A few weeks ago I was talking to one of my girlfriends and the topic of sleep came up. She mentioned that she felt like she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in months. She’s had a lot on her mind. Work, kids, extended family, and the following day’s to-do list. She had tried essential oils, no phone for an hour before bed, and a journal at her bedside. Nothing was working and she really felt like she was suffering.
That reminded me of some recent research I had done for a client of mine on the correlation between diet and sleep. So much of how we sleep has to do with what we are putting into our bodies each day while we are awake. Today, I hope to shed some light on the amazing benefits that food can have on not just helping you to fall asleep, but also keeping you sleeping through the night and ensuring that you actually are experiencing restful sleep!
Often times when people are having a hard time sleeping, the first thing that they do is turn to sleep aids and supplements. Safe, clean, natural supplements can be a good backup plan (do your research and read labels carefully), but as I always suggest, it’s better to simply get these vitamins and minerals from the foods you are eating.
I feel like almost everyone is aware that eating certain healthy foods is essential for living a healthy daily life. And, I think we are all aware that certain foods can help boost our immune systems (especially this time of year), keep us “regular”, keep us energized and keep us strong. I’ve talked a lot in this space about how our diets can heal us but I feel like there is very little talk about diet and how it relates to sleep. I hope to change that with this post by pointing out what we can eat and what we should avoid to help break our bad sleep patterns.
There are four main vitamins and minerals that are found in foods that help aid in promoting sleep:
Some of the substances above help produce melatonin which is by far the most important natural sleep regulator in the human body.
Tryptophan: You probably recognize this one and associate it with the sleepy feeling that you get after consuming lots of turkey on Thanksgiving. Tryptophan is an amino acid that when ingested gets turned into serotonin and then converted into the hormone melatonin. Foods that are loaded with tryptophan are:
- Dairy products (milk, low-fat yogurt, cheese)
- Poultry (turkey, chicken)
- Seafood (shrimp, salmon, halibut, tuna, sardines, cod)
- Nuts and seeds (flax, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, cashews, peanuts, almonds, walnuts)
- Legumes (kidney beans, lima beans, black beans split peas, chickpeas)
- Fruits (apples, bananas, peaches, avocado)
- Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, onions, seaweed)
- Grains (wheat, rice, barley, corn, oats)
Magnesium: I’ve mentioned magnesium before and how powerful it can be for helping with constipation and irregularity. It is but that’s not even its only super power. Magnesium is an essential mineral when it comes to sleep. It is a natural relaxant that helps deactivate adrenaline and a lack of magnesium in one’s system is almost always linked with difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Foods that are rich in magnesium are:
- Dark leafy greens (baby spinach, kale, collard greens)
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, cashews, pine nuts, flaxseed, pecans)
- Wheat germ
- Fish (salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel)
Calcium: Not only good for building strong bones, calcium has been proven to also help the body naturally produce a good amount of the crucial hormone melatonin. As suspected, foods that contain good levels of calcium are:
- Dark leafy greens
- Low-fat milk
- Fortified cereals
- Fortified orange juice
- Enriched breads and grains
- Green snap peas
Vitamin B6: Vitamin B6 helps convert tryptophan into melatonin but that’s not its only importance. A deficiency in B6 has been linked to symptoms of depression and mood disorders which often times lead to insomnia. Highest sources of natural B6 are:
- Sunflower seeds
- Pistachio nuts
- Fish (tuna, salmon, halibut)
- Meat (chicken, tuna, lean pork, lean beef,)
- Dried Prunes
If you carefully look through the list above you’ll notice a few key food items that appear under several of the important vitamins and minerals that naturally help with our sleep. Repeatedly, I see nuts and seeds, seafood like halibut and bananas and spinach. Check out those that appear on the above list often and stock up on those right away!
Now that we’ve talked about those foods that will help, we’ve got to touch on what will hinder our sleep. Besides that most blatant which I’m sure you have all thought of (foods and drinks that contain caffeine), there are a lot of foods that you really should avoid, especially before bed if you want to get a long, restful night’s sleep.
- Caffeine found in both food and drinks. For a great night’s sleep, it’s not recommended to drink caffeine after lunch (and especially near bedtime), as it can interfere with sleep by keeping your mind overactive. Dark chocolate is another one to avoid as it has a high caffeine level.
- Spicy foods. Spicy foods before bed are a bad idea. They can cause acid reflux and heartburn (which is worse when lying down), and cause restless sleep.
- Alcohol may make you feel drowsy and sleepy which can help you to actually fall asleep fasted but, it often disrupts your sleep, spiking your sugar levels and deters you from ever entering a deep sleep.
- Foods high in fat and protein only. A lot of diets these days are heavy on either the high fat only (think Keto) or high protein only (think Atkins) but foods high in both fat and protein have been linked to poor, fragmented sleep. A high fat diet can disrupt the natural production of orexin, one of the neurotransmitters that helps regulate your sleep/wake cycle along with melatonin and foods high in protein are hard for the digestive system to break down which makes the body focus more on working on digestive then helping the body get restful sleep.
- Heavy meals before bedtime.This one probably yields the most negative results. You think….fill your stomach up with a filling, comforting, delicious meal and sleep like a baby. But no, as with most things in life, moderation is the key. It’s recommended that you eat a well-balanced meal at a decent hour so that you don’t experience reflux or digestion troubles. If you find yourself hungry before bed, a light snack is recommended. The best light snacks are those that contain tryptophan and calcium. Try a very small portion of cheese on a gg cracker or a small banana with nut butter.
Exhaustion can be debilitating. If you’re experiencing chronic sleep trouble, I encourage you to change up your diet and eating patterns to include more of the above mentioned vitamins and minerals before turning to sleep aids and supplements. Regular exercise is also vital for good sleep. Trying getting five hours of active exercise per week! In this New Year, let’s focus on foods that heal us, help us get restful sleep, replenish us and keep us healthy and strong. A well-balanced diet is everything. Remember, you are what you eat! And if all else fails, try a warm glass of milk before bed! Xx Janine