Eat for Sleep - Part One

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We all know how refreshed we feel after a good nights sleep, and conversely how drained and tired we feel when we don’t sleep well. If one or two sleepless nights can decrease our ability to perform everyday tasks and induce daytime sleepiness, more than three days of sleep deprivation can bring more serious deterioration in overall health performance and mood.

For something we do with our eyes closed, getting good sleep should be really easy! However poor sleep is a common problem that affects one in three adults at some point in their lives. There are a number of reasons why this might be:

  • Anxiety / stress /grief / depression

  • Poor eating habits leading to indigestion and poor nutrient status

  • Asthma and breathing problems, as well as smoking

  • Menopause

  • Hypoglycaemia and blood sugar issues

  • Thyroid imbalance

  • Calcium and magnesium deficiency

  • Physical pain and inflammation

  • Caffeine or alcohol consumption

  • Sedentary lifestyle and obesity

  • A disturbing environment. e.g. a source of light in the room or a snoring partner!

Because of these different reasons for sleep disturbance, there is no “one size fits all” approach to improving sleep, but there are a number of things that you can do to help.  What we eat and when we eat it can have a huge impact on how we sleep. A big meal close to bedtime, or a stimulant such as caffeine or alcohol at the wrong time of day can wreak havoc hours later! 

By eating the right foods, you can help provide your body with the raw materials that it needs to stay in balance, whether that’s supporting your hormones; your mood; your energy or your immune system and any inflammation or pain.  If your body has what it needs to function optimally you are likely to feel, and therefore sleep, much better. 

A few simple steps to improve our food and nutrition can help our sleep in a number of different ways:

1. Balancing blood sugar

Blood glucose is the fuel that powers our body. This energy comes primarily from the carbohydrates that we eat. Some are released quickly for an immediate boost and others fuel us more gradually. Eating the right foods at the right time can help our body maintain healthy blood glucose levels – avoiding the highs and lows of the “blood sugar rollercoaster”.   You jump on this rollercoaster every time you consume refined carbohydrates and sugar; for example chocolate, biscuits or sugary drinks.  These foods increase your blood glucose levels very quickly, but that means there will be a corresponding crash an hour or so later, causing you to crave food, become shaky and irritable, or disturb your sleep.  

2. Maintaining good levels of important vitamins and minerals.

Our body is amazingly complex. Every day scientists and doctors learn more about how we work. Low levels of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) can cause a number of issues, which can make it harder for us to sleep well.  Low levels of micronutrients can disturb our sleep by causing:

  • Muscle cramps and restless leg syndrome – wriggling!

  • Depression / anxiety - our brain “races”

  • Changes in thyroid function – upsets sleep cycle, so we’re sleepy in the day and awake at night

  • Heart palpitations - which can fuel anxiety

  • Excitability or irritability - meaning we can’t switch off

  • Dry / itchy skin and inflammation - causing discomfort and disturbed sleep

    Vitamins and minerals are vital for the production of various hormones and neurotransmitters which help support a healthy sleep cycle and many of us aren’t getting even the lowest recommended intake, let alone an optimal intake.  

    The two main hormones that regulate sleep are Serotonin and Melatonin. These work in harmony throughout the day and night. They are made from the amino acid tryptophan.

    Serotonin is a “feel good” hormone that makes us feel relaxed but energised, gets us going in the morning and keeps us positive throughout the day. It is produced in sunshine and light environments. Sunshine also stimulates our skin to make vitamin D, which helps regulate sleep and prevents Seasonal Adjustment Disorder (SAD), so getting daylight throughout the day is very important.

    Melatonin, aka “the hormone of darkness”, helps us get to sleep and is produced in the pineal gland in our brain when we’re in a dark environment. If we don’t have enough, we sleep badly and feel sluggish during the day. Levels tend to become lower as we get older, so boosting our bodies melatonin with a food containing melatonin (such as tart cherries, raspberries or goji berries) a couple hours before bed should help to improve our sleep. Eating some carbohydrate such as a kiwi fruit or a banana an hour before bed helps the amino acid tryptophan get into the brain and can help make you sleepy. 

    3. Quality protein intake

    Protein is great for helping balancing blood sugar as it releases energy slowly, but it also helps in many other ways. It provides our body’s building blocks - amino acids.  Some amino acids are used for growth and repair; others support our metabolism and immune system.

    Here are just a few jobs that amino acids do to help sleep:

    • Synthesising neurotransmitters – the amino acid tryptophan produces the hormones serotonin and melatonin which regulate our mood and sleep. 

    • Protecting cardiovascular health - Your body uses the amino acid arginine to make nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps lower blood pressure by relaxing the muscles in your blood vessels. It's produced in heart muscles, where it regulates contractions. If your heart is not beating quickly and/or erratically, you are likely to sleep better.

    • Metabolism - amino acids are needed regulate many of the metabolic pathways, which keep us healthy, synthesise hormones, and are the main component of DNA

    4. Healthy fat intake

    Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are called “essential” because we need to obtain them from food, we cannot make them ourselves. The two main families of essential fatty acids are Omega-3 and Omega-6 and every cell in the body needs them. EFAs support healthy nerve activity, help produce hormones and play a role in inflammation, so if we don’t have enough, or in the right balance, this can have a knock on effect all over the body, which can affect our sleep quality.  Omega-3 is in fish oils and Omega-6 is in nuts, seeds and some vegetable oils.

    Click here to view our recipe e-book to help you make a difference. 

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