Why is sleep important?
A South African expert in sleep, Dr Kevin Rosman, often says “all the good stuff happens while we sleep” and he’s right The American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers sleep insufficiency as an important public health challenge reporting on average 50-70 million American adults diagnosed with sleep disorders. Sleep specialists repeatedly warn that sustained sleep restriction has been associated with metabolic changes that contribute to weight gain, mood disorders, stressful emotions and increased micronutrient requirements such as vitamins (B vitamins, Vitamin C) and minerals (Magnesium, Iron, Calcium). Sleep problems can also contribute to the development of a variety of conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, inflammation and diabetes. Sleep deprivation can alter circadian rhythms which affects hormone levels, mood, immune and digestive balance.
How can I improve my quality of sleep?
Medical professionals have identified sleep health hygiene factors to include:
- Maintaining a consistent routine for sleep with a regular bedtime and wake time
- Avoiding forced sleep
- Regular exercise
- Utilising the bed for only sleeping
- Avoiding alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine consumption before bed time
- Eating a well-balanced diet with appropriate times for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks to avoid hunger during the night time
- Maintaining a proper dark, quiet, and appropriate environment in the bedroom
- Dealing with worries before bedtime
- Avoiding the use of all electronic devices in bed
How does what you eat benefit your sleep patterns?
A balanced diet is very important as it provides various nutrients that all have specific functions in the maintenance of a good sleep cycle. Lean proteins provide the body with an amino acid called tryptophan which converts to a neuro transmitter called serotonin. Serotonin functions in the brain and assists in regulating sleep patterns. The patterns of eating itself, can also assist in stabilizing daily energy levels to assist in forming healthy sleeping routines when night time comes. Maintaining optimal blood glucose levels throughout the day is important for good quality sleep. This can be achieved through regular and structured eating patterns. Try choose high quality, wholegrain carbohydrates that are low GI and release sugars (glucose) slowly into the blood stream. This prevents a rollercoaster of fluctuating blood glucose levels – which may affect our energy levels during the day and consequently our sleep quality at night.
Does my body weight affect sleeping?
Sleep apnoea is on the rise, as is it directly related to obesity. Sleep apnoea is defined as reoccurring episodes of apnoea (cessation of breathing during sleep), caused by blockage of the upper airway. Weight loss is one of the most important management strategies to reduce the incidence of sleep apnoea, along with limiting alcohol consumption and stopping smoking.
What foods should you concentrate on for better sleep and why?
It is important to note that there is no “magic bullet” when it comes to nutrition for sleep. There is no one particular food that has been shown through research to significantly induce sleep or improve sleep. As no specific food can outweigh the effects of overall diet, it is recommended that a high quality diet rich in wholegrains, fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins (legumes, fish, skinless chicken and low fat dairy) as well as healthy fats (mono and poly unsaturated fats) should contribute to good sleep hygiene. On the other hand the following foods have been studied and do show promise in their ability to enhance sleep quality or onset:
- Chamomile tea – has a soothing effect and reduces anxiety which can help to calm one down before sleep.
- Honey – said to have a mild sedative affect and can be stirred into chamomile tea or warm milk. Honey is high in sugar though and should be used sparingly with no more than ½ -1 teaspoon added to tea.
- Milk – contains tryptophan, promoting serotonin production thereby improving sleep. Do opt for low fat milk as opposed to full cream milk which contains saturated fat.
- Serotonin – regulates sleep patterns and foods which contain natural serotonin include banana, avocado pear and tomatoes
- Cherries – one of the few natural foods to contain melatonin. This is a hormone that is released when it gets dark, and aids towards optimal sleep.
- Magnesium – may assist with muscle relaxation and is contained in wholegrain cereals, nuts, pulses and green leafy vegetables.
What time should you eat dinner to ensure optimum benefit for sleep?
Try to eat approximately 2-3 hours before going to sleep. Studies have shown that consuming small amounts of high quality carbohydrate such as (wholegrains, pulses and fresh vegetables) before bed can assist in the transportation of tryptophan (an amino acid) that is important for the formation of serotonin that plays an essential role towards optimal sleep quality.
If you are suffering from difficulty sleeping avoid the following practices:
- Consuming caffeine – Stimulates the brain which we don’t want to do when we are trying to fall asleep. Foods that contain caffeine include; coffee, tea, cola drinks and chocolate.
- Enjoying large meals – Large quantities of food are difficult to digest and may cause gastrointestinal disturbances that affect good sleep.
- Consuming high fat foods – Foods that contain large amounts of fat can delay gastric emptying and cause discomfort which can affect sleep.
- Enjoying too many alcoholic drinks – Alcohol can prevent one form going into deeper sleep cycles therefore affecting the quality of the sleep.
Article by Nutritional Solutions, a practice of registered dietitians in Johannesburg.