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Foods to eat for better sleep

Sleep Disorders | May 1, 2017 | Author: Naturopath

Insomnia

Foods to eat for better sleep

Do you find yourself tossing and turning every night for at least 30 minutes, unable to fall asleep? Do you wake up earlier than intended without being able to resume sleep?

According to the Australasian Sleep Association, these symptoms are very common, and when transient, occur in 30-50% of the population. They can occur occasionally due to factors such as anxiety before an examination, work-related stress, having that extra cup of coffee too late after dinner, jet lag, etc.

However, for 10% of the population these symptoms persist (> 1 month), and can significantly impact on their quality of life and day-to-day functioning. 

Why do we Sleep?

Although sleep deprivation is so detrimental to our health, scientists do not know the ultimate reason for sleep.

Sleep is needed to support cognitive function, growth and repair of the body, and immune function. It is also associated with increased risk of weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes through appetite control and glucose metabolism.

The brain appears to use less glucose after sleep deprivation, leading to a condition called insulin resistance, which is a condition where the body has trouble responding to insulin. Over time, insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes.

Lack of sleep is also associated with increased ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates appetite, and in contrast, with significantly decreased levels of leptin, the “satiety hormone”, resulting in overeating and obesity.

Tryptophan for a Better Sleep

Our sleep quality can impact our food choices - for example, sleep-deprived people tend to snack more, and children who sleep more, tend to eat more fruit and vegetables - but the relationship works both ways: the quality of our diet and certain compounds in the food we eat may be affecting our sleep pattern too.

Tryptophan, serotonin, and melatonin are three compounds that induce relaxation and promote sleep.

Tryptophan is an amino acid with sleep-enhancing properties. The body uses tryptophan to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is a natural mood stabiliser and a sleep-promoter, which in turn can be converted to yet another hormone, melatonin, which regulates the internal body clock’s cycle of sleep and wakefulness.

Foods that contain these substances include:

Milk. A cup of warm cow’s milk has been traditionally used as a bedtime tranquiliser. Milk contains melatonin and tryptophan, though usually in very small amounts. Interestingly, melatonin’s concentration in cow's milk increases significantly if cows are milked in darkness at night.

Kiwifruit. Kiwifruit is packed with antioxidant and serotonin. A small study of 24 people revealed that consuming 2 kiwifruit 1 hour before bedtime for 4 weeks improved sleep.

​​Cherry juice. Cherries contain relatively high levels of melatonin. One study showed that drinking fresh tart cherry juice twice daily modestly improved sleep in 15 older adults, and reduced the time required to fall asleep. Another study reported that adding cherries to the diet increased sleep time significantly.

Other food sources of tryptophan: Turkey, pork, chicken, beef, nuts and seeds, tofu, some cheeses, eggs, oats, and bananas

B-Vitamins and Magnesium

Researchers believe that the presence of some vitamins and minerals, in particular vitamin B3, vitamin B6, and magnesium in foods, play a key role in the regulation of sleep.

  • Wheat and whole grains. A study of nearly 500,000 Chinese adults found that those who consumed less rice and instead ate more grains such as wheat, corn and millet, which are higher in B-vitamins and magnesium – had better sleep quality
  • Protein. The same study also found that those with high intakes of high-protein meals such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products had improved sleep. One possible explanation may be the high content of vitamin B12 in animal protein, which contributes to melatonin secretion.

Other Sleep-Promoters

Herbal teas. Establishing an evening herbal tea habit may help relaxation and better sleep. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 2 to 3 heaping tsp. of dried herb, and steep 10 to 15 minutes. 

  • Chamomile
  • passionflower
  • lemon balm

These teas have been used traditionally for their calming effects to treat anxiety and insomnia.


Valerian. Some studies suggest that valerian - a sleep aid that is extracted from the plant Valeriana officinalis - may exert a mild sedation effect. Valerian can be bought over the counter in capsules, tablets, liquid and tea.

Hops. Hops are the flowers of the hop plant Humulus luplus. A combination product of valerian and hops has been shown to improve sleep quality.

Lettuce. You would not associate this leafy vegetable with sedation, but a study in mice found that compounds in lettuce increase sleep duration. In another small study, patients who received lettuce oil capsules reported significantly improved sleep.

Eat less, sleep more. Restricting total calories may help you fall asleep quicker.

Foods that may Impair your Sleep

Coffee. Caffeine is a known stimulant. One study showed that consumption of caffeine, even as early as 6 hours prior to bedtime, had a significant effect on sleep disturbance.

Avoid caffeine-containing beverages or foods after 2 pm; these include not only coffee but also Coke, Mountain Dew; tea, coffee ice creams and coffee-containing desserts.

Alcohol. Although alcohol is considered a relaxant, it has been found that its sedative effect diminishes, especially during the second half of the night, and chronic alcohol use ultimately disrupts sleep. Avoid alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime.

Junk food. Usually full of sugar and artificial colours, flavours and preservatives which can all be stimulating.

Supplements to Help you Sleep

The Institute of Functional Medicine recommends trying one of the following (It is always best to start at the lower dose as it might be enough to help you sleep)

Melatonin. – 1-5 mg to fall asleep (with a doctor’s prescription).

Magnesium. (citrate or glycinate) - 400-800 mg at bedtime.

Taurine. – An amino acid that helps the body “switch off”. Recommended dose: 500-2000 mg 1 hour before bedtime

5- HTP. – A chemical that the body makes from tryptophan. 5-HTP is not found in the foods we eat but can be bought as a supplement. Currently 5-htp is sold only in Queensland. Recommended dose: 50-300 mg 1 hour before bedtime. (Do not take 5-HTP if you are taking SSRIs or other antidepressants.)

​Sleep Hygiene

The term sleep hygiene is used to describe good sleep habits and tips that may improve your sleep. Here are ten tips from the American Sleep Association:

  • Have a comfortable pre-bedtime routine (such as warm bath, meditation etc.)
  • Maintain a regular sleep routine
  • Avoid naps if possible
  • Don’t stay in bed awake for more than 5-10 minutes.
  • Don’t watch TV or read in bed.
  • Drink caffeinated drinks with caution
  • Avoid inappropriate substances that interfere with sleep (such as cigarettes, alcohol, and over-the-counter medications may cause fragmented sleep).
  • Exercise regularly (Exercise before 2 pm every day, but avoid rigorous exercise before bedtime)
  • Have a quiet, comfortable bedroom (in terms of light, noise, temperature, bedding and pillow)
  • If you are a ‘clock watcher’ at night, hide the clock.

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References

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American Sleep Association 2017, Sleep Hygiene Tips, ASA, retrieved 27 April 2017,

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