How your diet can help you overcome insomnia
As a naturopath who’s on a mission to help my clients get deep refreshing sleep, I’m often asked what foods help with sleep. I fear my answer to this is disappointing to some who are looking for the one sleep Superfood to guarantee that they’ll sleep better than Jeff the purple Wiggle! If only it were that simple. My job would be much easier!
There are many lists around of “XXX foods for better sleep” encouraging you to devour Goji berries and sour cherries. I’ve been guilty of penning a couple of these myself. While certain foods may be sleep-promoting, by themselves, they are not likely to cure your insomnia. We need to look at the broader nutrition picture. Healthy shut-eye, like other areas of health, is about a supportive diet pattern, not individual sleep superfoods. It’s about the framework. Get that sorted, and you have many food options to suit your diet preferences.
The anatomy of a diet to support sleep
To set yourself up to rest your best you need to:
Balance blood sugar
Possibly the biggest hurdle I see for people’s sleep is poor or substandard blood sugar control. I’m not talking diabetes here either. If in the absence of any disease conditions, you’re not able to go for four to five hours without eating (aside from when you’re sleeping), or if you regularly get “hangry” and crave a mid-afternoon, Tim Tam, your blood sugar control is possibly less than ideal. Yes, even if your blood glucose test has come back within range. Constantly spiking and dipping blood sugar keeps insulin and stress hormones elevated. This has a knock-on effect on your quantity and quality of sleep. A diet that arrests the roller coaster of blood sugar highs and lows is essential.
Consume sufficient nutrients
To construct enough of the neurotransmitters and hormones to support sleep, you require building blocks. These blocks come in the form of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, fats, and amino acids. There’s no need to get bogged down in biochemistry of how to make melatonin and GABA. Optimise your overall nutrient intake, and your body will take care of the rest.
Remove foods that sabotage sleep
Don’t just focus on putting the good stuff in. Look at moderating or eliminating the things sabotaging your sleep. The big three here are refined sugar, alcohol and caffeine.
Not just about what you eat but when and how
To benefit from your diet, you also need to think about your meal timing. Eat at least two hours before you go to bed. No snacking after this. Your body needs a break from digestion to focus on rest and recovery. Give it a helping hand by leaving those M&Ms in the cupboard.
Remember how your Mum nagged you about chewing your food? Well, she was right. Mastication mastery is going to help your body digest and absorb all the delicious and nutritious food you’re putting in your gob.
The anatomy of a diet to support sleep
So what does a perfect sleep diet look like? Well, unlike the marketing hype, there is no single diet that works for everyone. However, all healthy diets will have common components. The key is finding the balance that works best for you.
Protein is the macronutrient supplying essential amino acids. In terms of sleep, amino acids are needed to build neurotransmitters and hormones such as GABA, serotonin and melatonin.
The average adult needs about 0.8-1grams (g) of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight. So if you weigh in at 60kg, you’d be aiming for 48-60g of protein per day. Sources of protein include meat, eggs, dairy, plant (legumes, soy, nuts, whole grains and some vegetables).
Poor old “carbs” have been feeling a bit neglected in recent times – so many people are avoiding or limiting them. Complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables and whole-grains) are a vital source of energy, vitamins and minerals. The higher fibre content in complex carbs avoids the blood sugar spikes that wreak havoc on your metabolism and helps keep insulin balanced.
How much? Don’t get too caught up in how many grams of carbs. Just aim for two serves of fruit and 5-7 serves of vegetables, and (if tolerated) one serve of whole grains per day.
Fat is another nutrient that has been unfairly demonised in the past. Fats are energy-dense, so make good fat choices and control your portion sizes. Nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, eggs, oily fish, organic and unprocessed dairy are sources of healthy fats.
Omega 3 fatty acids such as those found in oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring, etc.) are particularly beneficial for sleep. Diets high in omega 3 are linked to better sleep quality. The DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) portion of the omega 3 improves the pineal glands’ production of melatonin. DHA is particularly high in cod liver oil.
Two crucial ways fibre supports sleep involve balancing blood sugar (as discussed above) and promoting a healthy microbiome. The gut microbiome produces molecules which dial down inflammation as well as support the production of sleep neurotransmitters.
The best sources of fibre are in the form of complex carbohydrates mentioned above.
Hydration is often forgotten when it comes to sleep in favour of sexier supplements; however, being “well-watered” is essential for achieving deep, refreshing sleep. Many people are chronically under-hydrated. Not enough to be considered dehydrated, but even 1-2% less than optimum starts to impact the way our body functions.
During a night of sleep, you lose water in your exhaled breath, so it’s essential to enter the Land of Nod adequately hydrated. Under hydration is a physiological stressor and will lead to an increased heart rate. This can make you feel anxious and have difficulty obtaining deep sleep.
Sleep disrupting leg cramps can also be triggered by dehydration.
How much fluid do I need to drink?
I tell my clients as a base hydration rate to aim for 30mL of fluid per kilogram of body weight. A 60kg person would need 1.8litres. To this, you then need to add more to include your level of physical activity and weather conditions. If you’re eating at least two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables, you’ll also get fluid from this – anything up to 500mL a day.
Remember, if you’re drinking alcohol or having more than 200mg of caffeine per day, you’ll need more to offset the diuretic effect of those substances.
When to drink it?
Avoid guzzling a litre of water just before bed as you will most likely need to get up a few times to pee – somewhat defeating the purpose. Regular intake throughout the day is the best option.
Foods that sabotage sleep
As mentioned earlier, a diet high in refined sugar and simple carbohydrates (white flour products) is no friend to sleep. Most people would know eating a packet of M&Ms right before bed is probably a bad idea but also think about how that muffin and pasta you had for lunch could be impacting on your sleep. The goal is to balance blood sugar throughout the day.
Yes, alcohol is a sedative and many help you go to sleep. However, once your body starts to process the drink, it becomes stimulated, and you’ll get lighter, more restless sleep. The liver detoxification of alcohol mugs critical nutrients needed for sleep hormones (magnesium, zinc, B vitamins) and the diuretic effects means you’re more likely to wake up needing to use the toilet.
I consistently hear from my clients that when they abstain from alcohol for a month, one of the most significant benefits they notice is deeper, more refreshing sleep. This applies even to those who are only low-moderate drinkers.
Caffeine interferes with sleep in two ways. It blocks the receptors for adenosine. The longer you are awake, the more adenosine builds up in your brain. When it reaches a critical threshold, it makes you feel sleepy. Adenosine creates your sleep drive and caffeine blocks it.
The second impact of caffeine is that is stimulates a release of adrenaline which has the effect of keeping you alert.
Individual metabolism of caffeine varies widely and the half-life (the time it takes for half of it to be processed) can be anywhere from 6-14hours. Your lunch-time coffee might still be in your system at midnight. It’s worth noting that women using hormonal contraception tend to metabolise caffeine at a slower rate.
Take an audit of your caffeine intake. It’s not just coffee; you’ll also need to include tea (not herbal), chocolate, energy drinks and some medications also contain caffeine.
Eat for sleep
The foods you consume may not be the only thing you’ll need to look at in your quest for superior slumber. However, a diet that supports rather than sabotages vital elements of sleep provides a solid foundation. Eat for sleep and wake up feeling refreshed, rested and restored.
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Norelle Hentschel is an experienced naturopath with a clinic in Crows Nest, Sydney who enjoys supporting her clients to reach their health goals.
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