If falling asleep, staying asleep, or simply not getting enough sleep is a concern for you then one of the ways you can improve your sleep hygiene is by minding how and what you eat.
Aisling Killoran of The Wellness Crew on the sleep myths (hot milk?) and ‘sleep stealers’ (best not open that bottle of wine).
How You Eat
It’s not just what you eat right before bed that impacts your sleep. Actually, what and how you eat throughout the day can influence it.
If you don’t eat enough throughout the day, either because you’re trying to be ‘good’ to lose weight or because you’re too busy and skip meals, this can influence your sleep in two ways.
Firstly skipping a meal, or indeed eating a meal with high glycemic index foods, such as sugar and refined starches, cause cortisol levels to rise. The cortisol may remain elevated all day and during the early part of the night. An elevated cortisol level during the night results in a disruption of REM sleep meaning you struggle to get to sleep or stay asleep or may simply have non-refreshing sleep.
Avoid eating large dinners late at night and aim to eat 3 or 4 hours before bed.
The second aspect of not eating enough during the day is that you’re likely to be starving in the evening and eat too much at this time. It’s important to avoid eating large dinners late at night, especially those high in fat, according to a recent Brazilian study. The body requires energy to digest food and this can impair the sleep cycle. Aim to eat dinner 3 or 4 hours before bed.
Some people, however, will benefit from a small snack before bedtime. If you’re sensitive to blood sugar and feel you need to eat regularly then you may need to have a small snack 60 – 90 minutes before bed. This can help avoid a blood sugar dip during the night. A typical pattern is waking at the same time each night, usually somewhere between 2 and 4am. If you find yourself quite awake and can’t get back to sleep for an hour or two, having a light healthy snack an hour before bed might do the trick.
What You Eat
There is no one magic food that can help sleep, although you might have heard that turkey can help? All poultry, eggs, prawns, crab and yoghurt are good sources of the amino acid tryptophan, which helps increase levels of feel-good hormone serotonin (thus reducing anxiety) and sleep-supporting hormone melatonin. Many studies show that tryptophan can help to reduce the time it takes to get to sleep and some studies show that it helps increase total sleep time.
Old wives tales suggest that warm milk can make you sleepy. There is some truth in this, because having enough calcium in your diet does help sleep. Calcium (found in cheese, yogurt, milk, kale…) helps the brain use the tryptophan found in dairy to manufacture sleep-triggering melatonin and helps attain the REM sleep phase.
Protein and complex carbs work best together, as the carbs help tryptophan to cross the blood brain barrier and support levels of serotonin and melatonin. To increase tryptophan in the brain, an ideal bedtime snack is a couple of oatcakes with almond butter or natural yoghurt with flaked almonds.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of magnesium, a mineral often referred to as nature’s tranquilliser. It helps muscles, blood vessels and indeed the brain to relax. It also helps to regulate melatonin and supports levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter responsible for calming down nerve activity. Sleep drugs such as Ambien target GABA.
Some nuts like walnuts are also good sources of tryptophan, and of course healthier than many other evening snacks we might typically go for!
Pre and Probiotic Foods
There is still so much we don’t know about the residents in our gut but emerging science demonstrates that there is a very real, dynamic connection between the microbiome and sleep. We know that sleep deprivation and altered circadian rhythm can negatively effect our gut bacteria. We also know that lots of neurotransmitters are made in our gut which can affect our ability to relax.
Help to replenish your good bacteria with probiotic foods such as natural yoghurt, miso soup or sauerkraut. Eating a good fibre rich diet with plenty of fruits and veggies will help feed your gut friends while avoiding too many processed foods that feed the bad guys instead.
What You Drink
Coffee is the first thing we think about when we think of sleep deprivation. It’s the most widely used drug in the world and can really help us get going on a sleepy morning. However, it’s a vicious cycle as taking in too much caffeine will disrupt your sleep the next night.
Too much is usually considered more than 2 cups per day. It takes time for the effects to wear off. It can take up to 6 hours to clear just half the amount of caffeine in one cup from your body. So if you want to enjoy coffee, try and keep it before lunch time to get the benefits and not the disadvantages.
Some people use a nightcap as a sedative, to help them get to sleep but actually it’s a ‘sleep stealer’. It can make you drowsy initially, but it impairs sleep cycles later in the night. This might result in falling asleep after the red wine, but then being wide awake at 4AM and unable to nod off again.
Alcohol can also impact your ability to get enough REM sleep, which is often considered the most restorative type of sleep. With less REM sleep, you’re likely to wake up feeling groggy and unfocused.
And what if you are disturbing someone else’s sleep? Alcohol causes your whole body to relax, including the muscles of your throat. This makes you more prone to snoring and sleep apnea. This may not bother you so much, but could be a bit of a nightmare for your partner!
Finally, alcohol is a diuretic, so may cause more nighttime bathroom trips, disrupting sleep further.
Going to bed even mildly dehydrated can disrupt your sleep. Dehydration can act as a powerful roadblock to your body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin, making it hard to both fall asleep and stay asleep. A lack of pre-bed fluids can also lead to nocturnal leg cramps that may keep you awake.
But the solution isn’t just to knock a few glasses of water back before getting into bed. If you do this the bathroom trips are inevitable! Drinking smaller amounts more steadily during the day will maintain hydration levels better.
Chamomile tea is well known as a bedtime drink. The truth is that many herbal teas can help us prepare for sleep. Have a cup of herbal tea before bed; there’s any amount of ‘night time’ or ‘bedtime’ combinations containing relaxing herbs such as lavender, oat flower, chamomile or vervain.
I hope by reading this article that eating well to sleep well will bring you sweet dreams. Of course, nutrition is just one factor in achieving sleep wellness. Exercise will also help and there are many good sleep habits you can adopt in your daily sleep routine to maxximise the benefits of sleep.
About the Author
Aisling Killoran is a Sleep Coach with The Wellness Crew, a Dublin based team offering employee wellness programmes and providing expert HR advice on all aspects of corporate wellness. They tailor make wellness packages across four key pillars: Food, Fitness, Mental Health and Finance.