A cosy, clutter-free bedroom and beautiful bed linen go a long way to creating the ultimate sanctuary for sleep. But if you struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep, your diet could be to blame. We asked nutritionist Libby Limon for her advice on how we can eat our way to a good night’s sleep.
A good sleep is essential for health and is intrinsically related to everything from our weight management to prevention of disease as well as our everyday feelings of vitality and wellbeing. Yet we sleep less than ever before and often the quality of sleep is poor. Reviewing your diet is a great place to start if you want to get a better night’s rest.
Sleep is regulated by the circadian-driven hormones, melatonin and cortisol, which are stimulated by the sun and moon cycles of light and darkness. Melatonin is known as our sleep hormone and should be at its highest just before we go to bed. Cortisol is our wake hormone which builds overnight and should help us wake easily and refreshed. Both of these can be supported via nutrition and our dietary habits to create balanced production and therefore good quantity and quality of sleep. However, cortisol in particular can easily become imbalanced due to it additionally being both a stress hormone and regulator of blood sugar, which in turn can cause poor sleep.
5 Sleep superstars
- My number one suggestion would be to balance your blood sugar effectively throughout the day and thus not overstimulate cortisol production. Avoid a high sugar and refined carbohydrate diet such as lots of white rice, bread and pasta. Instead focus on balanced meals that contain protein and healthy fats in combination with complex carbs such as vegetables and wholegrains.
- Cherries are the best natural source of melatonin, so are a great after dinner snack.
- Turkey, eggs, halibut, and spinach are all high in tryptophan, the precursor protein that the body needs to make serotonin and then melatonin.
- Lavender, lemon balm, chamomile are all herbs that have a relaxing effect on the nervous system so a cup of herbal tea may help you wind down before bed
- If you are really struggling with sleep, there are number of nutritional supplements that may help. Firstly, magnesium is a mineral that the body needs for muscle relax and is important for hormonal balance. It is commonly insufficient in the western diet, so it can help to take this as a supplement to improve sleep. If stress or anxiety is a major component effecting your sleep, try L-theanine, an amino acid derived from green tea or ashwagandha, an Ayurveda herb. If you are on any medications, check with a medical professional for interactions or contraindications before you take any supplements.
5 Sleep stealers
- Caffeine found not only in tea and coffee but also energy and fizzy drinks is a stimulant that if drunk to excess can affect sleep. Switch to decaf and especially avoid drinking caffeinated beverages after midday.
- Alcohol is often drunk to unwind, however it dehydrates the body and disrupts blood sugar balance, and can negatively effect sleep quality. Avoid drinking too much before bed and make sure you rehydrate with water and electrolytes before you sleep.
- Spicy food can cause reflux and heartburn which is exacerbated by lying down. It is therefore worse when you lie down to sleep and can wake you in the night.
- Fatty foods are also slow to digest and sit in the stomach longer than other foods. This again means they can cause reflux or heartburn if eaten too close to bedtime. Try to eat at least three hours before bed.
- ‘Dieting’ or calorie restriction has been shown to have a negative effect on sleep, which is ironic as not getting seven-to-eight hours a night is linked to cravings, overeating and weight gain. If you want long-term weight loss, calorie restriction and ‘dieting’ is actually counterproductive. Switching to a healthy, nutrient dense diet is a much more effective way to manage your weight.
As with all things health and wellness related, sleep is an important part of a balanced lifestyle. It is the small things that we do that add to big changes. With poor sleep, it is often stressing about not getting enough that is the most damaging, and this creates a negative cycle. Recent research has shown that many people don’t sleep a solid eight hours every night. In fact, many of us are designed to have ‘biphasic sleep patterns’ with five-to-six hours at night and then another siesta or nap style sleep of one-to-two hours either in the morning or the afternoon. Dr Bryony Sheaves, a clinical psychologist from the Sleep & Circadian Neuroscience Institute says ‘Some people will wake in the night and others won’t; some people are morning people and others are evening types. So, abandoning strict rules about sleep can reduce the anxiety that often gets in the way of a good night’s sleep.'
Libby’s top tips:
Consistency: Keep a relatively consistent bedtime and wake time. Staying up late and sleeping in on weekends can disrupt your routine during the week.
Light: Keep the bedroom extremely dark to tell the body’s light-sensitive clock that it’s time to sleep.
Relaxation/routine: Develop a pre-bed routine that is relaxing and familiar. Television, work, computer use, movies and deep/stressful discussions late at night can disrupt sleep.
Stimulants: Eliminate stimulants such as caffeine/nicotine, especially later in the day.
Exercise: It’s not only good for a tight butt and big guns, it can help improve sleep.
Libby Limon is a nutritional therapist and yoga teacher and a full member of the British Association for Nutritional Therapy. Libby helps people locally and globally make the diet and lifestyle changes they need to achieve optimal health and wellbeing. libbylimon.com