Does warm milk really make for better sleep?
It’s a popular idea, that much is sure – but whether the science backs it up is another question entirely.
Today, we take a close look at the truth behind the legend of warm milk.
The Case for Warm Milk
The case, as its presented by the milk-mongers among us, goes something like this.
Milk is rich in two key nutrients: the hormone melatonin and the amino acid tryptophan.
Melatonin is one of the hormones most strongly connected to sleep.
Sometimes called the “hormone of darkness,” your body starts producing it sometime a little after dark, and its levels in your bloodstream continue to increase until around the middle of the night.
If you’ve ever seen melatonin pills in the dietary supplements section of your local drug store, that’s because it’s the #1 most-used sleeping aid in the United States today!
Tryptophan, meanwhile, is a necessary nutrient that your body is simply unable to produce on its own.
Commonly found in foods like milk, turkey, chicken, and eggs, tryptophan is what your body uses to produce its melatonin and serotonin (another hormone linked to sleep).
From this, it seems pretty clear why milk is a go-to option when it comes to getting to sleep.
Why That’s All Bogus
Well, not quite.
The thing is, milk doesn’t include either of those two chemicals in any dosage big enough to do anything.
The amount of melatonin in a glass of milk isn’t enough to produce any kind of noticeable effects – and in any case, it would be far less than the amount you’d get from a non-prescription melatonin pill.
As far as tryptophan goes, meanwhile, not only are its levels in milk pretty negligible, but they’re also almost certainly unnecessary.
Unless you’re for some reason suffering from a tryptophan deficiency, there’s no reason why any amount of it would make you sleepy.
Are There Foods That Do Make You Sleepy?
So, in terms of nutrition alone, the science seems pretty clear: no, warm milk is not an effective sleep aid.
But of course, milk is by no means the only food out there said to improve sleep.
If you’re reading this in America, for instance, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a pretty popular myth around Thanksgiving time that turkey is another powerful sleep aid.
The story there is similar to that of warm milk: turkey contains tryptophan, so the more of it you eat, the sleepier you get.
Just like with milk, this story is pretty much entirely untrue – turkey has roughly the same amount of tryptophan as chicken, and most people don’t feel their eyelids drooping after a bucket of KFC!
There are a couple other foods out there reported to help improve sleep – cherries, kiwis, almonds, etc. – but according to sleep expert Drew Dawson, if these foods do have an effect on sleep, it’s very minimal.
There is one kind of food, however, that’s been repeatedly shown to increase sleepiness: anything rich in carbohydrates.
These are the real reason you feel so tired after a long afternoon stuffing yourself around the Thanksgiving table!
Why You Shouldn’t Eat Before Bed
But of course, stuffing yourself on carbs isn’t really a sustainable nighttime ritual, and in any case, there’s a growing bit of research out there to suggest that nocturnal munching is a pretty bad habit in general.
Why, you ask?
It all comes down to your circadian rhythms.
You’re most likely to have heard of circadian rhythms in the context of sleep.
When you wake up and go to bed is in large part governed by your brain’s master clock, a bundle of neurons in the pineal gland that control the release of hormones in response to the time of day.
Just about every organ in your body is controlled by that same master clock – a whole bunch of mini circadian rhythms anticipating what’s about to come next at any given time of day.
Now, just like any instrument, your brain’s master clock works best when all of its parts are in order, clicking along exactly the way they were designed to.
And the thing is, your gut simply is not meant to be digesting any kind of food once it gets to be a certain point in the night.
According to circadian rhythms expert Satchin Panda, your gut functions best when it’s only having to deal with food for about 8 to 10 hours every day.
So for instance, if you’re eating breakfast around 7 in the morning during the week, you should ideally be eating dinner no later than 5 o’clock.
And while such an early dinnertime might not really be possible for most people, the most important thing is to be eating less and less the closer it gets to bedtime.
Your gut needs that time to rest – and if you go around shaking it awake in the middle of its downtime, you’re putting yourself at risk for a number of health concerns and sleep problems.
Bottom line, eating pretty much anything before bed is not recommended, especially if you’re trying to make a habit out of it.
The Benefits of Bedtime Routines
That said, though, developing healthy bedtime routines is actually one of the best ways to go about improving your sleep.
Again, it all comes down to your body’s rhythms.
Your brain likes being able to anticipate what’s going to come next in its day, and when it comes to sleep in particular, it’s hard to overstate the value of a solid routine.
In addition to keeping your bedtime and wake-up time as regular as possible (even on the weekends!), many sleep experts also recommend building a protective “buffer zone” between the rest of your day and sleep.
There are a lot of benefits to taking as little as half an hour before bed to just wind down and decompress.
Soothing nighttime rituals like drinking a cup of warm liquid (like milk), taking a shower, reading, meditating, or journaling are all a great way to improve both the quality and the quantity of your sleep.
If you’re really trying to improve your sleep quality, you’ll find it most helpful if you block out pretty much all distractions during this buffer period.
No answering emails, no tense conversations, no stressful housework or late-night finishing touches on a project.
The more time you can spend just winding down before heading in for the night, the better.
Psychological Benefits of Warm Milk
In addition to serving as a possibly healthy bedtime ritual, there are also a couple psychological reasons why having a cup of warm milk at night might help you cool down for bed.
First of all, warm milk is, for many of us, a drink from our childhoods.
Our parents might have given us warm milk before sending us off to bed as kids, and today as adults that sense of calm we learned to associate with the drink comes back to us.
The old-school psychological Sigmund Freud, for his part, believed that much of our psyche later in life came directly as a result of our early childhood experiences.
The mother’s breast, according to Freud, was our original source of comfort, and the basis for all of our future desires.
The fact that we didn’t have access to food all the time frustrated us – and when the breast returned, we felt that sense of gratification.
In this way, warm milk is basically the epitome of everything comforting and good in the world, so it only makes sense that we should turn to it before going to bed if we’re looking for a better night’s sleep.
It’s important to realize, however, that Freud’s theories have never been mainstream in psychology, and while many of them have trickled down into popular culture, most psychologists today don’t put much stock in this kind of thinking.
Other Ways to Improve Your Sleep
It’s also worth noting that warm milk and other soothing rituals are by no means the last word when it comes to improving your sleep.
Other healthy tricks include:
- Cutting out electronics use at least 30 minutes before bed
- Avoiding bright lights in the hours before bed
- Checking the quality of your mattress
- Blocking out any outside light from your room
- Limiting activities on your bed to sleep and sex
- Practicing daily meditation techniques
- Exercising during the day
Although there’s certainly no silver bullet to mastering your sleep, trying out a mix of several techniques often provides the best results.
If you are suffering from chronic insomnia, consult with a sleep specialist about the best steps to take.
Sleep is one of most mysterious and complicated processes in the human body, and many of the mechanisms behind the way it works have yet to be discovered.
I hope this has been helpful!
Never lose sight of how important your sleep is, and remember to give your body the time and care it needs.
More important than any special technique is just making your health a priority and paying attention to what works and what doesn’t.
Until next time – nighty-night, and pleasant dreams!