What is the answer to a perfect night’s sleep? This is a question that health professionals have been trying to answer for centuries, but sadly there is no magic fix. The quality and quantity (equally important!) of our sleep are affected by many different factors, including environment, emotions, stress and anxiety, age, certain medications, and last but not least, our diets. So if you feel groggy or lose motivation to work out after all those holiday meals there is a reason! Here are some foods that could affect your motivation to get through that dynamic pilates class and some foods that can help you get back on the reformer!
Why is sleep so important?
When we sleep well, it allows our bodies to rest, repair, and regenerate. It gives us energy for the next day and impacts how we feel physically and mentally. Sleep impacts practically all areas of our health, including:
- Memory, learning, productivity, mood, and behavior
- Immunological responses
- Metabolism and digestive processes
- Hormone levels, including sex hormones like testosterone and estrogen
- Hunger (tiredness drives our hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin)
You may have heard the term “sleep hygiene” referring to our sleep. This can be monitored and scored in a clinic. Although, you don’t need a doctor to tell you when you’ve had a rough night’s sleep! They recommend that adults get between 7-9 hrs sleep per night for optimal health.
Foods that stop us from sleeping well
There are certain foods that we need to be wary of as they can harm our sleep quality and quantity. You can probably guess what some of these are!
- Caffeine: a stimulant that can stay in our bodies for up to 12 hrs after consumption. Try to avoid having caffeine after 3 pm, and remember that even things like chocolate, decaf coffee/tea, fizzy drinks like Coca Cola and even some medications contain caffeine
- Alcohol: stops us from having REM (dream) sleep which is essential for cognitive recovery. The larger the consumption, the more you’ll notice the effects. Need some tips to get through parties and get togethers without that hangover and get a good night’s sleep? Read our article 7 Ways to Kick that Holiday Hangover here!
- Sugar: another stimulant that can wreak havoc on our blood sugar balance and harm sleep. Try and avoid high-sugar foods before bedtime
- Spicy/acidic foods: contain high levels of capsaicin. A chemical that increases body temperature by interfering with the body’s natural thermoregulation system. We sleep better when our body is comfortable, so don’t have a spicy curry just before bed!
- Eating before bedtime: this can lead to a full stomach and an overactive digestive system which can cause discomfort when trying to get to sleep. If you are hungry, a pre-bedtime snack is ok if it is small and contains protein
- Imbalanced blood sugar: If your blood sugar levels are imbalanced, you may wake up as your blood sugar drops. Try to avoid skipping meals and maintain consistent energy.
Foods that can improve our sleep
There are certain foods we should focus on eating more of as they contain specific nutrients that support our ability to sleep.
- Tryptophan-rich foods – we cannot make this amino acid ourselves and only get it from foods. It helps to produce melatonin, our sleep hormone.
- chicken, turkey, milk, dairy, nuts, and seeds plus carbohydrates
- Magnesium-rich foods – these relax the nervous system and help us fall asleep
- dark leafy greens like spinach, quinoa, cashews, black beans, avocado, wholegrains
- B vitamins, especially B6 – low levels link to insomnia
- pork, sweet potatoes, pistachios, wholegrain cereals, bananas, fish ex: salmon, and tuna
- Vitamin D – is linked to energy, mood, and sleep
- sunlight, fatty fish, mushrooms, egg yolks, supplements
- Cherries – the Montmorency variety naturally contains melatonin
- Complex carbohydrates: aim for a third of your plate to be whole grains and high-fiber foods such as brown rice, brown pasta, quinoa, new potatoes, etc., in your evening meal. These foods keep your serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter with a sleep-regulation role) in check and therefore promote sleep
Food affects us in so many ways. You can also read how it affects our moods here in Food and mood: can we improve our mental health through good nutrition?
Lifestyle factors and sleep
As well as improving our diets, changing several lifestyle factors can be beneficial. Both have an impact on sleep. Some of my favorite tips are below:
- Set a digital curfew: try and disconnect from technology 1hr before bed to prevent exposure to stimulating blue/white light from TVs, laptops, and cell phones
- Share the load: stress and anxiety are the top contributing factors to a bad night’s sleep. Try meditation or breathing exercises to calm the nervous system before bed or if you wake at night.
- Exercise regularly: if you can exercise outside, exposure to natural light will help to regulate the circadian rhythm. You can always take one of our Dynamic Pilates Mat Classes to the park or find a sunny area to practice inside. Avoid vigorous exercise before bedtime; this will make you feel more awake! If you’re exercising later in the evening, pick a restorative pilates class instead!
- Sleep routine: creating and sticking to a sleep routine is key. Try and go to bed and wake up at the same time every day and avoid long lie-ins at the weekend. If you need to nap, limit these to 20mins
- Camomile, valerian, passionflower, or tulsi tea – enjoy a small mug of soporific herbal tea before bed to help you relax and unwind
- Epsom salt baths – contain the mineral magnesium. This supports our nervous system. Soak in a warm bath for 20 mins after adding a couple of handfuls of crystals to the water. This is also great for soreness after that butt-kicking reformer pilates class.
The bottom line
Sleep is very personalized, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. Some of the recommendations may also involve an element of trial and error, so don’t be discouraged if your sleep does not improve immediately – give it a chance and keep going until you find something that works for you.