“Shut up and go to sleep, Brain!”
Is this what you find yourself saying to yourself when your head hits the pillow? Or after an hour of lying there? Or maybe when you wake up a few hours later, at 2 or 3 in the morning? You are not alone. Around 30 per cent of Americans suffer with insomnia issues, and given our similar lifestyles, it’s likely the numbers in Australia and Great Britain are comparable.
And it could be down to what we eat and drink. No great surprises there! But keep reading anyway, there may be some pearls of wisdom here…!
If you have difficulty sleeping at least three times a week for three months or more, then you are suffering from chronic insomnia. As we know, sleep deprivation is not good for our general and mental health (ask any new mother!). Studies show insomnia issues and sleep disorders increase the risk of many big-name health issues – hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.
But it’s not just the quantity of total sleep you get, it’s the quality too. Your body repairs physically during the non-REM deep sleep stage, and then repairs psychologically during the REM stage that follows. Chemicals in the brain facilitate getting to sleep and transitioning from one sleep stage to another, so it’s important to keep the body in balance.
So, what can you do to improve your sleep quantity and quality, from the inside, out?
Not sure if you’re eating the right things to help or prevent your insomnia issues?
It’s true that some foods might stop you getting the sleep you need, and others might help your slumber. First, let’s look at some of the things that are stopping you from getting a good night’s rest. Yes, you may know all of these, but maybe they’re more important than you realised…
What to avoid that can be too stimulating…
- Sugar – this is an obvious one, fuelling the body at the wrong time of day. Even sweeteners, which mimic sugar, can trick the body into producing cortisol. This prevents the body, and mind, from being able to wind down at the end of the day.
- Caffeine – another obvious one, and it can take longer than we realise for the body to filter the caffeine out of its system. Avoid tea, coffee, caffeinated fizzy drinks and dark chocolate after around 2pm if you want to nix those insomnia issues.
- Alcohol – stop drinking around 2 hours before bed. Alcohol tricks the brain into thinking it is able to sleep, by activating receptors for the brain chemical, GABA. It then wakes up later, realising it doesn’t actually have enough GABA required to facilitate sleep.
- Drinks containing artificial sweeteners – these have been shown to affect the quality of sleep. Again, they trick the brain, affecting the levels of chemicals (neurotransmitters), raising the resting heart rate and preventing adequate deep, restorative non-REM sleep.
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – this can act as an excitotoxin in the brain, stimulating activity. Too much glutamate also throws the balance of GABA, which in turn increases anxiety and reduces REM sleep levels. Foods that encourage the formation of glutamate in the body include: whey protein, gelatine, soy, peas, tomatoes and parmesan cheese – reduce these foods and foods containing MSG if you are experiencing anxiety and poor sleep.
- Nicotine – there are lots of reasons to stop smoking, but if you’re experiencing insomnia issues and poor sleep quality, then this is a big one. Nicotine is a stimulant, so any smoking later in the day/evening in particular could be keeping you awake at night. Withdrawal pangs overnight may wake you up and keep you awake.
Now you’ve cut out all the ‘fun’, and are well on your way to a good night’s sleep, we can focus on things that will encourage slumber…
What to have that helps you relax…
- Tryptophan – this particular amino acid, which is a building block of protein, is a precursor to serotonin, another brain chemical which promotes sleep. Consuming foods higher in tryptophan may increase your serotonin levels. Try eating the following for dinner or as a snack in the evening: eggs, cheese, nuts and seeds, salmon, and turkey. Combining these foods with some carbs – rice, oats, sweet potato – may help the body’s absorption of tryptophan.
- Magnesium – this trusty mineral helps with sleep efficiency and time, relieves stress, relaxes muscles, and stimulates GABA receptors in the brain. What can’t it do? Foods high in magnesium include: dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, avocado, yoghurt, and banana. So, a dessert of plain/Greek yoghurt and banana with a sprinkle of sunflower and pumpkin seeds on top is perfect. However, many people are deficient in magnesium so you may find you need a little more help. We can discuss the perfect magnesium supplement for you (trust me, there are many to choose between) during your initial consult.
- Herbal tea – herbal teas are the perfect way to help relax your body and mind, whilst having the added bonus of replacing the caffeinated coffee and tea you’re now cutting out due to your insomnia! Chamomile is a common choice, but there are others to choose too. Passionflower is fantastic for calming the mind, boosting GABA levels, and promoting sleep quality. There are lots of herbal tea blends available that target sleep and relaxation specifically, but they need to be consumed daily for a week or two before you notice the effects. Just be sure to check the ingredients are safe if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or taking medication.
Insomnia issues are not just about what you eat and drink.
Whilst the substances you consume play a role in your ability to sleep, and sleep well, there is so much more going on in our lives that we must look at other factors too. I address some of the ‘lifestyle’ factors in my next blog post (Part II).
Hormonal imbalances, mood changes and/or PMS, adrenal fatigue, thyroid issues, chronic stress, the list goes on. These issues all play a role – affecting the ability of neurotransmitters, like GABA, serotonin, noradrenaline to enable the brain to relax, sleep, and transition from one sleep state to another. To improve your sleep and gain a greater understanding of your health, we must look at the whole picture.
Where to from here?
If your insomnia issues are becoming a chronic problem, don’t keep suffering. Book in TODAY to chat in-depth about your sleep, diet, health history, and more. Sleep easy knowing we are going to get to the bottom of your health issues. Let me help you get the sleep you need and reach your health goals!
In the meantime, keep an eye out for my next blog post, about the impact of lifestyle factors on sleep, later this week.