Eat Right For Sleep
Our gut contains 90% of the body’s serotonin, over 50% of the body’s dopamine and 400 times more melatonin that the pineal gland. These hormones play vital roles in mood and sleep.
In Step 4 of The Art of Falling Asleep discover how food and sleep are linked, find out what nutrients, vitamins and minerals are good and bad for sleep and what foods will help and hinder a good night. Read it here, or read on below…
Our digestive system and our sleep are inextricably linked, with both when and what we eat and drink directly impacting on our quality of sleep. In fact, over 90% of the signals between the gut and brain are going from our digestive system, not to it, our gut informs our brain rather than the other way around!
What’s even more interesting is that our gut goes through 90-minute sleep cycles at night, similar to those in our brain. Our gut also contains 90% of the body's Serotonin, over 50% of the body's Dopamine and 400 times more Melatonin than the penial gland. These hormones play vital roles in mood and sleep.
In terms of specific food and drink, it’s well known that drinking caffeine before bed keeps us awake, and is something to avoid if you suffer from insomnia. However, on a plus side, eating food that contains sleep-enhancers - such as Tryptophan, Magnesium and Vitamin D can help get you to sleep more easily.
SLEEP AND FOOD CHOICE
Lack of sleep changes the ratio of hormones that control hunger - leptin (which produces the feeling of fullness) reduces, and ghrelin (which induces hunger) increases. In simplistic terms, therefore we end up eating more food when we don’t sleep properly.
What's more, lack of sleep activates the ‘endocannabinoid system’, which is involved in reward or ‘pleasure' eating. This system stimulates us to eat more fat and is why we tend to eat more of the wrong foods when we are sleep deprived.
Our food choice also affects how we sleep. Research has shown that when we eat fat we get less deep (restorative) sleep, whilst when we eat more fibre we get more deep sleep.¹²
A recent survey suggested that irregular sleep patterns (and skipping breakfast) is linked to childhood obesity, as it leads to increased appetite, especially of energy dense foods.¹³
Sleep Tip:What we eat affects how we sleep and vice versa. Eating too much fat reduces our quality of sleep, and reduced sleep increases our consumption of energy dense foods. Eating more fibre is a healthy food choice both in terms of sleep and nutritional benefit.
WHEN SHOULD WE EAT TO SLEEP?
Paleo specialists suggest that our hunter gatherer ancestors consumed a large meal in the late afternoon or evening after spending the day hunting and gathering. However, there is no firm scientific conclusion as to where our energy intake should be distributed throughout the day.
The general advice is to have your last meal of the evening about four (and at least two) hours before you go to sleep; although, you can have a light snack later if you still feel hungry.
Sleep Tip:Try to keep to consistent meal times. Sleep is about routine and regular eating patterns influence our sleep clock starting with breakfast.
SET A CAFFEINE CURFEW
Caffeine (in tea, coffee, coca cola, chocolate and energy drinks) is a stimulant. It boosts energy, and increases dopamine levels (which has a positive affect on our mood centre), and is why we use it to kick start the day. However, caffeine is well known for keeping us awake at night, as it delays sleep onset, shortens overall sleep time and reduces sleep depth.
Some dark chocolate bars can also have high amounts of caffeine. The general rule is: the darker the chocolate the more caffeine it contains.
One study shows that having a double espresso three hours before bedtime, delayed Melatonin (sleep hormone) production by 40 minutes.14
Ideally, if you have trouble getting to sleep, it’s best to give up caffeine altogether.
However, if you don’t want to drop all caffeine, try swapping to Green Tea, which still has caffeine but also contains L-theanine, an amino acid, that helps you sleep better.
If you still want to drink coffee, aim for a maximum of two cups of coffee a day and set a fixed caffeine curfew at lunchtime.
LIMIT LIQUID INTAKE, INCLUDING ALCOHOL, BEFORE BED
Poor overall hydrating (and nutrition) has been linked to a reduction in sleep quality. However, restricting fluids before bed could help reduce the need to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. This tends to be more important the older we get.
Whilst a warm drink an hour or so before bed can help you wind down for sleep, the aim is to be mindful of how liquids impact you and adjust the cut-off time accordingly.
For many of us, a pattern emerges following a poor night’s sleep, we boost our groggy morning with caffeine to get us going. After a stressful day, some of us can find it hard to switch off in the evening, so we have a few glasses of wine to sedate our mind and help us go off to sleep. When we wake unrefreshed after a night of poor quality sleep, we search for a cup of coffee to start the cycle off again the next day.
Don’t over hydrate at night and limit alcohol to one glass a good hour before bed.
WHAT TO EAT
The key to good nutrition is to eat a varied diet that has a higher percentage of fresh rather than processed foods. A recent study showed that difficulty maintaining sleep was associated with fewer foods in the diet, with daytime sleepiness, and less none restorative sleep being associated with being on a special diet, such as low fat/ cholesterol.15
A good Mediterranean diet will give you the host of important nutrients for the body including Calcium, Potassium, Selenium, Lycopene, Vitamin C, Vitamin B (especially B6) and Alpha Carotene. In addition, there are three nutrients that stand out particularly for sleep, these being Tryptophan, Magnesium and Vitamin D.
TOP TEN NUTRIENTS FOR SLEEP
Helps us get to sleep as it has a direct role in the production of Melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’. It also helps us to get more deep restorative sleep. The bones of soft fish such as sardines, dairy foods, dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds and tofu are all calcium rich foods.
Helps with muscle relaxation. A deficiency is associated with daytime sleepiness. Potassium rich foods includes avocados, green leafy vegetables, beans and baked potatoes.
Deficiency in selenium is associated with a difficulty in falling asleep. Selenium rich foods include, fish, shellfish, nuts (especially Brazil) and seeds, meats, dairy products, and grains.
Important in restorative sleep. Vitamin C rich foods include, citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, as well as pineapples, strawberries, papaya, broccoli and kale.
Helps with muscle relaxation. A deficiency associated with daytime sleepiness. Carrots and orange foods such as pumpkins, sweet potatoes and apricots are rich in Alpha Carotene.
VITAMIN B (ESPECIALLY B6)
Helps with REM sleep, whilst vitamin B6 helps the body to produce serotonin, which is known as the “calming hormone.” Vitamin B rich foods include, fish, raw garlic, pistachio nuts, whole grain, meat (poultry and pork), vegetables, egges and soya.
Helps regulate sleep patterns, and helps get you to sleep. Its deficiency has been shown to reduce hours of sleep.16 Foods such as sun dried tomatoes (and tomatoes), papaya, grapefruit and watermelon are rich in Lycopene.
A core mineral that is used throughout your muscles, bones and brain, so it’s easy to become deficient in Magnesium. It reduces the levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases the firing of receptors in the brain that help with sleep regulation, and aids muscle relaxation. Spinach and chard are a great source of Magnesium, as well as other dark leafy green vegetables. Nuts (especially almonds) and seeds (pumpkin), dried fruit, avocados, beans, figs, whole grains and fish all contain high levels of Magnesium.
Needed for healthy sleep and should always be included in our diet, especially as we can often lack it in the darker, winter months (Vitamin D is also produced in the skin from sunlight). Vitamin D rich foods include, Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna), egg yolk, cheese and beef liver.
An amino acid that helps to make Serotonin, the ‘feel good hormone’. Serotonin is then used by the pineal gland to make Melatonin, the ‘body clock’ hormone that sets your sleep-wake cycles. Tryptophan rich foods include, almonds, peanuts, pumpkin, sunflower, chia and hemp seeds, oats, tofu, turkey, eggs, buckwheat, bananas, yoghurt, sweet potato and green leafy vegetables
Sleep Tip:Tryptophan is more easily absorbed when it’s eaten with carbohydrate. A turkey sandwich (bread) or yoghurt with honey drizzled on top will have a better effect than turkey or yoghurt on their own.
TOP TEN FOODS FOR SLEEP
Fish is a good source of selenium, and B6 which aid the production of melatonin, whilst fatty fish can provide vitamin D and Omega 3 fat. Tuna, haddock and salmon are all great sources of vitamin B6. Salmon is high in vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin B3 and Omega-3 fat. Similarly, cod contains high levels of vitamin B12 and selenium.
Wholemeal grains encourage the production of insulin which induces an increase in tryptophan activity in the brain. Grains also contain magnesium which helps us stay asleep. Oats is a particularly special grain as it is easy on the digestion and contains Melatonin.
Walnuts are regarded as a super sleep food and have their own source of melatonin, as well as omega 3 fats that are important in sleep.
Contain potassium, magnesium and Tryptophan as well as carbohydrate which can make you sleepy.
Chia seeds are full of dietary fibre, and contain high levels of calcium, zinc, potassium and omega 3 fatty acids which all are key sleep nutrients . It also contains twice the amount of Tryptophan than turkey.
Tart Montmorency cherries have their own source of melatonin, and can be bought as a juice from health food stores.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Pumpkin seeds are a super sleep food as they contain high levels of tryptophan as well as zinc, which both help to produce Serotonin and therefore, melatonin. Almonds are a great source of calcium and magnesium.
YOGURT (ESPECIALLY GREEK)
Yogurt is a great source of calcium and vitamin B12, which are important in a good night’s sleep. You can also buy yogurt that is fortified with vitamin D and potassium which can be even more useful in helping you sleep. Yoghurt is also a source of friendly gut bacteria which are vital in good sleep.
GREEN LEAFY VEG
Green leafy vegetables (especially Kale) are a great source of nutrients. Kale is regarded as one of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. It is especially high in vitamin B6 as well as calcium, potassium, and magnesium, all of which are key nutrients in sleep.
Carrots are high in alpha-carotene, which has been shown to help people fall asleep more easily. Carrots also contain potassium, and vitamin B6, both of which are important in sleep.
FOODS TO AVOID
Avoid eating excessive fatty foods, spice and cured meats at dinner as these foods can disrupt our sleep cycle.
Spicy foods can increase our core body temperature which makes it harder to fall asleep. Also, tomatoes should be avoided, as they can cause reflux.
Although vegetables and wholegrains contain sleep-inducing vitamins and minerals, eaten too close to bedtime can keep us awake, as they both take a long time to digest.
Foods that contain tyramine, such as bacon, ham, pepperoni, raspberries, avocado, soy sauce, and red wine can also keep you awake, as they increase our brains production of noradrenaline (a brain stimulant).
Spicy foods can make you too hot to fall asleep quickly
Tyramine rich foods produce a brain stimulant that can keep you awake
Certain proteins and too much complex fibre take a long time to digest
NATURAL REMEDIES TO AID SLEEP
Valerian is recognised by many, and proven scientifically, as a natural remedy that can help get you to sleep more easily and promote a better night’s sleep. It typically comes as a tea or capsule and takes about 2 weeks to work and is recommended to be taken for between 2 and 6 weeks.
Chamomile is another popular tea associated with sleep and relaxation. However, there is conflicting evidence as to whether Chamomile actually helps you sleep from a chemical point of view. It could be more likely that the ritual of making the tea itself, drinking a warm soothing drink, and sitting down calmly to drink it is its main affect.
Lemon Balm is considered a calming herb. It comes from the mint family and is available in capsules, tea, extracts and tinctures.
Passionflower is another natural sleep remedy, that is commonly used.
Kava Kava is the national tea of Figi and well known for its sedative properties. However, it can be a cause of liver failure and should only be taken under medical supervision.
Hops has been shown to improve sleep quality amongst university students.17
Basil has also been shown to have soporific effects.18
It's important that if you are taking any prescribed medication or have any medical conditions always consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking supplements or sleep aids.
LOOK AFTER YOUR FRIENDLY GUT FLORA
There are more bacteria in our gut than there are cells in our body. A recent study shows that these gut bacteria (microbiome) have a diurnal sleeping rhythm, which is tied into our body’s sleep centre in our brain. The link is two ways meaning that lack of sleep disrupts the gut flora and changes in the gut flora can influence sleep.19
What’s more, it seems that our gut bacteria sense what, when, and how much we eat, producing signals that are then fed up to our brain and into the circadian system, which controls our metabolism and sleep.²¹
A recent study of people with irregular sleep from jet lag showed that their fecal samples had an increase in a type of bacteria known to be more prevalent in people with obesity and diabetes.²°
Once the travellers got back into a regular sleep pattern, the level of these microbes dropped back to normal.
Maintain the health of your ‘friendly' gut bacteria by eating probiotic foods, like yogurt and kimchi.
Taking acidophilus can help maintain a healthy gut or replenish friendly bacteria should you need to.
MAKE SURE YOU ARE REGULAR
Sleep Tip:Foods such as prunes, figs and even liquorice are well known natural laxatives, but equally supplements like Ortis Fruits and Fibres cubes are a great solution (www.ortishealth.co.uk)
EAT LOCAL ORGANIC FOODS
Sleep Tip:Eating local organic food is a great way to prevent chemicals from damaging your flora and provide the essential nutrients to help you sleep. Many supermarkets have a good range of organic foods as well as specialist shops like Planet Organic (www.planetorganic.com)
You can read our sleep guide in full here. Tell us what you think, we would love to hear from you!
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Whilst great care has been taken compiling the information within this guide, it is intended as a resource for general information only and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your GP if you have ongoing problems or concerns regarding your sleep.
The statements and suggestions made within the text have not been evaluated by the NHS and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or illness.
Always consult with your healthcare professional before starting any diet, exercise or supplementation program, before taking or stopping any medication, or if you have or suspect you might have any health problem.
12 Marie-Pierre St Onge journal of Clin Sleep Med, 2015
13 Prof. Kelly et al UCL, 2016
15 Michael A. Grandner et al University of Pennsylvania, 2014
16 Grandner et al., 2013)
17 Franco et al, Acta Physiological Hugarica, 2012
18 Vahid Reza Askari et al Iran Red Crescent Med J. 2016
20 Christop Thaiaa et al Gut Microb, 2015
21 Chang Univesity of Chicago medical centre, 2015