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Regularly having a good night’s sleep is extremely important to your health and well-being. Few people realize that sleep quality and duration can affect a multitude of health-related conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.
Other key factors in ensuring we maintain good health include one’s diet, exercise and levels of stress. In the complex, modern, urban life that many of us are currently living, stress has, to some extent, become something of the norm. Instead of talking about how to eliminate it, most of us talk about how to deal with it.
Although many people view stress as one of the main causes of insomnia, few people realize that the other two aforementioned factors (exercise and diet) can also have an immense impact on your sleep patterns and circadian rhythm.
In this article, I will specifically be discussing how diet can affect your sleep, and what you could be eating and drinking in order to make sure you’re getting your daily eight hours.
So, before you reach your prescription tablets as a means of improving your sleep, try to optimize your diet first. Let’s start by introducing a few hormones and chemicals that are present in food and drink that can result in poor sleep.
Important Sleep Hormones & Chemicals
Although it may be of surprise to some, optimizing your diet to help tackle insomnia doesn’t just mean cutting down on caffeine and energy drinks. Certain foods, as well as drinks, reduce serotonin levels and impair good sleep, while others will do the exact opposite.
Serotonin is a brain chemical that nerve cells produce and it is responsible for stimulating certain parts of the brain that control your sleep. As a result, low levels of serotonin can lead to insomnia and higher levels of serotonin can help you sleep.
I will later discuss what food and drink you can omit and include in your dietary intake to maximize your serotonin. Oh, and not only does it help you to sleep, but it also makes you happier!
Melatonin is a hormone that is created by the pineal gland in your brain and its function is to regulate your sleep cycle. Usually, high melatonin levels begin to arise naturally in the evening. However, there are also certain things you can do to increase your melatonin production and thus help you get to sleep.
There are a handful of naturally occurring sources of melatonin in food and drink – I will discuss some of these later. Vitamin E is also understood to produce positive effects similar to melatonin, so be sure to look out for foods that include Vitamin E as well.
Although it may seem unlikely, antioxidants can aid your restful sleep, albeit in an indirect way. Eating foods high in antioxidants will help to reduce oxidant stress as well as helping protect you from a range of diseases.
All in all, they’ll help to ensure that your body and mind are healthy, which should help you to sleep better at night.
L-theanine is an amino acid derivative of one of the brain’s numerous neurotransmitters. Recently, research has shown that L-theanine helps to reduce stress and by helping to relax your mind. This, in turn, helps your sleep and contributes to better health overall. There are certain foods and drinks that contain L-theanine.
Foods You Should Avoid
In order to help refine your dietary intake, it is important to know what foods and drinks you should try to cut out. There are some “staple foods” that lower your levels of serotonin and thus hamper your ability to get a restful night’s sleep.
While it may be difficult to cut all of these out of your diet, it is possible to consciously reduce your consumption. Doing so will quickly help you to experience a much more significant feeling of having rested fully when waking up. Some of these foods are listed below:
- White bread – sandwiches may be a staple lunch that you don’t want to lose, but you can make a small improvement by opting for brown bread instead! While it might take a while to get used to, there are more nutrients and fibre to be found, so it’s certainly worth the exchange.
- Refined pasta – you could replace this with a vegetable spaghetti alternative or brown rice pasta. As with bread, there are more nutritional alternatives without compromising the meal.
- Sugary goods - Natural syrups, such as honey, provide the same sweetness without the same dietary costs. Although make sure it’s all-natural and that there is no added sugar.
- Baked goods – this includes goods such as cookies and cupcakes, which you probably already know you shouldn’t be having too much of.
Here are a list of some other foods and drinks you should make sure you avoid in the hours before you sleep – some of them may surprise you:
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower) – Although they are extremely healthy, they are also loaded with a large amount of insoluble fibre, which takes a long time to digest. This will prevent you from getting a great night’s rest.
- Coffee - Caffeine can remain in your system for around six hours, so be sure not to drink coffee anywhere past the early afternoon. It’ll keep you awake and alert, which is the last thing you want when you’re trying to get to sleep. Furthermore, once caffeinated drinks become part of your routine, they may become addictive too. This means that your body clock becomes attached to them and, if you miss a cup, you’ll find your energy levels askew. You don’t want to fight sleepiness, you want to embrace it.
- Tomato sauce – Surprisingly, it’s also best to avoid eating tomato sauce in the late evening due to its high acidity content. This may cause you stomach issues throughout the night, which may prevent you from getting a night of deep sleep.
- Cheese – Cheeses contain a certain amino acid known as tyramine, which makes you more alert, and can prevent you from sleeping. Eat your cheese at least a few hours before you plan on sleeping.
- Water – While it is very healthy to drink a lot of water, you do not want to be doing this just before you sleep. This is because you are much more likely to disturb your sleep by having to urinate throughout the night.
- Dark chocolate – This is because dark chocolate also contains a lot of caffeine. However, dark chocolate is also rich in magnesium and magnesium deficiency has been linked to insomnia.
- Orange juice – Similarly to tomato sauce, orange juice is very acidic. However, on top of that, it is also very sugary; you don’t want a surprise sugar rush just as you’re planning on going to sleep. Hydrate during the day – not when you’re about to sleep.
- Spicy food – It is important to note that spicy food raises your body temperature, and often makes you feel more alive and awake. This may mean that you will find it difficult to fall asleep after eating spicy food just before bedtime. It is also important not to eat too much food in general in the hours before you sleep. This is because you don’t want your body to be digesting food as you are trying to get to sleep.
When doing so, your body is unable to digest food in the same way as when awake, which may lead to certain health problems.
What You Should Be Eating And Drinking
Foods that are high in protein content also tend to be loaded with the amino acid tryptophan, which is known to increase your serotonin levels. This, as previously discussed, should help your sleep, thus making such foods some of the best foods for sleep.
Red meats, however, take a long time to digest, so they’re probably best avoided, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a nice meal. Here are some of the foods that you should try to include in your diet if you’re looking to increase your serotonin levels:
- Eggs – Being full of protein, eggs are a great food to help ensure you sleep well. Be sure not to miss out the yokes, seeing as they are rich in tryptophan. Eggs also have antioxidant properties, which should help benefit your overall health.
- Nuts & Seeds - All nuts and seeds contain tryptophan, meaning that they’re a great way to help increase your serotonin levels. They are also a good source of vitamins and antioxidants. Nuts are known to be great for your health, having been proven to lower the risk of heart disease and respiratory problems, along with other health issues. Eating almonds is known to be especially great when it comes to ensuring you have a great night’s sleep.
- Tofu - Tofu is an excellent source of tryptophan for vegetarians and vegans who may have trouble incorporating some of the other items on this list into their diets. It’s a versatile ingredient and it can be easily added to many of your favourite dishes.
- Salmon - Known to be of high nutritional value, salmon is also a good source of tryptophan.
It is also possible to get tryptophan supplements from your doctor. Besides that, though, you can naturally boost your serotonin levels by regularly exercising and exposing yourself to the sun. Activity and daylight are key for body clock regulation. So, in addition to winding down at night, it’s important for your sleep that you’re active during the day.
Some foods also naturally contain melatonin, which is great for improving your sleep. There are certain fruits that contain melatonin – eating these will help you fall asleep easier and prevent you from waking up so often throughout the night. Here are some of the fruits, foods and drinks that contain melatonin:
- Tart cherry juice (or, simply whole tart cherries)
A study performed by the University of Oslo’s Department of Nutrition suggested that by eating two kiwis before you sleep daily over a month, people suffering from insomnia will be able to increase their average sleep duration by an hour.
L-theanine intakes are, as previously mentioned, a great way to induce relaxation, which can thus help you sleep. However, it is rarer to find in food and drink than the other factors mentioned above. Tea is, in fact, the only naturally occurring source of L-theanine.
This is to some extent why drinking tea before sleeping has become so popular. Green tea has an especially large concentration of L-theanine.
However, it is important to note than many of the teas that contain L-theanine also contain caffeine. Therefore, it’s probably a good idea to drink decaffeinated teas if you’re planning on sleeping sometime soon.
Antioxidants can also help in improving your sleep, albeit to a lesser extent than the other factors. They do, however, come with a plethora of other health benefits, as previously mentioned.
Here are some of the foods with the greatest concentration of antioxidants that you should consider putting into your diet:
- Goji Berries
- Red Cabbage
Overall, whether it be due to their melatonin content or their antioxidant content, eating a lot of fruit tends to help improve your sleep. If your mind is having trouble remembering all of the things you should include in your diet, then sticking to fruit in the late hours of the day could be a decent alternative.
Less Scientific Methods That Help You Sleep
Although optimizing your diet to maximize the serotonin, melatonin, antioxidants and L-theanine in your body is scientifically proven to help you sleep, some methods that you can undertake to give you a placebo effect of feeling tired, thus helping you sleep. Here are a couple of those methods:
1. Bedtime tea: Although it might not have any proven scientific benefits, going through the ritual of having a warm cup of tea before you sleep can make you feel very relaxed. If this becomes a routine, then your mind is likely to associate that cup of tea with going to sleep, and will slowly go into shut-down mode. Make sure that the tea you are drinking is caffeine-free, otherwise, the result you get may be the opposite of what you need. A chamomile drink can work great.
2. Warm milk with honey: It may not be the case for everyone, but many remember their parents giving them certain drinks each night as a young child. Parents see it as the perfect bedtime routine to get children to fall asleep fast. That childhood nostalgia can, in some cases, have an effect on your mind, which, similarly to when drinking bedtime tea, will associate the drink with going to sleep, as well as providing a soothing backdrop for your nightly routine. On top of this, there is some tryptophan and melatonin content to milk, meaning that there is also a scientific benefit to drinking it before you go to bed.
It is important to realize that the chemical content of the food you eat and the liquids you drink will affect on your ability to sleep. While most of us are aware that we should be avoiding consuming caffeine in the late hours of the day, few people realize that broccoli, cauliflower, spicy food, and orange juice can all impact your rest as well.
Foods that are loaded with tryptophan tend to give the opposite effect, with few people realizing that eggs and nuts can help you get the sleep that you need. While optimizing your diet will help ensure that it’s easier for you to get to sleep, someone with insomnia isn’t going to fall asleep immediately after spending a mere day on diet.
However, while maintaining a balanced diet is an extremely important factor when it comes to your sleep, the other major factors that determine your health (exercise and stress levels) can also have a major impact.
It is key to recognize that poor performance in exercising, high stress levels, little sleep and a poor diet can all have a knock-on effect on each other, which could lead to a serious deterioration in health. It is therefore extremely important to keep all four balanced. Thus, if you make sure that you are getting enough sleep, it could help the other three factors.