It is hard to appreciate how important sleep is until you experience the effects of insomnia or lack of sleep. Feeling tired, grumpy and unable to cope are just a few of the short term symptoms associated with the problem. Prolonged periods without sufficient sleep can lead to physical and emotional ill health and can be dangerous to the individual and others.
Of course, most of us know how some people can fall asleep with ease and do not appear to be affected by where they are, what they eat or anything else – they are the lucky ones! For others, sleep does not come so easily and many suffer for years unaware that they are influencing the way they sleep through the choices they make.
It is not just how we are that affects the way we sleep; how we live, what we eat and how we think may also be stopping us sleep. Some parts of life may be out of our control but one area that impacts on our sleep and is up to us is what we eat and when we eat it.
Most of us are familiar with the effects of caffeine and many of us are dependent on the morning fix to stimulate and give us a ‘kick’ during the day. The effects of caffeine are powerful and coffee and caffeine drinks are a popular choice during the day and evening.
Alcohol is also a major player in many people’s lives but even used in moderation can interfere with the quality and length of sleep. Initially helping us to relax, deeper into the night it makes us restless, prone to waking up and leaves us dehydrated and exhausted in the morning – not to mention the symptoms of being hangover with one too many!
So, with all this knowledge of what not to eat or drink, how do we adapt our diet to improve sleep?
Firstly, it is important to realise that good health promotes good sleep. The body and mind requires sufficient nutrition to renew cells and provide energy. The body during sleep is sensitive to the balance between feast and famine. Too much food near to bedtime will leave the body restless as it seeks to digest and absorb the meal.
Sugar should also be avoided as it raises levels of cortisone and adrenalin in the blood. Raised cortisol suppresses growth hormone during the night inhibiting tissue repair and escalating the aging process.
Daily Diet to Improve Sleep
Start the day with a glass of warm water or warm drink to stimulate the digestive system. Breakfast is a good time to eat foods that will fuel the body and provide energy for the rest of the day. Oats, eggs, ‘traditional English’ (beware the fact and calories though..!) provide a good start to the day. This is also a good time to up the body’s intake of berries and antioxidants – blueberries, raspberries etc. all help the body’s defences. A probiotic supplement or yoghurt will also help your digestive system and prepare your gut for the rest of the day.
Lunch is often skipped or for many people dependent on where they are or what is available. Ideally this is the best time to have a balanced meal that will provide the body with its nutritional requirements and ‘bulk’ for the rest of the day. It is also long enough before the wind down to bedtime to indulge in foods that are known to inhibit sleep – spicy and fatty foods that are stimulating and take longer to digest. Try to incorporate green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds which are rich in magnesium – consider taking supplements if your diet is lacking in vitamins and minerals. Optimum nutrition will keep you in tiptop condition and enhance your ability to sleep!
Dinner is for many people a social occasion and may last (or start) near to bedtime. Ideally dinner should be lighter and avoid the stimulating curries and foods that will take longer to digest. A light meal incorporating fruit and vegetables and avoiding coffee and overindulging in alcohol should be taken early in the evening making sure that the body has a minimum of two hours without food before bedtime.
Late night snack. Herbal teas, a biscuit or a small portion of cereal with warm milk will keep hunger pains at bay…Note: warm food will be digested easier and help prepare the body for sleep. .Carbohydrates increase the level of the neurotransmitter, serotonin in the body and this is known to reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
Of course, any diet will depend on the individual’s needs, but the basis of good nutrition can be adapted to most people. Allergies and food intolerances need to be taken into account as these can also affect sleep and lead to insomnia – consult your GP before embarking on any diet or if you think you are affected.
Weight loss diets can also affect sleep leaving the body restless as it craves for familiar calories. As the body adapts to a new diet it is important to try and keep to the above recommendations as well as the calorific guidelines. Herbal teas, low calorie snacks, fruit and vegetables can all be substituted for high calorie food. Try not to starve the body during the hours prior to bed as it is likely that the mind will register starvation causing night time waking of over eating in the morning. Remember, insomnia has been linked to obesity and a desire for high calorific foods. Don’t give in!