Maybe you’ve heard that warm milk can soothe an anxious mind and help you get better sleep— this is due to the tryptophan and melatonin present in milk. Many people around the United States have tried this technique to fall asleep faster and get better rest. However, there are other more effective methods to get to sleep, including establishing better sleep hygiene habits.
In our article, we’ll explore the most common causes of insomnia and poor sleep as well as how to best treat it.
The Problem of Insomnia
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in the U.S., with millions of adolescents and adults having trouble falling asleep, waking up throughout the night, or waking up and being unable to fall back asleep. Acute insomnia can be caused by life stresses like a change in jobs, loss of a loved one, or moving to a different time zone. Underlying conditions like anxiety or depression are the leading cause of chronic insomnia.
There are many recommended remedies and medicines to treat insomnia, ranging from changes in diet to prescription sedatives.
Making lifestyle changes is the most effective way to manage conditions like insomnia. This includes setting a regular bedtime, managing stress, exercising, and avoiding a large meal right before going to sleep. However, if these techniques are not enough to help you sleep some nights, a glass of warm milk may be effective. Scientists say that warm milk can be one approach to getting better sleep, but not for the reasons many nutritionists initially assumed.
Nutrition in Milk Might Help
Drinking a glass of warm milk has been a soothing tradition for decades. No one knows exactly how this tradition began, but it was an integral part of bedtime or stress relief for centuries.
In trying to understand why warm milk seems to work as a treatment for stress and insomnia, nutritionists and scientists theorized that some nutrients in milk, along with the soothing temperature, could impact the ability to fall asleep.
Milk contains two nutrients widely known to improve or induce sleep.
- L-tryptophan: Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin in your brain. Theoretically, if you consume enough tryptophan, your brain will produce more serotonin a few hours later, which will make you relax and feel good. In turn, this may help you sleep.
- Melatonin: This sleep hormone is available in over-the-counter dietary supplements to improve sleep. Melatonin regulates sleep and your brain starts to produce it an hour or two before you feel tired. Once the hormone builds up in your brain, you will fall asleep.
Throughout the night, melatonin dissipates. In a person with a healthy circadian rhythm, the depletion of this hormone allows you to wake up in the morning after a restful night.
Milk from dairy cattle contains both of these nutrients, but scientists now say that the levels in one serving of warm milk are not enough to impact your sleep. Drinking milk as part of a daily routine provides your body with nutrients, so your brain can use them to regulate your sleep better. However, milk is not the only source of either nutrient.
That said, medical researchers agree that warm milk does help some people go to sleep, but they believe the reason is more psychological than physical.
Psychological Links With Warm Milk Improve Sleep
Although warm milk may not have the right chemistry to induce sleep, it can still help. Considering many people associate warm drinks with relaxation, people who believe warm milk will help them sleep may see results through the placebo effect.
The brain likes routines, especially around bedtime. Sleep specialists who treat people with insomnia often have their patients practice sleep hygiene, which includes creating a soothing bedroom space with an associated evening routine to help the brain relax.
Some of the essential tools associated with sleep hygiene are based on routine. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day will cement your circadian rhythm and give you enough sleep. Exercise, a healthy diet, lighter dinners, and soothing rituals that do not involve electronics are also recommended parts of sleep hygiene.
If you were given warm milk as a child and your parents told you it would soothe you and help you sleep, these associations can benefit you as an adult. However, if you did not drink warm milk growing up, but think it could help you feel better, the routine is the most important aspect.
- The process of warming up a serving of milk can make you feel better since you are taking care of yourself.
- The ritual of making warm milk takes you away from electronics, so you are exposed to less blue light, which is often processed as daylight.
- If you prepare warm milk to help you sleep at the same time every night, starting this process will become associated with getting ready for bed.
There are properties of drinking milk, in general, which can also benefit your sleep long-term.
- The nutritional content of milk can improve physical health.
- The protein in milk helps you feel fuller, and eating a lighter dinner enables you to sleep better.
- Milk consumption is associated with limiting weight gain, so you will feel more physically comfortable as you sleep and are less likely to have chronic pain.
Instead of drinking warm milk, you may consider other soothing routines, such as journaling, dimming the lights in your room, taking a warm bath, or reading a book.
Non-Dairy Options to Help You Sleep Well
If warm milk does not work for you, the following are other options that could help you get the necessary vitamins and minerals to improve sleep:
- Tea: Herbal teas— specifically chamomile, Valerian, lavender, and lemon balm— make a great warm milk substitute. Avoid teas with caffeine, like black or green tea, as these can keep you awake for longer and may trigger anxiety. Herbs like chamomile and lemon balm have long been associated with an increased sense of relaxation. Drinking a warm beverage can be soothing to your body, similar to a warm bath.
- Healthier snacks: Eat more whole grains and fewer simple or “white” carbs, as they cause a spike in your blood sugar and can make it more difficult to sleep. Eat more nuts, which have heart-healthy fats, to feel fuller. Avoid spicy or fatty foods that might cause indigestion. Enjoy some cherries or tart cherry juice, which has melatonin and is a good source of other important minerals.
- Dinner planning: Fish like halibut, salmon, and tuna have vitamin B6, which is vital in the production of melatonin. Whole grains contain magnesium, which helps relax your muscles. Dark, leafy green vegetables are high in fiber and many great minerals, so you feel full after eating a smaller meal. This will help you sleep better.
If you have trouble sleeping, you should avoid certain foods and drinks close to bedtime, such as:
- Caffeine, especially coffee.
- Fried food, especially fried carbohydrates.
- Spicy, salty, or acidic foods like hot wings.
- Dark chocolate.
- Soda or juices with high sugar content.
Ultimately, warm milk as part of your bedtime routine can be beneficial, but consider substitutions if dairy is not right for you. Sleep specialists agree that warm milk has no inherent benefits that work for everyone, but if it has positive, calming associations, your sleep quality may improve.
If you adjust your diet, exercise routine, and sleep hygiene practices and still struggle to sleep, it may be time for a new mattress. You may be more physically uncomfortable at night than you think, especially if you’re not sleeping on the best mattress for your body.