Eating habits to promote good and restful sleep
Many people underestimate the need for sleep, until they don’t get it and they start to feel the impact of sleep loss. Sleep provides more than just a rest and switch off from the day to day stresses we all experience, it has significant impacts on many aspects of our physical and mental health too. In fact, the connection between sleep quality and health is only more recently becoming known and the correlation between the two is more than was ever realised previously. Research has consistently shown that poor sleep increases the incidence of illness, especially depression and diabetes. Good quality sleep improves our immune function, helps stabilise and improve mood, enhances brain function and memory and is also essential for a healthy heart (studies have shown that people who have low quality and less sleep are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease and this is regardless of other risk factors such as age, weight, exercise and smoking habits).
According to the NHS, one in three people suffer with poor sleep and the main culprit of this is often related to stress and work. Knowing the huge benefits that good sleep quality provides, it is therefore a worry that so many people suffer with sleep problems in some way. This could be from full blown chronic insomnia (trouble falling and/or staying asleep), general anxiety, physical disorders such as sleep apnoea (breathing disruption during sleep) or asthma, but whatever the cause of disruptive sleep, the end result is that the body’s natural day and sleep cycle is hugely disrupted and that’s not healthy, especially over the long term. So what is the answer?
Like many health problems the solution is not a case of one size fits all, and what works for one person may not benefit another, so it’s important to keep in mind that you need to find what works for YOU. Reviewing your diet and nutrition though can be one relatively easy way in creating an improvement in your sleep patterns, in fact some research has shown that how we choose to eat over the course of a day affects how our sleep will be during that night. So let’s look at some eating habits that help promote good and restful sleep.
WHEN we choose to eat
It has been shown that there is a direct connection between sleep quality and what time we eat. This is linked to something called the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is basically your body’s 24 hour natural clock that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and regulates internal, physical, mental and behaviour changes that occur in the body during a 24 hour period. So in other words the circadian rhythm is what keep our bodily functions running to a schedule and that includes things such as falling asleep and waking up in the morning. If we constantly change the times we eat, for example by skipping meals, or eating early one day and late the next, our circadian rhythm can become ‘confused’ and ultimately means our 24 hour cycle / clock can reprogram itself, which means disruption! And one thing that can be hugely disrupted is our sleep patterns. It’s therefore really important that you try, wherever possible, to ensure that you eat at similar times each day and don’t skip meals. If you know your day is going to be busy and you won’t have time to eat lunch, ensure you take a good ‘transportable’ snack with you such as nuts, popcorn, crackers, cheese or vegetable sticks, as these will at least provide your body with energy and something to metabolize and ensure your circadian rhythm keeps on track.
Eating late at night, whether that be eating your whole evening meal or snacking continuously through the evening, can also have a negative impact on sleep quality and sleep duration. When you eat late, the organs and muscles and bodily processes that should rest during the night, end up working in order to process and digest the foods you have eaten. This again disrupts the body’s natural clock and can delay your ability to fall asleep, as well as prevent you getting the deep and restful stage of sleep that is needed to really feel refreshed and energized.
Ideally you should finish eating at least three hours before bedtime, but the longer you can give your body between last eating and going to bed the better. In an ideal world we should aim to eat no later than 6pm, as after this time our metabolic rate starts to slow down (metabolic rate is the rate at which our body burns calories / expends energy).
One thing that can be difficult is if you work shifts, as this can really interfere with the circadian rhythm/body clock, which then has far longer term consequences for sleep patterns and other health areas, which are a little harder to resolve. If you work nights or early morning shifts that means you are awake when your body’s clock is thinking you should be asleep and bodily functions are meant to be slowing down and alert levels are low and when you are sleeping this is the reverse. In effect, shift work means your natural body rhythm is opposite to what it should be and this can certainly cause challenges when trying to sleep. Some of the foods stated below though can still help sleep patterns even if you do work shifts.
How MUCH we eat
Research has shown that poor and disturbed sleep patterns can be linked to how much we eat, with eating more overall showing a detrimental effect on our sleep quality. This is especially the case if we are eating a lot in the evening and just before bedtime, which as mentioned above, negatively impacts our body clock and makes for an unrefreshing sleep.
Unfortunately it is a bit of a vicious circle though, because many studies have shown that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to eat more and increase their food consumption, and the food choices they are more likely to make are ones that are high calorie. Being conscious of this is important because if you fall into this category and you are a poor sleeper, trying to implement changes on your food choice can certainly have an impact on sleep patterns and energy levels.
It may sound obvious, but it’s worth a mention especially if you don’t have a strong bladder, that you should not choose to consume most of your daily fluid intake after 6pm. You do not want to be waking with a full bladder during the night and if you are known to frequently need to urinate you certainly need to limit your fluid intake during the evening. Choose instead to be drinking fluids throughout the daytime and limit drinking during the evening.
WHAT we eat
There are many foods that are not good choices to eat in the evening or before bedtime, because they may act as stimulants, be difficult to digest or more prone to give you heartburn or bloating for example, none of which are conducive to a good night’s sleep. On the other hand there are also foods that are known to promote calmness, have anti-stress effects and aid relaxation and these are the foods that should be on your evening meal menu.
Carbs, Proteins & Tryptophan
Having a high carbohydrate based meal in an evening (especially late evening) is not a good idea if you want a good night’s sleep, as studies have shown that high carbohydrate intake increases the number of awakenings during the night as well as reducing the amount of deep sleep you get through the night. A high protein based meal is also not the best choice, because high protein foods, particularly red meat, take the longest to break down and you don’t want your body focusing on digesting food when it should be focused on getting to sleep. Fish, turkey and chicken are better sources of protein to eat in the evening as these are more easily digested than red meats and in the case of chicken and turkey, they also contain the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan can be very helpful in aiding sleep as it has been shown to help with relaxation by helping to produce sleep-inducing brain chemicals called melatonin and serotonin.
Goats’ milk also contains tryptophan (more so than cows’ milk) and is also a fantastic source of calcium, which has also shown to promote feelings of calmness as well as being an excellent muscle relaxant. So if you needed another reason why you should be drinking Delamere Dairy goats’ milk, there it is!
Many foods can act as stimulants and these are certainly not what you want to be eating in an evening if you are struggling to sleep or suffer with insomnia. Common food stimulants include caffeine, alcohol and sugars (including things like refined / carbohydrates, fructose syrup and some sweeteners) and spices including ginger and chili. Avoiding these in an evening will certainly help your sleeping patterns. Eating more saturated fat and sugars throughout the day has also been linked with lighter and less restorative sleep during the night, so if your diet is high in sugar and/or saturated fats make some changes here.
Most people are well aware of Chamomile and its connection with calmness and sleep and it is indeed true. This herb is one of the most well-known herbs especially for its calming and sedative effects and is also one of the most ancient herbs with its use in medicine dating back thousands of years. Chamomile contains an antioxidant called Apigenin, which has shown to induce muscle relaxation and promote sleep. Consuming chamomile after your evening meal (if not too late) has been shown to really help sleep quality and if anxiety is the main cause of your sleep disturbances then chamomile has also been shown to significantly reduce symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder, so can help in this way too.
Sweet cherries contain melatonin, which is a hormone that helps regulate and induce sleep as well as help regulate the circadian rhythm. Research does show that drinking cherry juice twice a day improved both sleep quality and sleep duration. So make this your drink of choice in an evening if you suffer with sleep difficulties.
If you are desperate for a pre bedtime snack, then nuts are a good sleep friendly choice especially almonds. Like cherries, nuts also contain the sleep hormone melatonin, although the amount does vary depending on the nut, with almonds thought to be the highest in melatonin. Nuts also contain magnesium, a mineral that can also aid in sleep by helping induce muscle relaxation and almonds again come up tops containing the highest amount compared with other nuts. Don’t consume more than a small handful though as remember you don’t want your digestion working overtime when you are trying to count sheep.
Becoming more selective of what, when and how much you eat can really help ensure your body’s circadian rhythm / body clock, is functioning optimally and will mean that your sleep patterns can improve. Like anything, this won’t happen overnight as it takes a while to restore balance to something that may have been off kilter for some time, but be patient and hopefully you will soon be falling into a deep refreshing slumber……ZZZZzzzzzzzzz
• Fibre and Saturated Fat Are Associated with Sleep Arousals and Slow Wave Sleep. 2016. The Jour-nal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
• Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future, 2010. Molecular Medicine Report
• Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality, 2012. European Journal of Nutrition
• Effects of Diet on Sleep Quality , 2016. Advances in Nutrition
• Effects of Diet on Sleep: A Narrative Review, 2020. Nutrients
• High-glycemic-index carbohydrate meals shorten sleep onset, 2007. The American Journal of Clini-cal Nutriton
• Shift Work: Disrupted Circadian Rhythms and Sleep—Implications for Health and Well-Being, 2017. Current Sleep Medicine Reports