Sleep, the much sought prize. Often we don’t get enough sleep – but when we do we feel more energized both physically and mentally. Sleep is most certainly involved in keeping a healthy weight, controlling sugar levels, balancing hormones to reduce the incidence of mood swings and depression. It is also important to help us learn, make decisions and solve problems.
From a nutrition point of view what you eat has a huge impact on your ability to get a good night sleep. Certainly eating late/close to bedtime may leave you feeling too full and uncomfortable so if time is against you and you have no choice but to eat late choose a lighter meal e.g. two egg omelette with some vegetables which is quick and easy to make and not heavy in the stomach.
There are three chemicals which are essential to falling asleep – tryptophan, serotonin, and melatonin. Tryptophan is an amino acid (part of protein) which is needed to make serotonin, and serotonin is needed to make melatonin. So working back at the start here is how to boost tryptophan levels; the highest levels are found in turkey, chicken, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, beans, milk (perhaps where a small amount of warm milk theory evolved). Before bed try a small snack which combines protein and low/medium carbohydrate e.g. small glass of milk and an oatcake to optimise tryptophan levels before sleep. Certainly don’t eat any sweet foods just before bed as these may increase blood sugar levels higher than is necessary just before sleep.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, often known as the feel good chemical. Antidepressant medications often work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain to stimulate good mood (and improve sleep). When serotonin is low, sleep suffers and anxiety and depression may occur and people may crave carbohydrates (bread, cakes, biscuits, pasta). It is not uncommon that people suffering from anxiety and depression struggle with sleep. Serotonin is needed to make melatonin.
Melatonin a hormone produced in the pineal gland in the brain. It regulates our circadian rhythm (keeping us awake in daylight and asleep when dark). To trigger melatonin release at bed time we need to have seen day light (this can be difficult during Winter months when commuting in the dark and spending the day at work which is lit by lights rather than natural light. If this is the case try to take a break during the day light hours and have a walk in daylight to help reset your body clock). The key thing required to release melatonin is dim light for at least 30mins before bed so dim the lights (make the bathroom light dim when doing your bedtime regime), turn off or have a blue light filter added to mobile devices to reduce the bright light they omit which is preventing the brain from releasing melatonin.
Alcohol may seem like your friend if you struggle to get to sleep as it has a relaxing effect. Many studies have shown that a small glass of alcohol may have a relaxing effect but more than a small glass will affect the REM (deep sleep) part of your sleep cycle – the result is you fall sleep and although you may achieve the desired number of hours sleep, the quality is reduced so you wake feeling unrefreshed. Over time this will affect mental function as quality REM sleep is essential for normal brain function.
The obvious things to exclude are stimulants close to bed time e.g. caffeine, cigarettes, some caffeine containing carbonated drinks. For some people an afternoon coffee can impact their sleep. If you can also avoid sleeping pills which over the longer term may lead to dependency and upset the body natural rhythm.
A word of caution, melatonin is available only on prescription in the UK but can be purchased online. Taking melatonin may disrupt your own production of melatonin and be harmful. If sleep continues to be a challenge it may be worth consulting your GP to discuss your levels of serotonin and whether a melatonin prescription may be beneficial.
Guest Post from Anjanette Fraser. Anjanette is from The Natural Alternative Health & Wellbeing Ltd – educating companies and their employees on the importance of nutrition in corporate and personal health. The companies national coverage over the last 10 years has benefited both large and small organisations. Anjanette is currently studying a MSc in Nutritional Medicine ensuring the information clients receive is scientific, current, and user friendly. For more information please visit www.natural-alternative.co.uk