Discover how your diet can help to transform the quality and duration of sleep
For many of us, sleep is far from the daily dose of rest and rejuvenation it should be. A wellbeing report published by Aviva revealed that 67 percent of UK adults suffer from disrupted sleep, while nearly a quarter don’t get more than five hours’ shut-eye a night and a third say they suffer from insomnia.
Aside from the unpleasant feeling of fatigue, not getting enough good-quality sleep can have serious consequences for our health. “Poor sleep can increase your risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and there are links between bad sleeping habits and mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression,” says David Brudö, co-founder of personal development app Remente (remente.com).
If you’re part of the 26 percent of UK adults who, according to Aviva’s report, list sleeping better as their biggest health ambition over the next 12 months, then read on to find out from the experts how you can do just that.
Certain nutrients and chemicals have a strong, positive impact on sleep and are key to maintaining a healthy sleeping pattern. We’ve got the low-down on the most important ones to know about and the foods to eat to ensure you’re getting sufficient amounts of them all.
“In order to sleep well, the theory is that you need to have high sleep pressure, which builds up gradually throughout the day, and your circadian clock aligned with the right time of day – humans are wired to sleep at night,” explains nutritionist and gut health expert Shann Nix Jones (chucklinggoat.co.uk). “Both of these are regulated by the neurotransmitter serotonin. Specialised cells in your gut, called enterochromaffin (EC) cells work closely with gut microbes to produce 90 percent of the serotonin in your body.
“As a result, damage to the gut microbiome, such as that caused by stress, antibiotics, a poor diet or environmental toxins, can compromise your serotonin production – and therefore your sleep,” says Shann. “The good news is that this damage can be reversed by consuming probiotics, like kefir. Pure, unflavoured goat’s milk kefir, for example, will boost the gut microbes that help you synthesise serotonin.”
A powerful antioxidant, kiwi fruit is also high in serotonin. One study found that eating two fresh kiwis an hour before bed helped people to drift off quicker, improved their ability to stay asleep and increased their total sleep time.
“The amino acid tryptophan aids the production of a hormone called melatonin, which promotes sleep and helps to regulate the sleep cycle,” says nutritionist Kim Pearson (kim-pearson.co.uk). Almonds, walnuts, cherries, pistachios and lean meat, such as chicken and turkey, are all good sources of tryptophan, which is also a precursor to serotonin. You can boost your levels further by taking it in supplement form, known as 5HTP.
“Described as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’, magnesium has been proven to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a sleep disruptor, and also helps to relax our muscles,” says nutritional therapist Henrietta Norton (wildnutrition.com). “Insomnia is a common symptom of magnesium deficiency, and people with low magnesium often experience restless sleep and wake frequently during the night,” adds Shann.
Foods rich in magnesium include pumpkin seeds, salmon, oats, avocado, brown rice, leafy green vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and kale, chickpeas, figs, bananas and black beans. You can also supplement with 100-350mg of magnesium every evening before going to bed to help your body prepare for sleep.
These must be avoided at all costs: “Refined food like ready meals, prepared sauces and desserts often contain a huge amount of added sugars and hidden ingredients that can spike your blood-sugar levels and leave you craving more sugar and feeling stressed again,” says Henrietta. Always choose natural, unprocessed ingredients to cook with.
Perhaps the most notorious enemy of sleep; caffeine blocks adenosine, a brain chemical that makes us feel sleepy as the day goes by. The effects of it can take six to 12 hours to wear off, so reduce your intake gradually throughout the day and try not to have a cup of coffee later than lunchtime.
“Your evening meal should be eaten around three hours before you go to sleep, and be free from starchy carbs, like pasta, rice and bread,” advises Kim. “These can cause a spike in your sugar levels followed by reactive hypoglycaemia, also known as a sugar crash, and the resultant release of stress hormones may lead to a restless night. “Keep your daily sugar intake to a minimum, ensuring as much of it as possible is coming from natural sources, such as fruit, rather than refined sugars, fizzy drinks and sweets, and swap dessert for a cup of digestion-aiding peppermint tea.”
“There is a strong relationship between poor sleep and alcohol,” says Tina Hoffman, a wellness expert at Firstbeat (firstbeat.com). “Even if you have a long sleep after drinking, it’s unlikely that the restorative quality of it – determined by the level of activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes the body and slows high-energy bodily functions – will have been high.
“Your heart rate is likely to be raised, so the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body for intense physical activity and is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response, will be working and secreting hormones that keep your body in an active state.” If you are drinking in the evening, it’s worth noting that it takes around an hour to metabolise one unit of alcohol (a single measure of spirits).
Re-think that evening curry, too. “Eating spicy food too close to bedtime can interfere with sleep,” says Phil Lawlor, a sleep expert at Dormeo (dormeo.co.uk). “If you’re prone to heartburn or, worse, acid reflux, it can cause issues including serious discomfort, which will likely keep you awake. Studies have also shown that spice tends to raise your core body temperature, making it harder for you to drift off and leaving you more prone to waking up in the night.”
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