It’s no secret that the way you sleep can massively impact how you go about the following day. Linked to cognitive function, physical strength and mental health, a good night’s kip can salvage even the worst days at work. Which means, like most, you’re probably on the lookout for some advice that can help you gain an edge when your head hits the pillow. There are certain solutions – from eye masks to pillow sprays and ambient noise playlists to supplements – that you can tap into, of course, but have you considered switching up what’s on your plate?
“Exercise, stress, age and diet all play a role in how well you sleep. An occasional poor night’s sleep is unlikely to have a significant detrimental impact on your health, however regularly not getting adequate quality sleep can increase your risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes,” explains Head of Nutrition and Natural Fitness Food Nutritionist Rachel Butcher (ANutr).
“Sleep supports your immune system via cytokines (proteins which target infection and inflammation) that your body produces when you’re sleeping, this is why a lack of sleep for a period of time can lead to the formation of mouth ulcers, spots and cold-like symptoms,” says Butcher. “Too little sleep may also amplify the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress, releasing stress hormones which speed up heart rate and raise blood pressure (The Sleep Council, 2020) and could worsen gastro-intestinal distress as well as affecting mood and your decision making.”
Below, Rachel walks you through the foods that can help with your sleep, plus the meals you may want to avoid. They’re suitable for plant-based eaters, too.
Bananas contain muscle-relaxing minerals including magnesium and potassium – ideal to help you unwind before bedtime. Vitamin B6 in banana also converts the essential amino acid tryptophan into serotonin, the neurotransmitter that controls melatonin levels in the body and helps promote better sleep.
As with bananas, carbohydrates increase levels of tryptophan in the blood (that precursor to serotonin) and help to provide a more restful night sleep. However, not all carbs will work in this same way and high-GI carbs such as white bread, cakes and pastries are best avoided pre-bed. Instead, shop for whole, unrefined carbs including brown rice, oats, quinoa and millet. Porridge just for breakfast? Think again!
Sweet potatoes contain muscle-relaxing potassium and sleep supporting calcium. Similar to oats, while sweet potato contains ample carbs, these are complex and unrefined carbs so supportive of sleep.
Calcium-rich foods like broccoli, sesame and almonds can also be beneficial for sleep. Calcium assists brain cells in using tryptophan to synthesise melatonin, so include a calcium-rich option to be able to maximise melatonin’s potential.
Pumpkin seeds are brimming with health-promoting benefits including fighting disease and reducing blood pressure. Not only that, but pumpkin seeds are another rich source of tryptophan as well as muscle-relaxing magnesium which plays a role in supporting sleep by maintaining GABA levels, another sleep-promoting neurotransmitter.
Cherries, Grapes and Strawberries
While many options discussed are tryptophan-rich, cherries, grapes and strawberries naturally contain melatonin itself, helping to control your circadian rhythm (internal body clock) to regulate sleep. Be sure to opt for fresh cherries though as the process of drying wipes out the melatonin.
Pistachios are the most melatonin-rich nuts, along with helping regulate sleep patterns, melatonin is also important for eye health, maintaining healthy levels of melatonin may also lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
What Can Hinder a Good Night’s Sleep:
Caffeine: Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and makes you more alert. Caffeine has a half-life of four to six hours so ingesting it after 4pm could impact your sleep. Therefore, switching to decaf coffee and tea after lunchtime is a useful strategy to encourage a good night’s sleep.
Spicy Food: A very rich or spicy dinner may have a negative impact on your sleep as these foods can take longer to digest. Try eating earlier, or waiting at least two to three hours after your evening meal before going to bed. Some research also suggests that capsaicin – a compound found in chilli, has the potential to increase body temperature, which can affect our sleep rhythms as our bodies naturally decrease in temperature as we fall asleep.
Alcohol: Alcohol can often help you fall asleep initially, but it is linked with a poorer quality of sleep with more periods of wakefulness during the second half of the night and a lighter sleep that is likely to make you feel groggy in the morning. If you do decide to drink alcohol, it is advised to avoid drinking within three hours of bedtime.