01 Jun What to eat for a good night’s sleep
How many hours of sleep do you need to feel your best?
Chances are, it’s slightly more than you’re getting. A survey conducted in 2016 found that the typical Briton undersleeps by an hour every night. Over the course of a week, that constitutes a sleep debt of 7 hours—almost a whole night’s sleep.
Signs of sleep debt include being totally reliant on an alarm clock to wake up, struggling to get up when you must, and desperately catching up on sleep when you can (such as long lie-ins at the weekend). Sound familiar?
Sleep isn’t something you want to skimp on. While your conscious mind may be taking a rest, your body is in full work mode. It’s an important period of growth and repair, during which your body takes out the metabolic ‘trash’, setting you up for another day of high-energy wakefulness. Sufficient sleep helps to control your appetite, stabilise your mood, enhance your short-term memory, increase willpower and may even make you live longer .
Generally, for those not caring for young children, there are three reasons for not getting enough sleep. The first is not going to bed at a sensible hour, which is largely lifestyle driven (and totally reasonable from time to time!). The other two are struggling to fall asleep, or waking up during the night.
Believe it or not, tweaking what and when you eat can have an impact on your ability to fall and stay asleep. Here are some simple yet effective principles to up your chance of a restorative night’s slumber:
1. Eat a tryptophan-rich dinner
Tryptophan is an amino acid, the smallest unit of protein. It serves as the raw material for your body’s synthesis of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Eating a meal that’s rich in tryptophan could therefore support the production of sufficient melatonin, helping you to drop off more easily.
Tryptophan-rich foods include free-range eggs, organic dairy, grass-fed beef and poultry, and wholegrain rice. For a sleep-inducing supper that can be whipped up in minutes, try a goat’s cheese omelette.
2. Choose complex carbohydrates
Let’s imagine a scenario: you’ve eaten a dinner that’s rich in refined carbohydrates—pasta, for example. Unbeknownst to you, your blood sugar shoots up and remains high as you go to bed. You then find yourself awake at 3am, irritatingly alert. This is because your blood sugar has dipped again, causing the stress hormone cortisol to be released, which wakes you up.
To prevent this, focus on eating complex carbohydrates throughout the day, but especially in the evening. These include sweet potato, starchy vegetables, beans, pulses and some whole grains. These will help keep your blood sugar steady, preventing that sleep-breaking dip in the middle of the night. They also have the added benefit of improving tryptophan absorption (see above point!) . So, going back to that goat’s cheese omelette, why not add a small sweet potato?
3. Minimise caffeine after midday
It can be tempting to turn to coffee when you’re feeling tired mid-afternoon, but this habit may be contributing to your sleepy state.
Caffeine is metabolised by the liver, and the rate at which it’s broken down varies dramatically between individuals. Studies show that some people can eliminate the caffeine from their systems within 5 hours, while others take over 11 hours to get rid of it . This means that if you drink a coffee at 3pm, it may still be having a stimulating effect at 2am the following morning.
For good-quality kip, it’s best to play on the safe side and stop drinking all stimulating beverages after midday. As an aside, nicotine also acts as a neurostimulant–so that’s another reason to give up smoking.
4. Harness the power of magnesium
Magnesium is a mineral that’s involved more than 300 chemical processes in your body. It’s also known as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ for its calming effect on muscles and nerves .
Upping your intake of magnesium is therefore a useful tactic to help you wind down in the evening. The best food sources are dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds and legumes. So, once again retuning to that sleep-inducing supper, let’s add a generous portion of magnesium-rich greens to the goat’s cheese omelette and sweet potato.
Magnesium can also be absorbed through your skin, so another way of relaxing before bedtime is to take a bath with a couple of handfuls of Epsom salts (magnesium suphate). Add a few drops of lavender essential oil to really step up the chill-out factor.
5. Drink valerian tea
The first time I recommended this tea to a client, they said it sounded like something out of Game of Thrones! It may well do but, happily, its effects are very much part of the real world.
Used medicinally since the time of ancient Greece, valerian root has been found in several modern-day trials to both improve sleep quality and reduce the time taken to fall asleep . Crucially, it has this effect without creating a sleep ‘hangover’ the next morning, which is typical of many over-the-counter sleep aids.
Valerian is available as a tincture, but it’s also effective when drunk as a simple tea. You can find valerian tea on its own, or it’s often combined with other sedative herbs such as lemon balm and chamomile. Leave your chosen tea to brew for 5 minutes, and drink 30–45 minutes before you turn in. Even better, sip it while in your Epsom-salt bath!
Although the food you eat plays a huge role in regulating your circadian rhythm (and thus the quality of your sleep), it’s not the only factor. A few lifestyle tweaks can also improve your slumber:
Say hello to the sun. In today’s modern life, it’s easy to forget that we are part of the natural world—and we operate best when attuned to its cycles. Exposure to sunlight helps to synchronize your circadian clock to the solar day, making you more energetic in the morning, and naturally more relaxed at nightfall . In an ideal world, you’d be up with the sun. Failing that, endeavour to get outside early in the morning. If you work in a place without natural light, try to head outside for half an hour during the working day too.
Work up a sweat. A study in the journal Sleep suggests that exercising during the day significantly improves subjective sleep quality . This trial used weight training as the form of exercise, but the most important thing is to do something you enjoy: go on a brisk walk with the dog, arrange to meet friends at a local gym class, or even dance around to your favourite song at home. Make exercise pleasurable and you’re more likely to continue doing it.
Reduce your screen time. There are no two ways about it—screens play havoc with our sleep. The blue light emitted by your TV, tablet or smartphone suppresses melatonin, that all-important sleep hormone . The best thing to do is instigate a screen curfew (say 9pm) and use the time after focus on winding down. If you simply can’t do without your phone, consider buying some blue light-blocking amber glasses. You may look a bit funny, but at least your sleep won’t suffer!
An abridged version of this article first appeared on Hip and Healthy.
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