A Nutritionist’s Guide to Improving Sleep

Renée Naturally Qualified Naturopath, Nutritionist & Western Medical Herbalist

Quality sleep is absolutely essential to both a healthy body and mind. Impaired sleep, altered sleep patterns, and even mild sleep deprivation can significantly disrupt physical and mental function, not to mention leave you feeling like the walking dead! Below, we will explore some dietary and lifestyle considerations that may help you to increase your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.

First things first… how do you know if you are getting the right amount of sleep to be deemed healthy? The exact amount of sleep an individual needs do vary from person to person. An adult needs on average, 7- 9 hours per night. Research suggests that women actually tend to need a little more sleep than men (perhaps Mother Nature recognises the inevitable sleep deprivation mother’s experience with motherhood!) When we don’t sleep enough, our cortisol levels rise. The adrenal glands produce cortisol, which is our primary stress-response hormone. It is a highly energising hormone and raised levels are not conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Sleep problems can develop from a multitude of causes, including physical and environmental changes, chemical imbalances, poor food and drink choices, drugs and more. Sleep deprivation can be voluntary (ie. regularly staying up late to watch the finale of your favourite Netflix series!) or involuntary (ie. sleep disorders such as insomnia). Some of the involuntary reasons that contribute to sleep issues include:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Caffeine
  • Sugar
  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol
  • Age
  • Technology

The dietary choices you make (both what you eat, and often more importantly, what you forgo!) can also encourage healthy sleep patterns. Here are some items you may like to put on your grocery list for more restful nights…

Almonds: Almonds are a food source that naturally contain high levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleeping and waking cycle. A 28g serving of whole almonds also contains 77 mg of magnesium and 76 mg of calcium. These two crucial minerals may help to promote muscle relaxation and sleep.

Cottage cheese: Cottage cheese contains the amino acid tryptophan, which may help to increase serotonin levels. Serotonin is a brain chemical associated with insomnia when levels are lower in the body. For a double sleep-whammy, top the cottage cheese with raspberries as these are also a good source of melatonin.

Fruits: Certain fruits that contain melatonin may help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often during the night. For instance, tart cherry juice and whole tart cherries contain a lot of melatonin; and bananas, pineapple, and raspberries are also sources.

Warm milk: Warm milk is a traditional home “cure” for sleeplessness. Milk contains four sleep-promoting compounds: calcium, tryptophan, vitamin D, and melatonin.

Scientifically, it is suggested that there may be a link between the tryptophan and melatonin content of milk and improved sleep. It can’t be discounted that the psychological link between warm milk and bedtime routines as a child may be at play too. Just like a calming cuppa before bed, a warm drink of milk can be a beneficial part of a soothing bedtime routine.

Chamomile tea: The herb chamomile is a traditional remedy for insomnia. Store-bought Chamomile tea is popular for its calming properties. It is believed that a flavonoid compound called apigenin is responsible for chamomile’s sleep-inducing properties. Apigenin appears to activate GABA A receptors, a process that helps stimulate sleep.

Walnuts: Walnuts contain compounds that promote and regulate sleep, including melatonin, serotonin, and magnesium. Walnuts also contain other nutrients that can help sleep, such as: magnesium, potassium, folate and calcium. 

Oily fish: Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna may help improve sleep because they are a good source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids; two nutrients that help regulate serotonin. Serotonin is largely responsible for establishing a fixed sleeping and waking cycle.

Some further dietary tips to help improve sleep include:

  • Avoid foods that can cause heartburn, such as spicy or rich foods
  • Avoid foods and drinks that contain caffeine (including cola, coffee, tea, chocolate) after 3pm (or 12pm if you are particularly sensitive to caffeine.
  • Avoid alcohol, a small amount can help to induce sleep initially, but it invariably disrupts deeper sleep cycles later.
  • Choose whole-grain foods in place of white bread, white pasta, and sugary foods
  • Stay hydrated throughout the day
  • Finish your main evening meal no later than 2–3 hours before bedtime

Aside from dietary changes, other traditional or alternative remedies that can improve sleep include:

Minerals: A lack of the minerals calcium and magnesium can cause you to wake up after a few hours of going to sleep and make it difficult to return to sleep. Taken in combination, calcium and magnesium have a calming effect. Consider taking a combined nutritional supplement of magnesium and calcium to help calm your nervous system and in turn, help your body’s daily response to stress.

Vitamins: If poor sleep is related to high stress levels, then you may want to consider taking a Vitamin B complex. B vitamins are good for helping to relieve stress and can help to promote a restful state when taken regularly.

Herbs: Consider herbal medicine to help calm your nervous system in preparation for a good night’s sleep. Herbs that can help with sleep include; Chamomile, Californian poppy, kava kava, lemon balm, passionflower, skullcap, and valerian root. The above herbs can be consumed in tea form, or speak to a Naturopath about prescribing you an herbal tonic containing a combination of these herbs.

Here are a few quick tips to make sure you don’t spend your days feeling like a zombie…

  • Avoid caffeine (tea, coffee, cola, dark chocolate) and high sugar snacks after 3pm.
  • Try to maintain a regular sleep routine. Just like with babies, sleep routines are key!
  • Take a hot bath about an hour before bedtime. For further relaxation, add some calming essential oils such as lavender or Roman chamomile. 
  • Avoid watching TV or working on devices at least one hour before going to bed. The artificial light on these devices impairs melatonin production, which is a hormone that helps you fall asleep. Wind down instead by reading a book, meditating or doing some relaxing yoga stretches.
  • Ensure the bedroom is well ventilated and at a comfortable temperature.
  • Try not to get in the habit of lengthy weekend sleep-ins. Remember, routine is the key when it comes to establishing healthy sleep habits. At the most, stretch your sleep-in to an extra hour in the weekend.
  • Ensure exercise is part of your daily routine. Regular exercise can help you to get better quality sleep (deeper sleep and less interruptions throughout the night).

If you’re hitting the sack each night feeling “tired but wired” and have been dreaming about waking up refreshed each day, try some of the above tips and you’ll hopefully be sleeping soundly in no time.

As always, speak with a health professional before taking any new supplements, to ensure that they will not interact with other medications or supplements or affect any existing medical conditions.

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