Warm milk has long been considered the ultimate sleep inducer (a cookie chaser notwithstanding), but research has yet to bear that out. A recent review of studies on diet and sleep in the journal Advances in Nutrition suggests that a few other foods may actually be more effective—notably kiwi fruit, malted milk, and tart cherry juice. The studies were small, and it’s far too early for definitive conclusions, says the review’s lead author, Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University’s department of medicine. But findings to date hint at some benefits.

Eating two kiwis one hour before bedtime was found to help adults with self-reported insomnia fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. In two other studies, people (especially older adults) who had 1 to 1½ cups of warm Horlicks malted milk beverage—a concoction of dairy, malted barley, and wheat flour sold in powdered form online—30 minutes before bedtime were less restless during sleep. Additionally, drinking 1 cup of tart cherry juice in the morning and at night quelled insomnia and reduced midnight awakenings in two small studies, one with healthy adults and another with people with chronic insomnia.

How or why might those foods work? None of the studies investigated the mechanisms, but in her review St-Onge notes that cherries and kiwis have antioxidants that may protect against cell damage and inflammation, characteristics often found in people with sleep disorders. The melatonin in cherries and the serotonin in kiwis may improve sleep. What’s more, kiwis are rich in folate, a vitamin that helps synthesize brain chemicals involved in sleep, such as dopamine and serotonin. Deficiencies in folate have been linked to insomnia and restless leg syndrome. As for Horlicks milk, it contains B and D vitamins; deficiencies in those vitamins have been linked to sleep disruptions.

Even though the findings are not definitive, St-Onge says there’s no harm in giving any one of these dietary remedies a try. They easily fit into a healthy diet and, in fact, are a much safer choice than prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids or supplements


Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the February 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.