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How Neurotransmitters in Our Food Influence Our Sleep

August 26, 2020

By: Duke Health & Well-Being Nutrition Team

We know there are certain foods and eating patterns that are conducive to sleep. In this post, we take a closer look at the neurological mechanisms involved.

Getting the right balance of excitatory and calming neurotransmitters throughout your day may contribute to a restful night’s sleep.

The food we eat influences the body’s release of specific neurotransmitters related to sleep. Neurotransmitters are messengers released from nerve cells that communicate with neighboring cells. Nutrients found in food can act directly as neurotransmitters. Additionally, specific compounds in food can act as precursors of neurotransmitters. Whether a neurotransmitter keeps you awake or helps you sleep depends not only on the type of neurotransmitter but also on its target in the body. Getting the right balance of excitatory and calming neurotransmitters throughout your day may contribute to a restful night’s sleep.

“Getting the right balance of excitatory and calming neurotransmitters throughout your day may contribute to a restful night’s sleep.”

Neurotransmitters Tell the Body to Relax or Rev-up

The neurotransmitter balance is a see-saw action throughout the sleep-wake cycle. Neurotransmitters can generally be categorized as stimulating or calming to cell and system behavior.

Imbalances may occur when:

  • You don’t get enough from your diet.
  • There is a low supply made by the body.
  • There are abnormalities in your body’s ability to process neurotransmitter related nutrients.

Individual variation may also be attributed to the differences in the digestive tract. An array of neurotransmitters is made in the gut microbiome, one of which is serotonin (Camilleri, 2009).

Genetic influences might also determine our ability to metabolize neurotransmitters, resulting in a varying and delayed effect. For example, a person with the genetic variant for reduced processing and clearance of norepinephrine may notice the effect of exercise-induced “high” hours later, as they lay down to sleep.

As described earlier, some foods are precursors of neurotransmitters and, depending on the individuals’ supply and metabolism, overconsumption of certain foods may also influence their sleep cycles.

Stimulating foods that may inhibit sleep contain glutamate, tyramine and histamine. Calming and relaxing foods contain precursors for serotonin and GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid.)

Foods that Can Stimulate Your Nervous System

  • Common sources of the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate include aged cheese and most meats and seafood.
  • Glutamate is also added to prepackaged sauces and ready-to-eat packaged meals as a flavor enhancer.
  • Sources of tyramine often overlap with glutamate containing foods. Tyramine levels increase as food is aged. Therefore, hard cheeses, smoked meats or fish contain high levels of tyramine. Be aware that as leftovers are refrigerated for more than a day the tyramine content will increase so consider freezing and reheating leftovers if you think you are sensitive to tyramine.
  • Include alcohol on the list of foods that might keep you up since they have GABA antagonist properties that interfere with relaxation (Colrain, Nicholas, & Baker, 2014).
  • Histamine is another neurotransmitter that occurs naturally in many foods and can interfere with sleep. If your intake exceeds your body’s ability to metabolize histamine, the results may be a cascade of stimulating symptoms including rash, itching and sleeplessness (Reese et al., 2017). Common high histamine foods include fermented or cured meats and cheese (Briguglio et al., 2018).

Neurotransmitter Precursors in Food that Regulate Sleep

In addition to neurotransmitters already present in food, choline, tryptophan, and tyrosine are nutrients in food that are modified into neurotransmitters once in the body.

  • Choline, found in liver and eggs, is a precursor for the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which acts on the autonomic nervous system, where it can be both stimulating to skeletal muscles, causing them to contract, and inhibitory in the heart, slowing heart rate.
  • Acetylcholine is important for both REM sleep and regulating your wake cycle (Watson, Baghdoyan, & Lydic, 2010).
  • Tryptophan, found in cheese and turkey, is the precursor for the neurotransmitter serotonin, which acts on the central nervous system to modulate mood and cognition. This neurotransmitter is associated with the Thanksgiving turkey-induced “food coma.” However, the gut microbiome is the major source of serotonin.
  • Gut bacteria, cultivated by our diet, make about 95% of the body’s serotonin supply (Camilleri, 2009).
  • Tyrosine, found in turkey and soybeans, is the precursor for neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine. These messengers act on the sympathetic nervous system to produce “fight or flight” functions such as increasing heart rate and facilitating muscle movement.
  • Low levels of dopamine, which regulate body movement, are associated with Restless Leg Syndrome (Mitchell et al., 2018).

“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”

Eat a Simple Dinner

The adage to “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper” makes sense to your neurotransmitters. A light dinner based on vegetables, whole grain, or beans and fruit will support relaxing neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA. Consider skipping foods that contain stimulating neurotransmitters or neurotransmitter precursors like glutamate, tyramine, histamine, and tyrosine.

Track Your Foods and Sleep Quality

A helpful strategy for optimizing sleep is to keep a food and symptom journal. Before you turn out the light, make note of what you ate or drank in the evening and any unusual food or exercise events during the day. In the morning, make note of the quality of your sleep. As some individuals’ sleep is more sensitive to the effects of neurotransmitter behavior, keeping a journal will help you identify which foods you might want to include and avoid. Over time you may notice patterns or trends that help you understand how to get the best night’s sleep.


These resources were developed by Lauren Fiabane, Intern at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center with the supervision of the Duke Health & Well-Being Nutrition team.

Duke Diet & Fitness Center
Elisabetta Politi, RD, MPH, LDN, CDE – Nutrition Director
Christine B. Tenekjian, MPH, RD, LDN – Clinical Dietitian

Duke Health & Fitness Center
Kara Mitchell – Wellness Manager, Exercise Physiologist & Dietitian/Nutritionist
Samantha Mendelowitz – Dietitian/Nutritionist – Clinical Dietitian
Jenni Biggs – Dietitian/Nutritionist – Clinical Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator

Duke Integrative Medicine
Joanne Gardner, MS, RDN, LDN – Integrative Dietitian / Nutritionist
Jill Brown, MS, RDN, IFNCP, CLT – Integrative Dietitian / Nutritionist
Gretchen L. Hofing, MPH, RD

About Duke Health & Well-Being Nutrition & Lifestyle Services

Our individualized nutrition services are utilized to treat specific health conditions, manage weight healthfully, and to attain optimal vitality through a wholesome diet. Our nutritionists understand that getting on the right path toward your health goals is a process that requires support, adjustment, and taking small steps to make lasting and positive changes. Work with a nutritionist to discover the connection between food, movement, stress, and rest and make strategic changes to your diet that will help you achieve your goals.

Services Available
Integrative Nutrition at Integrative Medicine
Diet & Nutrition Counseling at the Diet and Fitness Center
Nutrition Consultations at the Health and Fitness Center


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