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  • Sophie Pelling

Sleep and nutrition: the facts you need to know

Does what we eat really affect how we sleep? I'm guessing you already know the answer to that question since you are reading this post...but just in case, YES IT DOES!

Although there is certainly no magic fix to a perfect night's sleep, there are certainly things that you can do to improve your sleep quality and quantity (both are equally important!). Our sleep is affected by many different factors including environment, emotions, stress and anxiety, age, certain medications, and most definitely diet.

Read on to understand a bit more about what foods we should be eating more of and what foods we should be more mindful about when it comes to getting a better night's sleep.

Firstly...why is sleep so important anyway?

When we sleep it allows our bodies to rest, repair and regenerate. It gives us energy for the next day and has a huge impact on how we feel, both physically and mentally. Sleep impacts all areas of our health, including:

  • Memory, learning, productivity mood and behaviour

  • Immunological responses

  • Metabolism and digestive processes

  • Hormone levels, including sex hormones like testosterone and oestrogen

  • Hunger (tiredness drives our hunger and satiety hormones, ghrelin and leptin)

  • Skin

You may have heard the term “sleep hygiene”. This just refers to all things sleep related and can be objectively measured in a clinic. It is recommended that adults get between 7-9hrs sleep per night for optimal health.

Sleep enemies - foods to watch out for

There are certain foods that we need to be weary of as they can have a negative impact on our sleep quality and quantity. You can probably guess what some of these are…!

  • Caffeine: this is a stimulant which can stay in our bodies for up to 12hrs after consumption. Try to avoid having caffeine after 3pm, and remember that even things like chocolate, decaf coffee/tea, fizzy drinks like Coca Cola and even some medications contain caffeine

  • Alcohol: this stops us having REM (dream) sleep which is important for cognitive recovery. The larger the consumption, the more you’ll notice the negative effects

  • Sugar: this is another stimulant which can wreak havoc on our blood sugar balance and have a negative impact on sleep. Try and avoid high sugar foods before bedtime

  • Spicy/acidic foods: these contain high levels of capsaicin which is a chemical that increases body temperature by interfering with the body’s natural thermoregulation system. We sleep better when we are cool, so don’t have a spicy curry just before going to bed!

  • Eating before bedtime: this can lead to a full stomach and an overactive digestive system which can cause discomfort when trying to get to sleep, so should ideally be avoided

  • Imbalanced blood sugar: If you have imbalanced blood sugar levels you may find that you wake up in the night as your blood sugar drops. Try to avoid skipping meals to maintain consistent energy

Sleep friends - foods to eat more of

There are certain foods we should focus on eating more of as they contain specific nutrients that support our ability to sleep.

  1. Tryptophan rich foods – we cannot make this amino acid ourselves and can only get it from our diets. It helps to make melatonin, our sleep hormone. Find it in chicken, turkey, milk, dairy, nuts and seeds plus carbohydrates

  2. Magnesium rich foods – these relax the nervous system and help us fall asleep. Find it in dark leafy greens like spinach, quinoa, cashews, black beans, avocado, wholegrains

  3. B vitamins, especially B6 – low levels have been linked to insomnia. Find it in pork, sweet potatoes, pistachios, wholegrain cereals, bananas, fish e.g. salmon and tuna

  4. Vitamin D – this is linked to energy, mood and sleep. Find it in sunlight, fatty fish, mushrooms, egg yolks, supplements

  5. Cherries – the Montmorency variety naturally contain melatonin

  6. Complex carbohydrates: aim for a third of your plate to be wholegrains and high fibre foods such as brown rice, brown pasta, quinoa, new potatoes etc. in your evening meal. These foods keep your serotonin levels (a neurotransmitter with a sleep regulation role) in check and therefore promote sleep

Final thoughts...

Sleep is very personalised, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. The annoying thing about nutrition is that the things that negatively affect us tend to work really quickly (e.g. caffeine), and the things that make us feel better always take a while to work their magic. Having said that though, I have had wonderful results with magnesium foods in as little as a week, so this might be a good one to try first. I recommend eating magnesium-containing foods everyday for 7 days and see how you feel in terms of energy levels and how your sleep has been...I think you will be pleasantly surprised with the results from such a simple intervention!

If you would like more bespoke sleep and nutrition advice, please do not hesitate to drop me a message either via my website, by email, or even a direct message on Instagram.

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