Sleep is as important to the human body as eating and drinking. For many people though, getting a good nights rest can feel impossible. Insomnia, the inability to go to or to stay asleep for a worthwhile length of time can be severely debilitating. A few changes to your eating habits may promote a better bedtime environment and allow you to drop off more quickly and stay in dream land once you’re there.
What should I eat to help sleep?
The first essential element is timing your meals. The body has a natural cycle during the day, called the circadian rhythm, which dictates which processes are best suited to a particular time. Sleep requires a drop in body temperature along with an associated lessening of the body’s metabolism. One of the largest processes your body undertakes is digestion. If the body is working then it’s temperature will increase. At the most basic level, digestion can negatively effect your bodies preparation for rest.
To avoid this, try not to consume a large meal before bedtime. The largest meal of the day should be at lunchtime, with a smaller, lighter choice in the evening. Consuming a snack before bed may be OK, but anything larger like a full dinner should happen at least two to three hours before bedtime.
Apart from digestive reasons, another obstacle to avoid is heartburm or acid reflux which occurs when our stomach acid, used to digest the food we’re eating, escapes from the digestive system and makes it’s way back up to the esophagus. It can escape after we lie down and gravity stops helping the cardiac sphincter muscle. Leaving a decent period between eating and rest can go some way to alleviate the symptoms. Spicy foods, fruit juice, fried foods, salty snacks, coffee, tea, onions, peppermint, and chocolate can also make things worse.
Having said that, a small snack before bedtime, can be beneficial. Going to bed hungry can cause discomfort and hunger pangs during the night may wake you up. If you do suffer from this try a snack high in carbohydrates like plain popcorn or a piece of toast, enough to take the edge off your hunger but not enough to kick the digestive system into overdrive.
Foods that help sleep
There is a complex chemical pathway in the body from the foods we eat to the effect they have on our behavior and moods. The most relevant pathway for sleep development is still being researched, but there are a number of theories that have been developed.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid which is converted by the body to 5-HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan). This then aids the development of serotonin. Serotonin is associated with mood, appetite, sleep and impulse control. The pineal gland produces melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone. Serotonin is essential for melatonin production.
Enough bio-chemistry for now! All this means is that foods rich in Tryptophan can help with sleep, if they are consumed with other appropriate nutritional elements.
To transform tryptophan into serotonin, vitamin B6 is required. Carbohydrates will assist with transporting the amino acids into the blood stream and into the important parts of the brain. Calcium will assist with the development of melatonin.
A combination of foods rich in tryptophan, 5-HT, calcium, vitamin B6 and carbohydrates is perfect for sleep promotion.
Try to avoid an excess of protein and fats (ie too much red meat!) as these will inhibit the pathway to melatonin production and obstruct the beneficial nutrients we are trying to consume
Some foods rich in tryptophan are chocolate, oats, bananas, durians, mangoes, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, and peanuts. It is found in turkey at a level typical of poultry in general
5-HT rich food includes dried dates, figs, papaya, banana, strawberries, sweet cherries, orange, mango, pineapple, grapefruit and hazelnuts.
Vitamin B6 is found in meats, whole grain products, vegetables, and nuts however canning and freezing will eliminate the benefits of these foods.
A good source of calcium is dairy foods, if you prefer to avoid these other good choices are seaweeds such as kelp, wakame and hijiki; nuts and seeds (like almonds and sesame); blackstrap molasses; beans; oranges; figs; quinoa; amaranth; collard greens; okra; rutabaga; broccoli; dandelion leaves; kale; and fortified products such as orange juice and soy milk.
A good mix of foods from each of these segments (many are found in more than one place) will develop your chemical pathways leading to sleep hormones. If your diet currently lacks foods such as those above, experimenting foods may be exactly what you need to have a better nights sleep and avoid sleep interruptions like bad dreams, night terrors and sleep walking.