If you fall in the camp of people who struggle to fall or stay asleep, you may be familiar with the oh-so-coveted hormone melatonin. It’s a fan favorite in the natural sleep-supplement space for its ability to signal to the brain that it’s time to go to bed. While the body produces it as part of our circadian rhythm, a variety of lifestyle factors can impede that production (hello, blue light), leading many to want to boost their natural quantity at night in the form of a supplement. What you might not know, however, is that several foods do contain ample melatonin–and one such food naturally high in melatonin is pistachios. But can they really deliver the same sleep-promoting benefit as supplements?
That answer isn’t entirely clear, based on current research–but we do know that pistachios stand out among the list of melatonin-rich foods–which also includes tart cherries, grapes, mushrooms, and grains, among others. “On average, the amount of melatonin present in pistachios is among the highest found in food at about 6.6 milligrams per one-ounce serving, or about 49 nuts,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, author of Smoothes & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen. By comparison, the typical dosage of melatonin in supplements is one to three milligrams, she adds.
That said, it’s worth noting that there’s no official recommendation for dosage of the hormone (that is, because we all produce it naturally), and there may be variation in the amount of the hormone that our bodies can actually extract and use from both pistachios and a supplement, in order to feel its effects. So, in other words, six milligrams of melatonin in pistachios would be processed by the body much differently than six milligrams taken in supplement form–and that means the sleepiness quotient you feel would likewise be different.
How we process melatonin from food versus in supplement form
While, again, pistachios do have melatonin, they also contain a number of other nutrients, and digesting and absorbing them naturally differs from that involved with taking a supplement. Furthermore, other factors play into how the body responds to pistachios, regarding melatonin production. “The impact of pistachios on our internal melatonin levels varies with how much we eat, the time of the day we eat them, and whether we eat them in combination with anything else,” says sleep doctor Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN.
“The impact of pistachios on our internal melatonin levels varies with how much we eat, the time of the day we eat them, and whether we eat them in combination with anything else.” –Carleara Weiss, PhD, sleep doctor
While a 2012 study found that the influence of dietary melatonin on fluctuating internal levels of the hormone was relatively minor when compared to that of lightness and darkness, a 2017 study specifically tracking the bioavailability of melatonin in foods (meaning the amount the body is able to use) found that, in fact, eating melatonin-rich foods did increase the concentration of the hormone in the blood, hinting at its potential for a positive effect.
The takeaway: It’s worth trying pistachios as part of a sleep-supportive routine.
Based on what we know about pistachios’ natural melatonin content, there’s no real downside to eating more of them at night. To be clear, there haven’t been any negative side effects observed in people consuming melatonin in food or drink form–though it is possible that extra-high doses of the hormone taken regularly (at least, in supplement form) could lead to dependency.
“If you’re trying to test out pistachios for sleep, eat a serving–1/4 cup–an hour before bed,” suggests Largeman-Roth. “Do this each night for two weeks, and keep a sleep journal to track how it makes you feel, and whether you notice any difference in your ability to fall or stay asleep at night.” As a bonus, you’ll also reap the other benefits of pistachios, which contain six grams of protein, three grams of fiber, and a variety of healthy nutrients, like vitamin B6, copper, and manganese, in every serving.
In general, however, neither melatonin in supplement form nor pistachios alone is a true substitute for adopting healthy sleep hygiene habits, says Dr. Weiss–like, for example, keeping a regular routine, exercising often, and limiting alcohol consumption.
Also on that list is minimizing light exposure at night and getting a good deal of it in the morning. Both of those priorities can support your body’s natural production of melatonin–a helpful jump-start for that quarter cup of pistachios.
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