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Sleep: eat your way to a good night’s sleep

What is the answer to a perfect night’s sleep? This is a question that health professionals all over the world have been trying to answer for centuries, but sadly there is no magic fix. The quality and quantity (both are equally important!) of our sleep is affected by many different factors including environment, emotions, stress and anxiety, age, certain medications and last but not least, our diets.

Why is sleep so important?

When we sleep it allows our bodies to rest, repair and regenerate. It gives us energy for the next day and has a huge impact on how we feel, both physically and mentally. Sleep impacts practically all areas of our health, including:

  • Memory, learning, productivity mood and behaviour
  • Immunological responses
  • Metabolism and digestive processes
  • Hormone levels, including sex hormones like testosterone and oestrogen
  • Hunger (tiredness drives our hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin)
  • Skin

You may have heard the term “sleep hygiene” – this refers to our sleep and can be objectively measured in a clinic, although you don’t need a doctor to tell you when you’ve had a rough night’s sleep! It is recommended that adults get between 7-9hrs sleep per night for optimal health.

Foods that stop us sleeping well

There are certain foods that we need to be weary of as they can have a negative impact on our sleep quality and quantity. You can probably guess what some of these are…!

  • Caffeine: this is a stimulant which can stay in our bodies for up to 12hrs after consumption. Try to avoid having caffeine after 3pm, and remember that even things like chocolate, decaf coffee/tea, fizzy drinks like Coca Cola and even some medications contain caffeine
  • Alcohol: this stops us having REM (dream) sleep which is important for cognitive recovery. The larger the consumption, the more you’ll notice the negative effects
  • Sugar: this is another stimulant which can wreak havoc on our blood sugar balance and have a negative impact on sleep. Try and avoid high sugar foods before bedtime
  • Spicy/acidic foods: these contain high levels of capsaicin which is a chemical that increases body temperature by interfering with the body’s natural thermoregulation system. We sleep better when we are cool, so don’t have a spicy curry just before going to 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, so should ideally be avoided. If you are hungry, a pre-bedtime snack can be eaten if it is small and contains protein
  • Imbalanced blood sugar: If you have imbalanced blood sugar levels you may find that you wake up in the night 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.

  1. Tryptophan rich foods – we cannot make this amino acid ourselves and can only get it from foods. It helps to make melatonin, our sleep hormone
    • chicken, turkey, milk, dairy, nuts and seeds plus carbohydrates
  2. Magnesium rich foods – these relax the nervous system and help us fall asleep
    • dark leafy greens like spinach, quinoa, cashews, black beans, avocado, wholegrains
  3. B vitamins, especially B6 – low levels have been linked to insomnia
    • pork, sweet potatoes, pistachios, wholegrain cereals, bananas, fish e.g. salmon and tuna
  4. Vitamin D – this is linked to energy, mood and sleep
    • sunlight, fatty fish, mushrooms, egg yolks, supplements
  5. Cherries – the Montmorency variety naturally contain melatonin
  6. Complex carbohydrates: aim for a third of your plate to be wholegrains and high fibre 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

Lifestyle factors and sleep

As well as improving our diets, we can also improve a number of lifestyle factors as these have a huge impact on sleep too. Some of my favourite 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 one of 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 in the night
  • Exercise regularly: if you can exercise outside, getting exposure to natural light will help to regulate the circadian rhythm. Avoid vigorous exercise before bedtime though as this will make you feel more awake!
  • Sleep routine: creating and sticking to a sleep routine is important. 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 – this contains the mineral magnesium which supports our nervous system. Soak in a warm bath for 20 mins after adding 2 handfuls of crystals to the water

The bottom line

Sleep is very personalised, 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.

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