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Eating for a better night's sleep

April 22, 2022 | UCI Health
Dark chocolate blueberry bark

Need another reason to reach for dark chocolate? It's rich in tryptophan and magnesium, nutrients necessary to help get a good night's sleep. Photo by Jessica Van Roo for UCI Health

More than 25% of U.S. adults report being sleep deprived at least 15 days of every month, a concerning statistic because getting less than seven hours a day of restful sleep is associated with an increased risk for obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, mental distress and other chronic conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Did you know that your diet can help you achieve more restful sleep?

Foods like kale, broccoli, chicken, nuts and whole grains are rich in tryptophan, magnesium, calcium and other  nutrients essential to helping your body regulate sleep, says Kelly M. Rubenstein, a registered dietitian with the UCI Health Weight Management Program. They have the added benefit of improving brain health and cognitive function.

Learn how to combine these ingredients into delicious, easy-to-make dishes that can help prime your body to release the hormones serotonin and melatonin, which are integral to getting a good night's rest.

Give them a try and knock yourself out!

The following recipes were created by Chef Jessica VanRoo, assistant director of Culinary Recreation & Experiential Programs at UC Irvine, who teaches students, staff and faculty members how to use fresh ingredients to make healthy, low-cost meals.

Cream of Broccoli Soup with Cauliflower Parmesan Crisp

Serves 3-4 (Total cost: $12.15/$3.03 per serving)
Calories per serving: 250, plus 41 per crisp

Cream of Broccoli Soup with Cauliflower Parmesan Crisp

Broccoli and cauliflower are both high in tryptophan, an amino acid the body needs to make the hormones serotonin and melatonin. Melatonin is vital to healthy sleep-wake cycles and serotonin helps regulate mood, behavior and cognition.

They also are great sources of vitamin K, believed to enhance memory function.


Cream of Broccoli Soup

  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil
  • ½ small onion, diced (about ½ cup)
  • 2 teaspoons garlic, minced (about 2 cloves)
  • 1 lb. broccoli florets and stems
    (about 1 small head) 
  • 1 15 oz can cannellini or great northern beans
    (drained and rinsed)
  • 3 ½ cups vegetable stock or bone broth
  • ½ teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • Salt and pepper to taste

  Cauliflower Parmesan Crisp
     (About 6 crisps, depending on size)

  • 2 cups riced cauliflower
  • 6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoon Italian seasoning



  • Heat pot or deep sauté pan over medium-high heat, adding oil when heated.
  • When oil is hot, add onions, sauté for 30-60 seconds until they begin to soften.
  • Add garlic and broccoli, sauté another minute, stirring constantly to keep garlic from burning.
  • Add beans, broth and seasoning to pot.
  • Bring mixture to a boil, cover and turn down heat, simmering 5-6 minutes until broccoli is soft.
  • Use immersion blender to mix the soup until is is smooth and creamy.
  • Add salt and pepper to taste.
  • Ladle soup into bowls and serve with cauliflower crisp, if desired.

Parmesan crisps

  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees, line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Steam riced cauliflower for 5 minutes on stove or cook 3 minutes in microwave, until tender.
  • Remove any excess water from cauliflower rice, using cheesecloth or strong hands.
  • In a bowl, combine cauliflower with cheese and seasonings, mixing well.
  • Form cheese and cauliflower mix into balls, about 1½ tablespoons each and place on lined baking sheet.
  • Flatten balls on baking sheet, making them as thin as possible and smoothing any cracked edges.
  • Bake 15 minutes or until golden brown.
  • Serve with soup or store and reheat as desired.

Braised Chicken Thighs with Kale and White Beans

Braised chicken with kale and white beans

Serves 4 (Total cost: $14.61/$3.65 per serving
Calories per serving: 558

Kale is beneficial for brain function because it has lots of vitamin K, folate and lutein which has been shown to reduce cognitive decline. This well-known superfood is also chock-full of calcium and other nutrients needed to regulate sleep and produce melatonin.

Chicken, too, is high in tryptophan, a protein building block the human body doesn't produce on its own. Add white beans to the mix and you have a one-pot recipe that is filling and a great way to boost your body's health defenses for sleep and cognition. 


  • 8 bone-in chicken thighs
  • 1 onion, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 leek, thinly sliced, using white and green parts
  • 8 cups kale, loosely packed, about 2 bunches, stems removed
  • 3 teaspoons minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
  • 2 stems fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried
  • ¼ cup capers, drained
  • 1 15 oz can cannelloni or great northern beans (drained and rinsed)
  • 1 ½ cups chicken broth or stock
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced (reserve for last)
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  • Remove skins from thighs, reserving one skin.
  • Season thighs with salt and pepper.
  • Heat avocado oil in a large skillet or pot with a lid over medium-high heat.
  • Add chicken skin, cook 30 seconds, until skin fat has merged with the oil, then remove.
  • Add thighs to pot, brown lightly for a few minutes, then remove and set aside.
  • Add onion, sautéing until it begins to turn translucent. 
  • Add leeks and garlic, cooking until leeks wilt.
  • Add stock, mustard, thyme, capers and lemon zest.
  • Stir in kale leaves and beans, mix.
  • Return chicken thighs to the pot, cover and simmer on low heat for 30-45 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and serve with quinoa or preferred grains.

Dark Chocolate Blueberry Bark

Dark chocolate blueberry bark

Makes about 12 bars (Total cost: $6.31/$0.53 per bar)
Calories per bar: 230

Surprised to find dark chocolate among these recipes? Turns out it is rich in magnesium, a mineral that helps the body and brain relax and regulate melatonin. It's also naturally high in tryptophan.

Blueberries are beneficial because they are loaded with antioxidants that protect us from stress caused by sleep disorders and help support brain health and memory. In addition, the flavonoids found in both dark chocolate and blueberries improve blood flow to the brain. Moreover, blueberries contain polyphenols and anthocyanins that help support memory. 

Be careful not to consume dark chocolate too close to bedtime, though, because it also contains caffeine, which can counteract its beneficial sleep properties.


  • 2 cups dark chocolate chips
  • ½ cup fresh or freeze-dried blueberries
  • 1 tablespoon chia seeds
  • 2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
  • ¼ cup sliced almonds
  • ½ teaspoon flaked sea salt


  • Line a 9-inch x 13-inch baking pan or sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  • Melt chocolate in microwave, heating at 30 to 45-second intervals until melted (or use double boiler on stovetop).
  • Spread melted chocolate over parchment paper, filling pan. (If using a larger sheet, chocolate should be about ½ inch thick)
  • Layer blueberries atop the chocolate.
  • Sprinkle chia and pumpkin seeds, almonds, then top with sea salt.
  • Allow chocolate to firm up at room temperature or refrigerate about 30 minutes.
  • Break bark into pieces or cut with a knife.
  • Serve or refrigerate until you are ready to enjoy! (Chilled bark keeps up to a week.)

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