It sounds like a no brainer but what can we do nutritionally to ensure a good night’s rest all round? Fiona McDonald Joyce offers her sleep-sound advice.
If I were allowed to choose any treat for myself, it would be more sleep. Or possibly a massage. Ideally, a massage followed by a sleep. A straw poll at my play group revealed that I am not alone. Parents are expected not just to function but to exhibit superhuman levels of stamina and patience, on levels of sleep deprivation that would constitute a torture technique. Like many mothers-to-be I didn’t sleep well in late pregnancy, yet had no time to catch up on lost rest during the two years of breastfeeding and broken nights that followed. And although I no longer have to get up in the night, I do have a wriggly toddler who clambers into his parents’ bed in the early hours and who has the circadian rhythms of a cockerel. Except he doesn’t so much crow as kick you in the back.
Most exhausted parents could probably fall asleep during a rendition of ‘Sleeping Bunnies’; it is their little darlings that need some persuading to go to bed. For some people, however, restorative rest is hard to come by: skipping meals, resorting to sugar and caffeine for a quick pick-me-up and all those other traps that parents can readily fall into just to get through the day are not conducive to a good night’s sleep, even if that is what you crave the most. Whether you are struggling to get to sleep or whether you just want to maximise your rest each night, here are some dietary tips to help improve the quality of your sleep.
1. The neurotransmitter needed for sleep.
Serotonin, the hormone responsible for giving us the feel-good factor, plays an important role in triggering sleep. Another neurotransmitter, melatonin, has a similarly important effect on the sleep process. Both serotonin and melatonin are produced from the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in a number of foods, including meat, fish, dairy products, eggs, nuts, brown rice, fruit and vegetables. Simply eating more of these tryptophan-rich foods is no longer thought to be especially helpful in boosting your levels of these sleep-inducing neurotransmitters, however. Eating carbohydrates alongside foods containing tryptophan is a better bet, as carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, which helps to clear the blood stream not only of sugar but also of any other amino acids that are in competition with tryptophan to enter the brain. This leaves the path clear for this relaxing amino acid.
Conversely, eating a supper that is in high in protein, such as meat or fish, without any carbohydrates may serve to keep you awake, as not only will the insulin response be lacking but protein-rich foods contain another amino acid, tyrosine, which has an awakening effect on the brain.
2. Magnesium – nature’s relaxant mineral.
Magnesium is often described as the ‘anti-stress’ mineral as among its many important qualities, this mineral has a calming effect on the nervous system. Studies have suggested a link between magnesium deficiency and insomnia and a lack of magnesium has been demonstrated to alter electrical activity in the brain, which can lead to disturbed sleep and frequent awakenings.
Magnesium not only eases anxiety, it also relaxes muscles and nerves. During the night, our muscles move and stretch, in preparation for the next day’s activity. They are able to contract with the help of calcium, but it is magnesium that is required to help the muscles to relax. If there is insufficient magnesium to relax muscles fully after a contraction, night time cramping could develop which is a cause of sleep disturbance for some people.
Magnesium-rich foods include nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, beans and pulses and whole grains.
3. Avoid stimulants close to bedtime.
Stimulants such as caffeine and sugar can raise cortisol levels, the stress hormone responsible for our fight-or-flight response. The body’s natural circadian rhythms lower our cortisol levels in the evening, to prepare the body to rest. If this cycle is upset and cortisol remains high, you are unlikely to feel sleepy. Caffeine is not only in coffee, it is also found in foods and drinks like cola and chocolate so try avoiding these in the evening if you struggle to sleep.
4. Don’t eat too close to bedtime.
You may feel sluggish and lethargic after a meal, but your body is, in fact, busy dealing with the process of digestion. Your circulatory system moves more blood to the digestive tract, your stomach secretes more gastric acid, the pancreas produces digestive enzymes and the smooth muscles around your intestines spring into action. All this activity is hardly a recipe for rest. You may want to observe the old adage ‘Do not dine after nine’, although latter day advice has reduced this time to as early as 7 o’clock. This is unrealistic for many families, but the general consensus seems to be the earlier you eat the better.
Let’s take a couple of common supper choices to show how to make a few simple changes to better encourage a good night’s sleep.
Pasta and sauce
• Wilt some spinach through the sauce to increase the magnesium content.
• Serve wholemeal rather than refined pasta as this is a better source of magnesium than refined grains.
• Add a little protein in the form of meat, fish, beans or pine nuts, for tryptophan.
• Serve with brown rice rather than white, to increase the magnesium and tryptophan content.
• Increase the ratio of vegetables to meat, to avoid high levels of protein, raising tyrosine levels and putting the brain into alert mode.