Foods With Natural Melatonin

Foods With Natural Melatonin

We know that inadequate sleeping is associated with changes in diet—people tend to eat worse—but what about the opposite question: Can food affect sleep? In a study on kiwifruit, this seemed possible (see Kiwifruit For Insomnia), but the mechanism the researchers suggested for the effect—the serotonin levels in kiwifruit—doesn’t make any sense, since serotonin can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. We can eat all the serotonin we want and it shouldn’t affect our brain chemistry. A different brain chemical, though, melatonin, can get from our gut to our brain.

Melatonin is a hormone secreted at night by the pineal gland in the center of our brain to help regulate our circadian rhythm. Supplements of the stuff are used to prevent and reduce jet lag, and about 20 years ago MIT got the patent to use melatonin to help people sleep. But melatonin “is not only produced in the pineal gland—it is also naturally present in edible plants.”

That might explain the results of a study, “Effects of a Tart Cherry Juice Beverage on the Sleep of Older Adults with Insomnia” (See Tart Cherries for Insomnia). The research group had been doing an earlier study on tart cherry juice as a sports recovery drink. There’s a phytonutrient in cherries with anti-inflammatory effects on par with drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, so the researchers were trying to see whether tart cherry juice could reduce muscle soreness after exercise. During the study, some of the participants anecdotally noted that they were sleeping better on the cherries. That was unexpected, but the researchers realized that cherries were a source of melatonin so they put them to the test.

The reason they chose older subjects is that melatonin production tends to drop as we age, which may be one reason why there’s a higher insomnia rates among the elderly. So, they took a group of older men and women suffering from chronic insomnia and put half on cherries and half on placebo. They couldn’t use whole cherries for the study—how could you fool people with a placebo cherry? So they used cherry juice versus cherry Kool-Aid.

They found that participants did in fact sleep a little better on the cherry juice. The effect was modest, but significant. Some, for example, fell to sleep a few minutes faster and had 17 fewer minutes of waking after sleep onset (waking up in the middle of the night). It was no insomnia cure, but it helped—without side effects.

How do we know it was the melatonin, though? They repeated the study, this time measuring the melatonin levels, and indeed saw a boost in circulating melatonin levels after the cherry juice, but not after the Kool-Aid. Similar results were found in people eating the actual cherries—seven different varieties boosted melatonin levels and actual sleep times. The effects of all the other phytonutrients in cherries can’t be precluded—maybe they helped too—but if it is the melatonin, there are more potent sources than cherries.

Orange bell peppers have a lot, as do walnuts—and a tablespoon of flaxseeds has about as much as a tomato. See the chart in my video Tart Cherries for Insomnia. The melatonin content of tomatoes was suggested as one of the reasons traditional Mediterranean diets were so healthy. They have less melatonin than the tart cherries, but people may eat a lot more tomatoes than cherries. Sweet cherries have 50 times less melatonin than tart ones; dried cherries appear to have none.

A few spices are pretty potent: just a teaspoon of fenugreek or mustard seeds has as much as a few tomatoes.  The bronze and silver go to almonds and raspberries, though. And the gold goes to gojis. Goji berries were just off the charts.

Aren’t goji berries really expensive, though? Not if you buy them as lycium berries. Check out my video Are Goji Berries Good for You?

I’ve previously explored Human Neurotransmitters in Plants in the context of boosting serotonin levels in the brain to improve mood. See:

Melatonin may also play a role in cancer prevention. See Melatonin & Breast Cancer.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2014 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image thanks to: Elizabeth / Flickr

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  • justme

    Thanks for this. Until recently I never had trouble sleeping anywhere, any time. After I creeped over 50, that all changed. I’ll buy sour cherry juice and kiwi. I already eat gogi berries. Thanks for the other video explaining how to save on cost. I also ordered three plants so I can grow my own in my house. Gogi’s are delicious!

  • Martha

    I’m now very wary of imported food. The testing of these foods is not adequate. As far as I know, the USDA does not test for heavy metals. So the USDA Organic certification doesn’t mean that these foods are free of heavy metals.

    Recently Organic India, a large company that represented itself as having the very highest standards paid a large settlement for having lead levels that violated CA prop. 65. Most of Organic India’s many products now have stickers in California warning about possible toxicity. You can google Organic India and “lead” for documents.

    I think the beneficial nutrients in these imported products and foods is worth ingesting lead or other toxins.

  • jem

    But what quantity of the goji berries (or lyceum) have that sleep impact. I watch my weight and don’t like to eat too much fruit. I’d rather eat veggies.

  • Robert Mertz

    I’ve been to several Asian food stores and the cheapest Goji Berries were $15 1 pound. Better than Whole Foods but still pricey. Same goes for on line. Guess the lycium berry vendors have caught up with the goji berry vendors.

    Is there any real difference between Chinese Wolfberries and Tibetan/Mongolian goji berries?


    • Karen

      Goji berries grow like weeds, even here in the UK. In fact, you can often find them out in the countryside, or along canal towpaths or railway sidings. If you live somewhere you can do a bit of gardening, check them out – just chuck the seeds on the ground, sprinkle a little mulch over them, and totally ignore them. They thrive on neglect, weirdly enough, and produce quite a lot of berries per bush.

      • Thea

        Karen: I can’t thank you enough for this tip. I just bought some giant planters to put outside in my backyard and was trying to figure out what to grow in them. I wanted to put food, but wasn’t sure what. I love the idea of growing my own goji berries. But where you really got me was, “totally ignore them. They thrive on neglect…” I’m in LOVE!!!! That’s totally the only kind of plant I can grow. I’m going to give it a try! Thanks a bunch.

  • Martha

    Correction—I *don’t* think the beneficial nutrients in these imported products and foods is worth ingesting lead or other toxins.

  • Wegan

    Do dried goji berries have melatonin? Fresh are hard to find and pricey.

    • Luke Davis

      I think that can be answered by finding the deterioration point of melatonin temperature wise. Just as water boils at 212°F so do the nutrients and minerals die AKA dead water.

      • Ryan Becker

        I’m not sure that temperature is the culprit. Commercial cherry juice is pasteurized yet is used in these studies. That’s why I’m mystified that dried cherries have no melatonin. The temperatures used for dehydration is much lower than that used for pasteurization. I wonder if the melatonin-less dried cherries mentioned in the article are sour cherries, which have significantly more melatonin than sweet cherries.

  • SarahKraatz

    The effects of all the other phytonutrients in cherries can’t be precluded—maybe they helped too—but if it is the melatonin, there are more potent sources than cherries.

  • Bethery

    These articles seem to contradict each other on the efficacy of kiwi. I guess it’s the more affordable option, but I wonder if the small Anna kiwis work as well. I have those growing in my yard.

  • Ashwin Patel

    Dr Greger, this is a serious question and I expect an answer. Flaxseeds/Linseeds are often included in Breakfast Cereals and Granola recipes and consumed for Bowel regularity and Omega-3 content. If Flaxseed increases circulating Melatonin levels, it is likely to make you sleepy and tired. So, is breakfast (ie: morning time) the wrong time to consume Flaxseed?

  • satch

    Goji are a member of the nightshade group of plants. Nightshades have history of causing serious pain and discomfort for some of us
    with arthritis and other physical ailments. My experience has been that all nightshade fruits and veggies should be abstained from if one suffers physical pain, and if one has history or genes that suggest possibility of any future neurological diseases.

  • Bodrie

    Dr. Greger,
    Years ago I heard that green tea was a good source of melatonin. Do you know if there is anything to that claim?

  • Merel

    Hello Dr Greger, I’m a bit confused by this sentence: “We can eat all the serotonin we want and it shouldn’t affect our brain chemistry.” In the video series The Wrong, A better and The best way to boost serotonin levels it is suggested that certain foods do affect the amount of serotonin in our brain. For example by eating seeds. Or did I misunderstood these video’s? Thank you

  • Rory O’Donnell

    Here is a recipe I came up with to help my wife sleep. Alisa’s Nightime Sleepy Cereal: Mix of dried goji berries (I hope they are still effective dried), walnuts, and sesame/chia seed honey clusters; with soy milk.

    Melatonin + Tryptophan (to cross blood brain barrier) + Calcium (for melatonin production from tryptophan) + B6 (for manufacture of melatonin & serotonin from typtophan) + Magnesium (to stay asleep) + small blood sugar spike for tryptophan uptake