One thing I’m really interested in is nutrition and how foods impact on aspects of our health beyond the purely physical.
I’ve been dealing with insomnia on and off for a few years now, and one thing that I’ve found that really impacts on falling and staying asleep is food. I know this is not rocket science; what we eat impacts on all aspects of our lives from how we feel to how we look.
Lets not talk about the amount of times I’ve found myself with my head in the fridge at 1am. Really. Or got back from a night out and emptied my cupboards in the search of finding answers. There are definitely no answers in the fridge, believe me, i’ve tried.
Enough about that.
There are two aspects to this: the food itself and the timing of that food.
When to eat?
Eating too close to sleeping can be seriously disruptive as your body uses its energy on digesting food instead of shutting down for sleep. But on the flip side of the coin, going to sleep hungry will result in being kept awake with a growling stomach. It’s a fine balance. Research suggests either eating a larger meal around 3 hours before shut eye – or a small snack an hour or so beforehand. Again pretty simple stuff.
The science: without going into too much detail, the hormones that regulate hunger, ghrelin and leptin, are linked to sleep, and when are not properly regulated (i.e. getting too little sleep) will have a knock on effect on hunger levels the following day. Turning you into that ravenous monster that tries to eat through the tiredness, turning to convenient, high calorie, high sugary foods. It’s in our evolution, when we need energy, we turn to high fat, high sugary, basically anything that gives us a boost! Or in my case lots of coffee.
What to eat?
Foods that help to naturally boost Melatonin and Serotonin levels are the winners.
Science: It comes down to eating foods that contain the right source of nutrients to support hormone regulation and avoiding those which cause a hinderance on hormone functioning. Melatonin regulates circadian rhythms (sleep wake cycle) which is responsible for making you feel hungry during the day and sleepy during the night. When compromised it throws the pattern out of sync and is responsible for things such as jet lag. It can explain why you may struggle to sleep during the day regardless of being awake all night, or when you feel hungry through the night whilst suffering with jet lag. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter linked to regulating the bodily functions of sleep, appetite and mood. It is commonly thought of as making you feel good and is used to help people with low mood. Which is also linked to poor sleep. These hormones are all interconnected, which is why throwing one off can result in further knock on effects.
Melatonin: Some foods actually contain melatonin naturally such as oats, cherries and banana.
Tryptophan: A precursor to serotonin that helps to promote the production of serotonin. Dairy, eggs, turkey, walnuts, pumpkin seeds are all great sources.
There are also other nutrients that can really help your body to naturally unwind:
Magnesium: a great nutrient for relaxing! It helps your body shut down for sleep. Magnesium absorbed into the skin is actually a faster and more effective source to help your body relax, which is why magnesium salt baths are so popular. I personally like to use this magnesium spray after the gym as it really helps to relax my muscles. But you can increase your dose of magnesium through foods such as almonds, bananas, yoghurt, spinach, avocado, nuts, seeds and tofu.
Potassium: Most people think bananas which are in fact a great source of potassium, but the following have more per serving: avocados, potatoes, salmon, apricots, and pomegranate.
My personal go to foods to help with sleep:
Oats: combined with with a source of protein to slow the release of energy, e.g. peanut butter, casein protein, oats are a good source of carbs that do not spike blood sugar levels
Bananas: Who doesn’t like bananas? With a source of protein to slow the sugar release, e.g. peanut butter (yep, addicition), greek yoghurt or nuts…
Nuts: almonds, cashews, walnuts…
Cottage cheese: naturally high in casein protein, which is great for sleep
Coconut or almond milk: warmed or in a protein shake…
Sometimes it can be hard to get all of the nutrients from food and some people prefer taking supplements instead. I have done both, depending on my mood and appetite! I’ve tried different supplements on the market and the ones I would recommend are: melatonin for travelling (this is a necessity to combat jet lag), valerian root extract and casein protein. I also use magnesium sprays when my body is achy and camomile tea.
… And what to avoid?
Certain foods that should just be a no no:
Fat: Fatty foods are digested the slowest so unless you’re eating these a good 4 hours or so before they should probably be avoided. Research shows links between saturated fat and light, restless sleep – e.g. pre-packaged food!
Caffeine: Obvious one but it’s more than just avoiding a late night latte. Obviously coffee … but also foods that contain caffeine that you may not be aware of, such as energy/fizzy drinks, green tea, ice cream, sweets, some ‘diet’ foods, and even painkillers and decaff coffee… and unfortunately, chocolate (especially dark chocolate)!
Alcohol: It can help you nod off initially but is linked to disrupted sleep, meaning that your body never enters the deep sleep phase that is the most rejuvinating. It can also make you sweat more and need the toilet.
Sugar Yep, the demon. It spikes and crashes blood sugar levels and can be the reason you’re feeling hungry in the middle of the night.
Of course this is based on my personal anecdotes 🙂 What foods do you eat at night?