tasty and good for you. Image via Suburban Tomato

In fact, if you don't like almonds, why not try pumpkin or sunflower seeds before bed instead? Their magnesium content is even higher than that of almonds—so much so that I'm contemplating switching up my pre-bedtime snack routine.

Nothing beats fresh-roasted pumpkin seeds. Image by WordRidden/Flickr

Some sources suggest that magnesium is better absorbed into your system when applied topically rather than taken orally. If you prefer that method, you can take an Epsom salts bath (Epsom salts are magnesium sulfate), but make sure you really soak in it for at least an hour to make sure you get the full effect, and air-dry rather than towel-dry, too.

If you don't want to take a bath, you can also buy magnesium oil (don't let the name fool you—it's really just dissolved magnesium in water, but it's labeled as oil) and spray that on your skin. You can also make your own if you're the DIY type.

More Sleep-Related Ideas

Need more help? Then be sure to check out Yumi's guides for eight tips (and eight more tips) for falling asleep, tips for falling back asleep in the middle of the night, and other snacks that can help make you sleepy. Also be sure to check out Heather's roundup of sleep hacks for some interesting nighttime reading.

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Cover image via Alyssa L. Miller/Flickr


"The Linus Pauling Institute at the University of Oregon states most Americans are magnesium-deficient."

You must mean Oregon State University?

Different types of magnesium do different things to the body. One stops you up (chloride) and another gives you diarrhea ( oxide - duh, milk of magnesia). A third kind has the least amount of side effects - magnesium citrate.

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