By Hazel Grassie
Sleep deprivation and unhealthy choices: a vicious cycle
Sleep deprivation (considered as six hours sleep or less per night) can make us hungry. The day after a restless night we tend to look for a quick fix to boost our energy levels, reaching for snacks that are high in saturated fat and refined sugar. Because these choices are calorie dense but nutrient deplete, we are not equipped with the right nutrients to promote a good sleep the following night. The best way around this is to push through a tiresome day without resorting to unhealthy choices and caffeine by the bucket load! Instead, focus on balanced nutritious meals to ensure you break a potentially vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.
Do’s and don’ts for insomniacs
There are several things you can do to help your mind switch off at night. Try to increase your level of exercise during the day as this will tire your muscles and induce a physical need for sleep. Also, try aromatherapy, particularly fresh lavender. A further suggestion (which may prove more difficult than we would anticipate!) is avoiding all technology an hour before bedtime. Instead read a book and focus on steady breathing. Finally, I believe that writing down your thoughts or worries before lights-out, allows the mind to relax, having a similar effect as venting your frustrations to a friend.
Dietary considerations: the basics
Getting an uninterrupted eight hours sleep each night can prove extremely difficult for some and for these people there are several dietary tips worth considering. With regard to fluid intake; start to cut back, or completely remove caffeine from your diet including tea, coffee, energy drinks and even chocolate. Personally, I drink at most two caffeinated drinks per day and I avoid consuming any after 2pm. It is not only caffeine that can disrupt our sleep. Although alcohol is a sedative, it is quickly metabolised, and when consumed before bedtime, the rise in blood sugar are likely to wake us. For a sound nights sleep try limiting consumption to the weekend. Also, try increasing the amount of water you drink, as this will improve your concentration during the day and prevent headaches, helping you to switch off more easily later.
In terms of diet, high fat foods cause the release of bile acid in the stomach, which can result in heartburn. Heavily spiced foods have a similar effect and should be avoided in the evening. Conversely, there are certain foods to be embraced as they contain specific nutrients and non-nutrients that promote sleepiness. Essentially, we are looking for foods that boost blood levels of serotonin, our feel good hormone and the precursor to melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating diurnal rhythm. Certain dietary changes undoubtedly aid sleep, but can take a little longer to become effective than a quick pill fix. Let’s have a look at the most scientifically supported dietary recommendations for better sleep.
Snooze happy foods
1. Tryptophan containing foods
Amino acids are the structural units that make up protein. Tryptophan is an amino acid and the only precursor molecule to serotonin known as our happy hormone. Serotonin levels stay at maximal levels during the day and drop by 80% when darkness falls due to the molecule becoming converted into melatonin. E. Hartmann published a scientific paper describing the evidence from studies that have investigated the role of Tryptophan in bettering various aspects of good sleep. He relayed strong evidence in support for the role of tryptophan, in doses of 1g and above, for increasing subject sleepiness and decreasing the amount of time taken to fall asleep. The best results were found in subjects with mild insomnia and those who reported prolonged sleep latency, suggesting that dietary tryptophan would be more beneficial to these groups.
The highest levels of dietary tryptophan are found in:
- pumpkin seeds (0.57g/100g)
- reduced fat mozzarella cheese (0.57g/100g)
- roasted soybeans (0.57g/100g), lamb shoulder (0.41g/100g)
- chicken and turkey (0.41g/100g)
- cooked tuna steak (0.34g/100g).
Research also advises that protein-containing food is best combined with low to medium glycemic index carbohydrates to optimise tryptophan levels.
2. Cherries for melatonin
Young healthy adults have approximately 15,000 nano grams (ng) of melatonin circulating the bloodstream at nighttime. Not all melatonin-containing foods contain enough of the chemical to raise levels in the blood stream. Tart, fresh cherries contain 1,300ng per 100g. However, 100g of cherry juice concentrate contains about 17, 500ng! Researchers suggest that drinking cherry juice concentrate and eating tart varieties of fresh, frozen and dried cherries can induce sleep. When compared to all other known melatonin containing foods, cherries are in a league of their own and simply your best bet for improving sleep.
Scientific research has shown that certain minerals are effective natural sleeping aids. Strong evidence exists in the cases of both calcium and magnesium. Scientists have found that levels of calcium in the blood are highest during periods of deepest sleep. This study concluded that the absence of deep sleep phase was related to calcium deficiency. To further support this finding, normalisation of calcium levels was shown to restore a healthy sleep pattern. Scientists believe that calcium deficiency can defect sleep due to the role of calcium in helping the brain to utilise tryptophan in the production of serotonin. This may be why foods that contain both calcium and tryptophan (e.g. milk) make great sleepy foods. Try combining warm milk with banana, as banana contains potassium, which is a muscle relaxant. Chronic insomnia is one of the main symptoms of magnesium deficiency. Scientist J. Penland found that, in adult women, a high magnesium diet was associated with less interrupted sleep. Interestingly, both calcium and magnesium work synergistically and should be taken together (600mg of calcium and 200mg of magnesium) for best results.
4. Natural Food Supplements
With medicine being as advanced as it is today, it is easy to pop a pill to alleviate health issues, like insomnia. However, the effects of sleeping pills are normally short term, and can have side effects, which can lead to dependency. I also discourage the use of melatonin supplements as they can disrupt and ultimately cease the body’s own natural production of melatonin, again leading to dependency. To ensure optimal melatonin production, simply sleep in as dark an environment as possible.
There are several natural supplements that are completely safe and have proven effective for many. Valerian extract comes from the root of the valerian herb. It has 150 compounds that have a sedative effect on the body and brain causing drowsiness. Placebo controlled trails have shown valerian supplementation (400mg dose) before bedtime can shorten sleep latency and improve the quality of sleep. Valerian extract can be taken safely at a dose of 400-900mg, up to 2 hours before bed for about 28 days. Hops extract is sourced from the flower of the hops plant. Studies have proven it to be a mild sedative and calming agent. In fact, the FDA has approved hops usage for combatting anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. Research suggests that taking valerian (500mg) and hops extract (120mg) together is of cumulative benefit. Lemon balm contains chemicals that also seem to have a sedative effect. It has produced positive results in combination with other aids like valerian, chamomile and hops in reducing anxiety and promoting sleep. Over a 7-day period, 600mg of lemon balm alone has been shown to significantly improve mood and increase calmness.
5. Understanding Glycemic Index (GI)
Glycemic Index describes the rate at which glucose (a simple sugar from food) appears and then drops in our blood stream. Generally, we are advised to avoid high GI foods, which give us a quick sugar rush that drops off fast leaving us feeling energy depleted quickly. Instead, nutritionists encourage people to choose low GI foods that gradually release sugar into the blood stream and decline more steadily, which makes us feel energised for longer. My advice for those wanting to re-establish a healthier sleeping pattern is to have a low GI evening meal, incorporating foods like sweet potato and wholemeal carbohydrates. Then, an hour before bedtime have a high GI snack like a small bowl of white rice or white toast. Reason being, your low GI evening meal will sustain your blood sugar throughout the night but the sugar rush of the high GI bedtime snack will be short lived, making you feel de-energized and sleepy.
So there it is; my best tips for getting better sleep. There is a lot of advice here to take on board so start to make one change at a time until it becomes habit before making the next one. Also, keep in mind that with multiple changes it’s hard to pinpoint the one that may be having the greatest effect. It is all about trying different things and moreover, leading a healthier lifestyle with regards to diet, minimising stress and keeping active. All of these changes are steps in the right direction towards getting better sleep.