Do you know the feeling, when it’s three o’clock in the morning and you still haven’t slept a wink? How your mind starts wandering around work or the approaching deadline and your heart starts pounding. Tired or not, you still gotta do what you gotta do.
We know that stress and anxiety can both affect our nervous system and cause sleep disorders or insomnia. Also, a lack of exercise or on the other hand, too much of exercise can lower the quality of sleep. But something that is less paid attention to is the role of nutrition, which can have a major influence on the quality and length of our sleep.
How To Get The Right Nutrients
There are many nutrients that can help to make you calmer, naturally tired and fall asleep easier. Some of these following foods might be a good idea to adapt into an everyday diet so that they will not only help you to sleep tonight but also correct the serotonin and melatonin levels, in the long run, balancing both your mood and sleep-wake cycle. These foods have many other health benefits as well.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Especially DHA in omega-3 fatty acids seems to release melatonin, that important hormone that gets you to sleep. Omega-3 fatty acids are found throughout the aquatic food chain and especially in mackerel, swordfish, salmon and sardines. Try for example my Salmon and Roasted Vegetables -recipe to increase your omega-3 intake. There’s also a lot of omega-3’s in nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds, shelled hemp seeds and sunflower seeds. Also, Egg yolks and algae contain omega-3 fatty acids.
Calcium is necessary for the brain to convert tryptophan into melatonin and therefore it’s directly related to our cycles of sleep. The amino acid tryptophan plays an important role in calming down the body and helping with sleep as it helps synthesise both serotonin and melatonin. Top foods for calcium are Swiss cheese, Cheddar cheese, parsley, almonds, brewer’s yeast, prunes, pumpkin seeds, cooked dried beans and winter wheat. Just keep in mind that there are adversaries such as stress, alcohol or hormone imbalances that can affect negatively to calcium absorption or increased excretion. Check out my Cauliflower Salad recipe with calcium-rich prunes.
Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include insomnia. Magnesium is vital for the function of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter in the brain and nervous system, which the brain requires to switch off and fall asleep. Great sources of magnesium are pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, almonds, cashew nuts, buckwheat flour, Brazil nuts, pecan nuts. Also, potato skin, green peas, garlic and raisins contain some magnesium. If you need some ideas on how to include nuts and seeds in your daily diet, check out my healthy dessert and snack recipes which contain a variety of nuts and seeds.
A deficiency in vitamin B6 can also cause sleep disturbances. This vitamin is required in the syntheses of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA that helps regulate sleep patterns. One of the best sources of vitamin B6 is a wheat germ. If you can’t tolerate wheat, try to add some bananas, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, salmon or turkey into your diet. Also eggs, asparagus, onions and lentils contain some vitamin B6. My Broccoli, Chickpea, Pomegranate Salad is a great way to get more vitamin B6.
Tart cherries are one of the few foods that contain a natural melatonin along with tomatoes, grape skins and walnuts. Check out my Good Night Smoothie recipe that contains tart cherries. Melatonin-rich foods are good to be consumed both morning and night times to balance the sleep-wake cycle or recover from jet lag.
Tryptophan (also called L-tryptophan)
As mentioned earlier, the amino acid tryptophan plays an important role in calming down the body and helping with sleep as it helps synthesise both serotonin and melatonin. Those two hormones are very important for a natural sleep-wake cycle. Serotonin works in the brain by transmitting signals between nerve cells and that way affecting mood states and sleep. Best foods for tryptophan are soybeans, raw cocoa powder (not in the evening due to the high caffeine content), cashew nuts, chicken breast, peas, pork, salmon, oats, walnuts, chicken egg, brown rice, corn flour, cow’s milk (3.8% fat). Also, spirulina is extremely high in tryptophan. The most simple way to use spirulina is to add it to a smoothie with other greens. You can also check out my Crispy Chicken Salad to add more tryptophan into your diet.
Worst Foods For Sleep
Of course, to be able to sleep well there are foods to avoid too. As we all know, caffeine in coffee and dark chocolate can keep some people wide awake for a long time. Alcohol, despite the relaxing ability, is disruptive for the later stages of sleep. Also, too much fatty food, protein-rich or spicy food too late in the evening can disturb the sleep. Not forgetting the excess sugar and simple carbs consumption that keeps us wired and tired by delaying your body’s natural release of melatonin. It might be a better idea to stick with complex carbohydrates in the evening such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Nutrients Work In Synergy
Just keep in mind that these vitamins and minerals need other nutrients to work in synergy. Even though you would seemingly receive the nutrients from your meals, there are also adversaries that can prevent the absorption of these important nutrients. Such adversaries include alcohol, smoking, birth control pills, high protein intake, processed and refined foods and stress among other things. So not only one or two nutrients can do the trick alone, instead, we need a whole bunch of nutrients in our body along with moderate exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits to sleep well.
Supplements For Insomnia
My aim is to give tips and advice on how to stay healthy and vibrant with the food itself. Therefore nutritional supplements are not something that I would recommend to use as a single solution, but rather as a part of a healthy eating pattern when needed.
With that said, there’s one supplement in the market that I can recommend trying for sleeping issues. You can find L-tryptophan supplements which are meant to make you fall asleep more easily. This might be a better option for long-term use than melatonin supplements, which can cause addiction and interfere with our own natural melatonin production.
An important byproduct of tryptophan in the body is 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which is subsequently a precursor to serotonin which is further metabolised to create melatonin. This is the reason why 5-HTP may have a positive effect on sleep, mood, anxiety, depression, appetite, and pain sensation. Even though tryptophan is found in the food, it doesn’t raise the 5-HTP level very much, so a better way to raise the 5-HTP level is by a supplement.
5-HTP supplement is made from the seeds of an African plant called Griffonia simplicifolia. You might want to look for a 5-HTP supplement that also contains other sleep improving ingredients such as valerian root, magnesium and vitamin B6. The good thing is that these won’t make you feel blur the following morning like most of the over-the-counter stuff do and there is no actual side effects or addiction. I use 5-HTP supplement seasonally when times are hectic and I need help with sleep.