Poor sleep patterns, and sleep disorders affects a surprising number of people. In fact, in the UK, it is estimated that 1 in 3 of all adults have episodes of sleeplessness or what is usually termed “insomnia”. Sleep is important for so many reasons which is why you need to give yourselves the best chance of some quality shut-eye.
Is it down to your diet?
Whether you suffer with just the odd sleepless night, or are plagued with an inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, your diet may well be a considering factor. Of course there are several other factors that cause poor sleep (e.g. stress, hormone changes, shift work, jet lag, chronic illness and medications), but there are some well-studied and documented foods that are proven to help sleep, as well as some that are best avoided just before bedtime.
Here’s the low-down on foods to aid sleep, and those that might be keeping you awake…
Montmorency cherries are one of few known food sources of melatonin. Melatonin is a natural compound produced in the brain’s pineal gland which controls the body’s natural sleep cycles and circadian rhythms. Research shows that people who suffer with insomnia have low levels of circulating melatonin. Unsurprisingly then, drinking cherry juice has been found to help aid sleep, no doubt by lifting levels of melatonin.
New research suggests that kiwi fruit may be an effective sleep-promoting food. It’s thought that this positive effect is down to kiwi fruit’s high antioxidant levels, as well as its relatively high serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is involved in several physiological processes in the body – one of which is helping to regulate mood, as well as appetite. Serotonin is also crucial to normal/proper sleep - contributing to falling asleep, as well as time spent in quality, deep, regenerative sleep. In addition, studies have shown that stimulation of serotonin levels may in turn increase melatonin levels.
Other sleep-inducing foods…
A number of other foods may help improve the quality of sleep. Magnesium-rich foods for example help promote relaxation – both of muscles and of the nervous system. Top of the list must be any vegan’s faithful friends – the dark leafy greens – kale, watercress, cabbage, spinach and raw salad leaves. These, along with bananas, avocados, nuts and seeds, vegetables and whole grains may boost magnesium content of the diet, and therefore help toward better sleep.
Oats, chickpeas, bananas and peanuts might also be particularly useful foods for sleeplessness. These are all good sources of the amino acid tryptophan and although it’s not certain whether the tryptophan in these foods actually crosses the blood-brain barrier, certainly a handful of nuts or a banana an hour before bed, along with a relaxing herbal tea such as valerian, passion flower or chamomile tea may just help, and be your ticket to dream land. Tryptophan incidentally is needed for the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin (just like in kiwis) and melatonin (also found in cherries) which both vital to inducing quality sleep.
Lifestyle tips to ensure a great night’s sleep…
- Create a relaxing and “wind-down” routine before bedtime. You might like to take a warm bath, followed with some easy stretching, deep breathing or a light yoga practice.
- Try using a drop of lavender oil on your pillow. Lavender oil has wonderful relaxation properties.
- Avoid television, or using a computer before bed.
- Do some exercise or take a long walk in the fresh air during the day. Try and avoid vigorous exercise, however, late in the evening. This may well keep you awake, or present difficulty in falling asleep.
- Sleep in complete darkness. Darkness stimulates production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing brain chemical.
- Go to bed at the same time each night, and try and get up at the same time too. The body LOVES routine, and working as close to the natural day and night rhythms is one of the most positive things you can do for yourself, your body and your mind. We evolved along with the rhythms of day and night. They signal a whole cascade of hormonal and neurochemical reactions that keep us healthy by repairing our DNA, building tissues and muscle, and regulating weight and mood chemicals.
What to avoid before bed…
- Avoid coffee or any other caffeine-containing substance, drink or medication. Caffeine is a strong nervous stimulant, as is nicotine.
- Avoid eating large meals close to bedtime. This is very stressful on the digestive system, and aside from causing indigestion and discomfort, often causes a person to feel sluggish in the morning.
- Avoid alcohol before bed. One or two drinks may not pose a problem, but excessive drinking is known to disrupt the REM phase of sleep – the crucial time that the body and mind undergoes vital regeneration.