After decades of our society celebrating the workaholic, who sacrifices their sleep for long hours in the office, it is time to make sleep sexy again. So, let's talk about sleep, baby!
Sleep is not a luxury, it's a necessity.
The fact that not sleeping for 16 hours can make you behave as if you have a blood alcohol level of 0.05% gives you an indication of how significant the impact of sleep deprivation ― even on a short-term basis ― is on your body.
"Sleep deprivation is the most common brain impairment." - William C. Dement
Lack of sleep can not only cause brain impairment but also negatively affect:
- Dietary choices
- Motivation to move and be active
- Ability to self-regulate emotional responses and be resilient
- Interest to connect with family and friends
- Hormonal balance
- Hunger signals
- Social life
- Risk for chronic diseases
- Risk for dementia
- Body composition
- Sex drive/mojo
"A good laugh and restful sleep are the best cures for anything." - Unknown
While the reversal of arguments does not always hold true, in the instance of sleep, research has shown that getting adequate sleep indeed positively affects all the factors mentioned above (1). On top of all these benefits, restful sleep also supports our body's repair and recovery mechanisms (2). The need to sleep for recovery and healing is most noticeable when sick. However, you can not only utilise the healing power of sleep when you are sick, but you can benefit from it daily by making you more resilient to acute and chronic disease and injuries by repairing damaged DNA and tissue.
Factors that Affect the Quality of Sleep
What are the factors that affect good quality and quantity of sleep, and what can you do to promote a restful night of sleep? This article will focus on the dietary aspects of preparing for a good night's sleep. However, your exposure to light, physical activity, level of physical and mental relaxation, emotional state, work patterns, family commitments, and many more factors all play an equally important role and need to be addressed for deep sleep to occur (find out more in the resources listed at the end).
Eat, drink, sleep, repeat
According to the American psychologist Abraham Maslow, three of the seven needs for human survival are food, water and sleep.
Choices to stay away from
Your sleep quality and quantity affect your food choices, body composition and motivation to move. However, it is a two-way street. Your dietary choices also impact your sleep patterns. Let's shine a light on the dietary behaviours that hinder a good night's sleep.
#1 Caffeinated drinks, sugar, and alcohol
Foods or beverages containing high amounts of sugar, caffeinated drinks, and alcohol are all stimulants that cause sleep disturbances. Whether you feel a stimulatory effect from consuming any of the above or not, the fact is that they will affect your body and your sleep.
I recommend refraining from consuming caffeinated drinks after lunch to promote good quality sleep, and, yes, that includes black tea.
Our body reacts very strongly to sugar, as I'm sure you know. There is a reason the term sugar-crash was coined. Therefore, a diet low in sugar is highly recommended for optimal health, and refraining from sugary drinks or foods a few hours before bedtime will support a good night's sleep.
Alcohol is known to be a stimulant. Even though many people claim to sleep really well after a couple of beers or glasses of wine, sleep research has shown that the sleep of the study participants suffered greatly after consuming alcohol (3). The reality is that large amounts of alcohol make you somewhat unconscious, which stops you from noticing how inadequate your sleep is. If you choose to have a glass of alcohol, the "best" time would be around midday. It allows the body to break down the alcohol and its by-products and, therewith, reduce its detrimental effects on your sleep. Needless to say, you should only consume alcohol occasionally. The less alcohol you drink, the better your health will be.
#2 Meal size and timing
The timing of your last meal of the day depends on the size of your meal and the macronutrient composition of your meal. Unless your meal is very light and small, you want to leave about two hours between your last meal and bedtime. I am sure you have been in the situation where you are eating a late dinner and end up feeling quite full. You are, however, also very tired and decide to go to bed. You end up tossing and turning because you are too full to fall asleep, costing you several hours of restful sleep.
You can avoid this situation by planning ahead:
- Take snacks with you, so you don't come home ravenously hungry.
- Eat only half of your regular meal size.
- Have a light meal option in the fridge or pantry, e.g., soup.
In addition, remember to eat slowly. Of course, this is a crucial aspect to remember at any meal. This simple yet powerful tool helps you eat until you are only about 80% full and, therefore, promotes restful sleep at night.
#3 Chronic undereating
Chronic undereating will not only affect the quality and quantity of your sleep, but of course, it will affect your overall health. One paper, published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, examined the sleeping patterns of individuals with eating disorders (4). They found that sleep became more fragmented throughout the night, especially among individuals with anorexia nervosa who heavily restricted their calorie intake. As a result of extreme calorie restriction, malnutrition also led to a decrease in slow-wave sleep (the deepest and most restorative part of the sleep cycle). If you notice a tendency to restricting your food intake or if you notice the signs of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, please, seek support from a qualified healthcare professional.
#4 "Too much" fluids
Of course, drinking plenty of liquids throughout the day is incredibly important for your overall health. However, drinking a lot of liquid before your sleep time can cause you to wake up multiple times throughout the night to urinate. So, if you find yourself having to get up numerous times throughout the night, consider adjusting the amount of fluid you are taking in the evening. If you notice that you have to urinate frequently, despite not drinking a lot in the hours before bedtime, there might be an underlying issue, which has nothing to do with the amount you are drinking. These issues will need to be addressed by a qualified healthcare professional.
Top Nutrients and Foods for Restful Sleep
It's time to move from the not-to-do's to all the wonderful nutrients and dietary behaviours that you can utilise to improve your sleep.
Getting a balanced level of dietary fibre is key to optimal health and a good night's sleep. Greater fibre intake has been shown to be associated with more time spent in the stage of deep, slow-wave sleep, which is most restorative (5). Food rich in fibre includes beans, peas and lentils, vegetables (broccoli, turnip, green beans), and whole grains (barley, brown rice, wild rice, and quinoa).
Folate (not to be confused with folic acid) is also known as vitamin B9. A study in athletes has linked balanced folate levels to lower rates of both insomnia (defined as difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep and/or extended periods of wakefulness) and restless leg syndrome (6). A range of other B-vitamins have also been shown to support restful sleep mainly by balancing the nervous system (notably vitamins B3, B5, and B12). In the case of folate, it is highly recommended to use food sources of folate rather than supplementing with folic acid. Excellent sources of folate are spinach, beef liver, black-eyed peas, asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kidney beans, and avocado.
Magnesium is a key mineral, which is at work in every cell of your body. It helps convert food into energy, regulate your nervous system and create new proteins. Due to its function as a regulator of the nervous system and a muscle relaxant, magnesium is a key mineral for sleep. Low magnesium levels are associated with poor sleep quality and insomnia (7).
Consuming more magnesium can improve subjective measures of insomnia such as sleep efficiency, sleep duration, and sleep onset latency (which means how long it takes you to fall asleep). For various reasons, most of us don't get enough magnesium in our diets, making it a "usual suspect" nutrient to increase in people struggling with sleep.
What can you do to increase your levels of magnesium?:
- Take magnesium supplements (magnesium chelate, magnesium citrate)
- Limit coffee, colas, salt, sugar, and alcohol
- Practice relaxation; stress burns through your magnesium stores!!
- Take a hot bath with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) to absorb magnesium
- Apply magnesium oil directly to your skin
The amino acid tryptophan is also a neurotransmitter. It is key to our ability to regulate mood and cognition. Tryptophan is also needed to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in sleep, appetite, pain and mood. Serotonin then works with enzymes to create melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep-wake cycle by making you feel tired at bedtime. This progression that begins with tryptophan consumption and ends with melatonin production is crucial for healthy sleep. Some studies have found that a diet high in tryptophan can improve sleep quality (8). Dietary sources of tryptophan include leafy greens, sunflower seeds, watercress, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, broccoli, peas, eggs, chicken and turkey.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland that helps with sleep initiation and maintenance. It modulates your circadian rhythm. You will notice the effects of this hormone the most when you travel to a different time zone or shift your pattern of sleep and wakefulness as it will need to recalibrate and reintegrate.
As mentioned before, your body uses tryptophan to help make melatonin. Eggs are a good source of melatonin, and so are fish, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, cereals and germinated legumes.
Melatonin supplementation has been explored widely too. However, my recommendation is to limit melatonin supplementation and to use it for a very short time only.
For optimal health, I suggest to balance your melatonin levels naturally by spending plenty of time outside, which provides a cue and signal to adjust your internal body clock, by embracing a balanced diet, and by making optimal lifestyle choices.
Herbs have been used for thousands of years to prevent disease and to heal. Their preparation as herbal teas or herbal extracts is highly beneficial for improving sleep (9). Herbal teas containing chamomile, lemon balm, passionflower, valerian, skullcap leaf, and peppermint increase relaxation and have calming effects. A fun fact is that hops have also been shown to support sleep (10). The good news is that non-alcoholic beer is a great option to choose to reap its benefits. If you feel drawn towards using herbs to support your sleep, I highly recommend seeking out a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor or a Western Herbalism professional in your area.
As you can see, there are plenty of steps you can take from a dietary perspective to support a restful night of sleep. Once you have addressed the dietary habits and choices to stay away from, you can then move on to integrate the many foods and nutrients supporting a good night's sleep. You will not only see the benefits on a daily basis but also in the long run, which include balanced energy levels, mental clarity and a vibrant mojo. Now that's sexy!
Further resourcesOriginally published on Mar 21, 2022
"Why we sleep" Mathew Walker
"Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day" by Dr. Robert Rosenberg