Foods for Sleep, Mental Health, and Relaxation Part 2: Nuts and Seeds

Last week, we looked at how oats can benefit us in this triad. Check out the article here if you haven’t yet. In this second of our three-part series on foods related to the sleep, mental health, and relaxation triad, we will be focusing on nuts and seeds.  There are many components common among them that help us function better, and there are also unique parts of specific nuts and seeds that give us other benefits. Let’s find out more. 

nuts and seeds

“in plant foods, the highest contents of melatonin was found in nuts.”


Various nuts and seeds contribute to having a good night’s sleep, one of which are almonds. In a study on rats, almond extract consuming rats slept better than rats who did not have the extract.

“Significant prolongation of total sleeping time as well as significant increase in NREM sleep were the main observed changes compared to the normal condition. These results suggest that the aqueous extract of almond has significant sedative and hypnotic effects, which may support its therapeutic use for insomnia.” [1] Almonds also contains a lot of magnesium. And it turns out that

“supplementation of magnesium appears to improve subjective measures of insomnia such as ISI [insomnia severity index] score, sleep efficiency, sleep time and sleep onset latency, early morning awakening, and likewise, insomnia objective measures such as concentration of serum renin, melatonin, and serum cortisol, in elderly people.” [2] Besides almonds, walnuts contain melatonin just like oats. “Melatonin is present in walnuts and, when eaten, increase blood melatonin concentrations.” [3] In fact, “in plant foods, the highest contents of melatonin was found in nuts.” [4] As we saw last week, oats also contain melatonin. Consuming nuts and oats together, then, can increase the potential sleep benefits.

Mental Health

Nuts have also been shown to improve cognition. “Higher long-term total nut intake was associated with better average cognitive status for all cognitive outcomes.” [5] Additionally, “there is growing evidence that the synergy and interaction of all of the nutrients and other bioactive components in nuts and berries can have a beneficial effect on the brain and cognition.” [6] One of the main components in nuts responsible for these benefits is vitamin E. “Vitamin E intake, from foods or supplements, is associated with less cognitive decline with age.” [7] The reason is that vitamin is a strong anti-oxidant. “The brain is highly susceptible to oxidative stress, which increases during ageing and is considered a major contributor to neurodegeneration. High plasma vitamin E levels were repeatedly associated with better cognitive performance.” [8] Specifically, walnuts are good for the brain since they contain omega-3 fatty acids.

“English walnuts (Juglans regia L.) are rich in numerous phytochemicals, including high amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and offer potential benefits to brain health. Polyphenolic compounds found in walnuts not only reduce the oxidant and inflammatory load on brain cells but also improve interneuronal signaling, increase neurogenesis, and enhance sequestration of insoluble toxic protein aggregates.” [9] In addition, pumpkin seeds contain components that have been linked to brain health. One mineral it has, like almonds, is magnesium, which also turns out to be well for learning and memory. “Magnesium is one of the most essential minerals in the human body, connected with brain biochemistry and the fluidity of neuronal membrane.” [[10] Another mineral pumpkin seeds contain is zinc. And

“it has been found that alterations in brain zinc status have been implicated in a wide range of neurological disorders including impaired brain development and many neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, and mood disorders including depression, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and prion disease.” [11] Copper is also in pumpkin seeds. “Copper… is essential for brain function since its deficiency lead to brain abnormalities and defects in brain development.” [12] Finally, pumpkin seeds contain iron. This is a double-edged nutrient, though.

“Because of the intrinsic ability of iron to catalyze the formation of reactive oxygen species, it has been associated with oxidative stress and neurodegenerative diseases. However, iron deficiency (ID) also negatively impacts various functions of the brain, suggesting that iron plays an important physiological role in neuronal processes” 13 Just as we have seen with oats, many essential minerals are naturally contained in food like pumpkin seeds and other nuts. Expensive supplementation if often not necessary.


Chia seeds contain essential fatty acids, including omega-3s. And we know that “more natural treatments including amino acids, minerals, and fatty acids can reduce anxiety.” 14 Specifically, one study “found that the clinical evidence about omega-3 PUFAs’ preventive benefits on mood and anxiety disorders is supported by their regulatory effects on immunomodulation, anti-inflammation, signal transduction, neurotransmission and neuroprotection.” [15] And, just as we’ve seen magnesium being an integral part for sleep and mental functioning, it also helps reduce stress. “Although the exact mechanism has yet to be determined, it appears magnesium supplementation is effective at treating anxiety and anxiety-related disorders.” 16 As we well know now, “nuts, seeds, and soy foods are also good dietary sources of magnesium.” [17] The common sources of magnesium and melatonin in many nuts and seeds, in addition to unique components in specific seeds, thus contribute to the triad of getting more sleep, having better brain power, and getting and staying relaxed.

There are many other food choices that also help us sleep, have more mental clarity, and relax us.

Part 3: Dark Chocolate discuses how consuming even dark chocolate helps us to function better.

Beyond food, too, things like exercise, meditation, and doing brain puzzles can help us function better. What foods or habits work for you? Let us know in the comments below.


[1] Abdollahnejad, Fatemeh, Mahmoud Mosaddegh, Mohammad Kamalinejad, Javad Mirnajafi-Zadeh, Forough Najafi, and Mehrdad Faizi. "Investigation of Sedative and Hypnotic Effects of Amygdalus Communis L. Extract: Behavioral Assessments and EEG Studies on Rat." Journal of Natural Medicines 70, no. 2 (2015): 190-97. doi:10.1007/s11418-015-0958-9. p. 90.

[2] Abbasi BKM. The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial. J Res Med Sci. 2012 Dec; 17(12):1161–9. p. 1161.

[3] Reiter, Russel J., L.c. Manchester, and Dun-Xian Tan. "Melatonin in Walnuts: Influence on Levels of Melatonin and Total Antioxidant Capacity of Blood." Nutrition 21, no. 9 (2005): 920-24. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2005.02.005. p. 920.

[4] Meng, Xiao, Ya Li, Sha Li, Yue Zhou, Ren-You Gan, Dong-Ping Xu, and Hua-Bin Li. "Dietary Sources and Bioactivities of Melatonin." Nutrients 9, no. 4 (2017): 367-431. doi:10.3390/nu9040367. p. 410.

[5] O’Brien, Jacqueline, O. Okereke, E. Devore, B. Rosner, M. Breteler, and F. Grodstein. "Long-term Intake of Nuts in Relation to Cognitive Function in Older Women." The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging 18, no. 5 (2014): 496-502. doi:10.1007/s12603-014-0014-6. p. 496.

[6] Pribis, Peter, and Barbara Shukitt-Hale. "Cognition: The New Frontier for Nuts and Berries." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 100, no. Suppl_1 (2014). doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.071506. p.1.

[7] M. C. Morris, D. A. Evans, J. L. Bienias, C. C. Tangney, and R. S. Wilson, “Vitamin E and cognitive decline in older persons,” Archives of Neurology, vol. 59, pp. 1125–1132, 2002. p. 1125.

[8] Fata, Giorgio, Peter Weber, and M. Mohajeri. "Effects of Vitamin E on Cognitive Performance during Ageing and in Alzheimer’s Disease." Nutrients 6, no. 12 (2014): 5453-472. doi:10.3390/nu6125453. p. 5453.

[9] Poulose, Shibu M., Marshall G. Miller, and Barbara Shukitt-Hale. "Role of Walnuts in Maintaining Brain Health with Age." The Journal of Nutrition 144, no. 4 (2014): 561S-66S. doi:10.3945/jn.113.184838. p. 561S.

[10] Serefko A, Szopa A, Wlaź P, Nowak G, Radziwoń-Zaleska M, Skalski M, et al. Magnesium in Depression. Pharmacol Rep 2013; 65(3): 547–54. p. 547.

[11] Prakash, Atish, Kanchan Bharti, and Abu Bakar A. Majeed. "Zinc: Indications in Brain Disorders." Fundamental & Clinical Pharmacology 29, no. 2 (2015): 131-49. doi:10.1111/fcp.12110. p. 131.

[12] Opazo, Carlos M., Mark A. Greenough, and Ashley I. Bush. "Copper: From Neurotransmission to Neuroproteostasis." Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 6 (2014). doi:10.3389/fnagi.2014.00143. p. 1.

[13] Muñoz, Pablo, and Alexis Humeres. "Iron Deficiency on Neuronal Function." BioMetals 25, no. 4 (2012): 825-35. doi:10.1007/s10534-012-9550-x. p. 825.

[14] Alramadhan, Elham, Mirna S. Hanna, Mena S. Hanna, Todd G. Goldstein, Samantha M. Avila, and Benjamin S. Weeks. "Dietary and Botanical Anxiolytics." Medical Science Monitor 18, no. 4 (2012). doi:10.12659/msm.882608. p. RA45.

[15] Su, Kuan-Pin, Yutaka Matsuoka, and Chi-Un Pae. "Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Prevention of Mood and Anxiety Disorders." Clinical Psychopharmacology and Neuroscience 13, no. 2 (2015): 129-37. doi:10.9758/cpn.2015.13.2.129. p. 133.

[16] Lakhan, Shaheen E., and Karen F. Vieira. "Nutritional and Herbal Supplements for Anxiety and Anxiety-related Disorders: Systematic Review." Nutrition Journal 9, no. 1 (2010). doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-42. p. 11.

[17] Costello, Rebecca, Taylor C. Wallace, and Andrea Rosanoff.