Eat Your Way to Better Sleep

February 11, 2014

We all want a great night’s sleep. Just about every expert will tell you that many of the ills plaguing modern society have some roots in sleep deprivation. Study after study tells us that not getting enough sleep impairs us in the most dramatic ways. New thinking even refers to fatigue as a modern illness. Our 24/7 connected lifestyle might just be increasing our risks for various diseases including cancer and heart disease, not to mention increasing the risk of obesity. So much for all that Facebook time we spend!

Poor sleep habits can mean many things, from full-blown insomnia to waking frequently through the night to difficulty falling asleep. Look, everybody has the occasional night where they just can’t rest, but if not sleeping is becoming more the norm then it’s time to take a look at your food. Yes, you heard me, your food. More and more evidence is showing that eating habits are linked to sleep habits.

Besides omitting the usual suspects that inhibit rest, like caffeine, sugary snacks, heavy meals close to bedtime, drinking too much liquid before bed and alcohol (Oh, I know you think a glass of wine can help you sleep, but studies show that the effects of the alcohol wear off in the middle of the night, leaving you restless.), there are moderate changes to your diet that can help you sleep like a baby.

Put Down That Midnight Snack!
Stop eating about 2 hours before you go to sleep. More than just about any other advice, this simple change to your lifestyle can alter the quality of your sleep forever. According to the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, when you eat close to the time you sleep, your liver, the gland responsible for metabolizing fat, protein and carbohydrates (among its other jobs) works all night long, digesting, rather than allowing the body to rest. If you sleep at all, you’ll wake tired and cranky. So no more midnight snacks if you’d like a restful night of sleep.

If you must snack before bed (heaven forbid you go to bed a little hungry, which by the way is a signal that your body is burning fat…another deterrent to eating at night), try an apple with peanut (or other nut) butter. This combo helps the body to release tryptophan, an amino acid that helps the body make serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps you feel calm and sleepy. But that’s not permission to eat before bed, just a desperation tactic.

Eat Whole Grains
Plant foods like whole grains provide complex carbohydrates producing a slow, steady rise in insulin which helps tryptophan to enter the brain and trigger the production of serotonin. Regular consumption of whole grains can help to regulate the production of this ‘feel good’ compound that is essential to sleeping well. So if you eat whole grains, beans and vegetables on a regular basis, you’ll rarely feel the need for that midnight snack.

Have a Cherry Good Night
Not only sexy to eat, cherries can be the best sleep aid going. Rich in melatonin, an antioxidant also found in the human body that helps regulate sleep, eating cherries as part of a late afternoon or early evening snack may help you to sleep better.

Calcium is Mother Nature’s Tranquilizer
But put down that glass of warm milk. While it triggers tryptophan, it also has saturated fat and can produce mucus, which can contribute to snoring, which can interrupt sleep. There are better sources of calcium so your body can rest. Dark leafy greens, like kale collards and spinach, along with sesame seeds (a spoonful contains a whopping 10 times more calcium than the same amount of milk) will provide you with what you need, 1000 mg each and every day. You can supplement, too, but food is always my first choice for nutrients.

A-a-a-a-h-h-h-h-h, Magnesium
Needed to absorb calcium, magnesium works in the body as a muscle relaxant, as well as balancing blood sugar and pressure. And where do you find this precious nutrient? Peanuts, spinach, most whole grains, bananas, avocados, nuts and seeds. Who knew getting your nutrients could be so yummy?

So how do you put this together to create meals that help you sleep? Do you need to be a rocket scientist? Nope; just choose complex carbohydrates with protein in your meals to create the best internal environment for sleep. Combinations like hummus and whole wheat pita bread, a tofu stir fry with lots of veggies and brown rice, pasta with beans and leafy greens, lentil-barley soup with a fresh salad are all examples of light, satisfying meals that will get more tryptophan to the brain, making serotonin and melatonin more available, helping you to snooze more soundly.