Annabel Smith

Not the most sensible supper for a good night's sleep, although it's unlikely a big piece of brie will give you bad dreams.
Not the most sensible supper for a good night's sleep, although it's unlikely a big piece of brie will give you bad dreams.

Chamomile tea and a glass of hot milk are popular remedies for sleepless nights. But just how effective are they in helping you hit the hay?

Experts say there is a lack of scientific evidence to support many theories about certain foods and sleep. But one thing they agree on is that it's best to avoid eating too close to bedtime. And while a few glasses of wine may help you fall asleep, they can wake you up later.

Dietitian and goodfood.com.au columnist Tara Diversi says: “There's no food that's like a sleeping tablet.” But eating an evening meal full of high-quality carbohydrates is a good foundation for sleep as it triggers the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that makes you feel tired.

Cherries are a source of melatonin, a hormone that helps promote sleep.
Cherries are a source of melatonin, a hormone that helps promote sleep. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

“Good-quality carbohydrates, things like wholegrain pastas and brown rices are good options to have with dinner,” Diversi says.

If you have eaten a carbohydrate-heavy meal such as a large bowl of pasta, you probably won't need an additional snack. If you've eaten something lighter, for example salmon and vegetables, it may be worthwhile having some complex carbohydrates before bed.

It's best to avoid going to bed hungry, so if you feel like a snack, Diversi says good options include dry, plain biscuits or crackers, yoghurt with no added sugar, a small handful of nuts, especially macadamia nuts, even a small bowl of porridge.

A handful of macadamia nuts is a good pre-bed snack.
A handful of macadamia nuts is a good pre-bed snack. Photo: Jennifer Soo

When reaching for a pre-bed snack, Diversi says you should ask yourself if you are actually hungry. She recommends avoiding “moreish” foods that you really enjoy as it will be difficult to limit your serving size. As a general rule, Diversi says bland foods are the best option so that you are less likely to overindulge.

A physician at the Australian Sleep Foundation, Maree Barnes, says establishing a routine is most important. "Particularly in the half hour just before you go to bed, you should be doing a routine that you don't have to think about, things that are comforting and relaxing,” she says.

Diversi also recommends creating a “ritual” before bedtime. A glass of warm milk or a herbal tea can be calming and Diversi says lavender and camomile are particularly soothing.

When establishing a ritual, avoid foods high in sugar or stimulants such as caffeine so that you are able to “switch off”.

“Habits are quite easy to create but difficult to break,” Diversi says.

Naturopath and health coach Gill Stannard recommends making a herbal tea mix. “As a herbalist my favourites are skullcap and passionflower, and you can add a little bit of sweetness with a pinch of licorice root or peppermint.

"Skullcap and passionflower help your muscles relax.”

Don't be fooled into drinking alcohol to help you sleep. Sleep expert Leon Lack of Flinders University says that as it's a relaxant, alcohol can make you feel sleepy and help you nod off earlier. But it later acts as a stimulant and can inhibit and disrupt your sleep.

“You might fall asleep a little bit quicker, it might take five or 10 minutes less, but the alcohol disrupts quality of sleep and causes a more agitated rapid eye movement sleep phase,” Lack says.

As for the commonly held belief that a feast of cheese will give you bad dreams, Lack says that while strong cheeses (and spicy foods) can be challenging for our digestive system, “there is no evidence of a direct effect on sleep patterns”.

But don't regard it as an old wives' tale just yet. Barnes says there is some scientific merit for at least one type of cheese.

“Some blue cheeses contain moulds which contain tyramine, and some people may be allergic and get a stuffy nose which could wake them up,” Barnes says.

So consider swapping that snack of blue cheese and crackers for fresh cherries. Barnes says cherries are high in melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone found in the brain's pineal gland. “Melatonin's function is to promote sleep,” Barnes says.

Out of cherry season, tart cherry juice is marketed as a sleeping aid, and may boost melatonin levels that help to regulate your body clock.

But ultimately, the mind is a powerful tool and it comes down to what you believe. “If you believe something relaxes you, then by all means use it," Barnes says.

So skip that wine and cuddle up with a cosy, warm beverage. Sweet dreams.