Help! I Can't Sleep! Nutrition Strategies for Sleep Support
It’s the cruellest of ironies as a parent. You are so tired, bone tired. Foggy-headed, surviving on caffeine and chocolate to get you through the day without falling over. Yet, when it comes to bedtime, you simply cannot fall asleep! So, what’s going on? And is there anything we can we do about it?
Sleep is absolutely crucial for our health - lack of sleep has been shown to be linked with all manner of adverse health outcomes, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, mental health issues, colo-rectal cancer – the list goes on! And it’s a fine balance; not enough sleep is associated with negative outcomes, but so is too much sleep! Whilst everyone’s needs will be individual, a typical adult will usually perform best on somewhere between 7 and 9 hours sleep a night. If you’re having trouble getting to, or staying asleep, there are a few basic, yet important, lifestyle and nutrition strategies that may help you.
Firstly, we need to make sure our sleep-wake cycle is working as it should be. Get some sunshine, as much as you can, especially in the morning. We need to get sunlight in our eyes (sunglasses off!), as the sunshine tells our pineal gland (which regulates our circadian rhythm) that it’s day time, and therefore awake time. But we also need the sunlight to hit our skin. Our sleep hormone, melatonin, is in a delicate balance with Vitamin D, so we need to make sure we have adequate D. Research has linked Vitamin D deficiency with a higher risk of sleep disturbances, poorer sleep quality, and reduced sleep duration. If you’re a chronic slip-slop-slapper, and/or you work indoors, chances are you’re low in D – see your GP for a simple blood test.
The other thing that has a huge impact on our sleep-wake cycle is blue light. Blue light tricks our body into thinking that it’s still daytime, so instead of lowering our cortisol levels and releasing melatonin, as should naturally occur as it gets dark, our body simply releases more cortisol to keep us awake. So, ditch the screens, and dim the house lights, at least two hours before bed. (That means if you’re going to bed at 9:30/10:00, you need to be off those screens by 7:30.)
The third thing that supports our wake-sleep cycle regulation, is sticking to a routine. Try to have a similar sleep time and wake time every day. When you feel that sleepiness coming on at night, don’t let it pass you by. That sleepiness is a sign that your melatonin level is rising, which means it’s an optimal window for you to fall asleep. If we don’t go to sleep at that time, our body releases more cortisol to keep us awake. Don’t miss that sleepy window of opportunity!
Our micronutrients play a huge role in the manufacturing of our sleep hormones, so we need to look at our diet and make sure we’re giving our body what it needs to be able to make enough melatonin. In particular, I’m talking about tryptophan, zinc, B6, magnesium, and iron. We find tryptophan in lots of foods, such as turkey, eggs, chicken, dairy products, soy beans, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, fish. Foods that are naturally high in protein are generally high in tryptophan. Eating protein that has tryptophan has the added bonus of supporting our blood sugar regulation, and when we combine that with a complex carbohydrate (think whole grains, sweet potato, legumes), it lowers our cortisol and increases our serotonin (our feel-good hormone). There are a few foods that contain melatonin, as well – tomatoes, sour cherries and dairy (remember the old “glass of warm milk before bed” idea?). And I know this one is tricky to fit into modern working life, but we should eat our last food at least two hours before we go to bed for optimal digestion and sleep. (That means so snacking after the kids are in bed!)
Finally, I come to caffeine … I’m not going to tell you not to have any, but it’s a stimulant, and it has a long life in our body. So, if you’re drinking coffee or tea, stick to only having it in the morning, so that by the time bedtime rolls around, the caffeine is well and truly out of your system.
A magnesium supplement can be really beneficial for those really struggling to fall, or stay, asleep - there are a few terrific practitioner-grade magnesium supplements with specific herbs and nutrients that support sleep on the market. There’s also a newish compound, called PEA which has had some promising early trials to aid sleep. But I recommend seeing a practitioner to discuss your individual circumstances before supplementing.