Restful sleepIt is estimated that between one third and one half of Americans have insomnia or complain of poor sleep.  Regular, restful sleep is often underestimated when looking at one’s general health, but in actuality, it affects the functioning of our entire body as it reduces stress, heals inflammation, helps our body repair itself, makes us more alert and even plays a positive role on our memory.

Insomnia and sleep problems, on the other hand, rob us of these advantages and have been associated with cardiovascular problems, depression and weight gain.

The causes of insomnia or sleep disturbances are varied. When looking at sleep problems and insomnia, doctors and sufferers often fail to search for answers on their plate.  Whether you are having trouble falling asleep or are waking up, the following tips can help you take control of your sleep starting with what you put in your mouth.

First things first, make sure to include the following ingredients in your evening meal for optimal sleep:

1- Foods rich in tryptophan:  It is important to make sure this amino acid is present in your dinner meal, as it is used to make serotonin and melatonin, two hormones that are crucial for deep sleep.   A few foods rich in tryptophan are: chicken, soybeans, tuna, turkey, salmon, lamb, halibut, and shrimp.

2- Carbohydrates are another ingredient needed for a restful sleep, as these slowly stimulate insulin which helps rid the body of amino acids that compete with tryptophan, to let it penetrate the brain.

On the contrary, eating a meal absent of carbohydrates and rich in protein has an adverse effect and wakes up the brain.  This would be the perfect type of meal for breakfast or lunch!

Make sure you choose whole grains or low-glycemic index carbohydrates (i.e. whole grain bread, rice, barley, buckwheat…).  Choosing sugar containing products or highly refined carbs will make your blood sugar drop and release stress hormones which could keep you awake at night.  Whole-grains are also precious throughout the day as they contain B vitamins, an important ingredient for a healthy nervous system.

3- Foods rich in calcium also help the brain use tryptophan and manufacture melatonin.  Look for foods with a good calcium-magnesium ratio such as dark green vegetables.

4- Make sure your evening meal is not too…

  • Heavy
  • Rich
  • Spicy or
  • Late

5- Limit or Avoid Stimulants:

  • Caffeine stimulates our central nervous systems, making our minds more alert, increasing our heart rate and reducing fatigue.  Every individual reacts differently to caffeine, but women are generally more sensitive to its effects and research shows that it can stay in your system up to 12 hours (even longer if you are a woman on the birth control pill).  For this reason, caffeine is not recommended after noon.
  • Alcohol initially has a sedative effect but as soon as it is metabolised, the quality of sleep is compromised. If you are looking for a beverage to help you relax at the end of the day, reach for a soothing cup of herbal tea.  See below for suggestions.  Both caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, meaning that they increase your volume of urine and could be the cause of those frequent bathroom visits at night.
  • Sugar affects your blood sugar level. A few hours after consumption, while you are sleeping, you will get a blood sugar drop that activates your stress hormones, disturbing your sleep and often waking you up. An old wives’ tale says that a bit of sugar (i.e. honey in milk) before bed can be beneficial, the same story applies as for alcohol in this case, it will help you go to sleep but the problem is that it will not keep you sleeping soundly.
  • Tobacco

For extra help try the following:

6- Herbal teas: valerian, camomile, passion flower, hops…

7- We’ve been talking about energy input; just as important, energy output!  Aerobic Exercise is especially important for those with sedentary lifestyles, providing an outlet for daily frustration and stress.  Aerobic exercise helps do this as well as oxygenates your body and physically tires it, making sleep more tempting at the end of the day.  A walk after dinner is also a good idea as it aids digestion before bedtime.

Sleep problems may have complex origins but by following these dietary tips and by assuring a relaxing, comfortable bedroom environment and bedtime routine you are on your way to restful sleep.