It’s 2 am, you are lying wide awake in your bed after tossing and turning for a couple of hours, and you don’t know if you’ll be able to fall asleep. If you have ever found yourself in this situation, don’t worry, you are not alone. Almost everybody experiences insomnia at some point in their lives. Insomnia is described as a difficulty to fall (sleep-onset insomnia) or stay asleep (sleep maintenance insomnia), or the term is used for general sleeping problems.
There are a few things that can help you with falling asleep faster and improving your sleep quality. We’ve all heard advice that a glass of warm milk before bed can help you sleep. But is it just an old myth that has been passed down by generations, or does science confirm this? The answer is not simple as it is a little bit of both, so read on to learn more about it.
What makes milk such a good sleep aid candidate? As it turns out, milk is rich in nutrients that can help people sleep. One of those nutrients is tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid used as a building block for many of the body’s proteins. One of the most common ones is serotonin, also known as the hormone of happiness. It is a precursor for melatonin, a hormone that has a role in our sleep/wake cycles. Melatonin is mostly produced at night, and it signals our brain that it is a time to go to sleep. Its production peaks during the night, and then it slowly fades as we approach the dawn. During the day, the production stops, and then it begins again in the evening, thus regulating when we should go to sleep, and when is the time to be alert and do our daily activities.
Beside tryptophan, milk is also rich in calcium that has many functions in the human body and cell functioning, and it is also important for sleep maintenance. However, researchers agree that the amounts found in milk are not enough to affect sleep. There is also a problem of a blood-brain barrier, as it doesn’t let tryptophan enter the brain easily. The blood-brain barrier is there to protect the brain from getting damage if something dangerous enters our bloodstream, but it also keeps larger molecules away, that could potentially be beneficial. Foods rich in carbohydrates induce the production of insulin which makes it easier for tryptophan to go to the brain. On the other hand, foods that contain lots of protein make it harder to happen, and milk is full of protein. Adding a little honey to your glass of warm milk might help, but it is less likely that you will enjoy benefits to your sleep from the physical perspective, but rather from a psychological one.
Since our bodies can’t produce tryptophan by themselves, we need to ingest it. Other foods rich in tryptophan include various fishes like salmon and cod, sunflower, chia, and other seeds, eggs, almonds, cashews, pistachios, spinach, beans, lentils, pork, chicken, turkey and many more. Tryptophan was long blamed for a food coma that many people experience after the Thanksgiving dinner since it is rich in tryptophan. We now know that you would need to eat around 40 pounds of turkey for it to have such an effect, so there is something other besides that phenomenon, and scientists are still trying to figure out what that is.
Milk’s Sleep Inducing Abilities
If levels of tryptophan are not high enough to help us sleep better, is drinking a warm glass of milk before bed for better sleep just a myth? Maybe not. As we said earlier, there is more to this than only the physical consequences of macronutrients. Researchers suggest that drinking milk before bed might remind people of those toddler days, when their caregiver would feed them before bedtime. This association is embedded deeply in our brains, and it evokes the feelings of calm and relaxation. It might also be due to your bed routine. If this is your usual activity before you go to bed, your brain knows it, and it starts to prepare for sleep as you drink your milk. Taking that few minutes to drink it may also help you unwind, away from screens and technology, and if you are relaxed, you are more likely to fall asleep faster.
The research of the effects that warm milk has on sleep started almost 50 years ago, in 1972. Researchers wanted to see the impact that the warm milk drink called Horlicks had on nightly rest. There were three groups of people studied, where one didn’t have anything to drink before bed, while the others had warm water or Horlicks. The results showed that the subjects who drank Horlicks before bed had less nocturnal movements, therefore concluding that they had better quality sleep.
A 2007 study looked into the effects fermented milk had on the sleep patterns of the elderly. Twenty-nine healthy subjects aged 60-81 had either fermented milk or a placebo drink before bed. There was an observable effect in sleep efficiency and a decrease of waking episodes in the group who had fermented milk, hinting that it could potentially be helpful to the sleep quality in seniors.
A 2015 article discovered that the milk that was harvested at night had higher amounts of tryptophan and melatonin. Night milk was administered to mice at various concentrations, and they were also given day milk to compare the effects. The animals given night milk showed decreased spontaneous locomotion and also impaired coordination and motor balance. The mice needed less time to fall asleep, and they had a longer sleep duration. It also looked like the night milk helped with some anxiety disturbances, as they behaved better in an elevated plus maze test. These are promising results, and it puts night milk as a potential natural aid for sleep and anxiety problems.
Combining milk with other sleep-inducing activities might be helpful for seniors according to a 2014 study. The researchers examined the effects the leisure-time physical activity and drinking milk had on older adults. It turned out that doing both of these activities significantly reduced the time that it took to fall asleep. Individuals who participated in both activities had less difficulty initiating sleep that people who did only one of these actions.
Although macronutrients don’t seem to play a role in sleep for otherwise healthy adults, it looks like the elderly, or individuals with some vitamin or melatonin deficiency could benefit from drinking a glass of milk. Vitamins B and D, as well as magnesium and potassium, could contribute to better sleep.
Tips For Better Sleep
We’ve mentioned some things that could help you sleep, and here is a short list of behavior and activities you can practice if you want to enjoy better sleep:
- Set a regular sleeping schedule and stick to it. That means going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This way, your brain will get used to your sleep dynamics, and you’ll enjoy better quality sleep.
- Develop a relaxing bedtime routine. Drinking a glass of milk can work for you, or you can try a non-caffeinated tea. You need to find what suits you best, and you can try reading, taking a hot bath, tending to a hobby, meditation, doing light yoga exercises, breathing exercises, or listening to mellow music. These activities work for most people, so try them out, and you can even combine them if it suits you.
- Create a sleep-promoting environment. Your bedroom should be cool, dark, and free of distractions. To achieve this, you can buy blackout curtains, try out white noise machines or use earplugs. Also, make sure that you are comfortable in your bed, so if you feel like it, invest in a new mattress, pillow, and bedding.
- Eat well and exercise regularly. We can’t stress out enough how important these are for your sleep and overall health. Enjoy a mixed diet with lots of fruits and vegetables for optimal results. Exercise moderately few times each week, and consider incorporating weight training at least once a week. Just make sure not to do it too close to bedtime, as they can raise your cortisol levels, and leave you feeling awake and alert afterward.
- Limit your caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol consumption. All of these ingredients are stimulants that can leave you wide awake in your bed, so avoid using them in the afternoons and close to bedtime.
- Finally, if you can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep no matter what you try, maybe it’s time to visit your doctor. These general tips can help in some cases, but if you are suffering from a sleep disorder, you need professional help. They’ll asses your situation, find what’s causing your sleep problems, and prescribe you the necessary treatment.
Dusan is a biologist, a science enthusiast and a huge nature lover. He loves to keep up to date with all the new research and write accurate science-based articles. When he’s not writing or reading, you can find him in the kitchen, trying out new delicious recipes; out in the wild, enjoying the nature or sleeping in his bed.