Lack of sleep is a common complaint; with only one in 10 of us saying we always get a good night's sleep. Sleeplessness not only leaves you feeling exhausted, but can also end up dampening your moods. What you eat may help, as nutritionist Jo Lewin explains.
Did you sleep well last night? If not, then the chances are that today you're feeling jaded and lethargic which can affect productivity at work and at home. Studies have found a relationship between the quantity and quality of sleep and health problems, such as the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. Lack of sleep is also believed to suppress the immune system, leaving you vulnerable to infections and increased appetite, contributing to weight gain.
Although seven hours is usually cited as the ‘ideal’ amount of sleep we need, there is no magic number. We tend to need slightly less sleep as we age, but it varies by individual. You may function best on seven hours a night, while someone else may need nine or as few as four hours to lead a happy, productive life.
What to try...
- Drinking a glass of warm milk before bed will help you to sleep better - it's not just an old wives' tale. Dairy products are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which helps in the production of the sleep inducing brain chemicals, serotonin and melatonin.
- Eating a carbohydrate-rich snack, like a few oatcakes or a bowl of cereal, an hour or so before going to bed stimulates the release of insulin. This helps to clear amino acids that compete with tryptophan from the bloodstream, allowing more of this sleep-inducing amino acid to enter the brain.
- Herbal teas, such as camomile, passion flower tea and valerian, have a sedative effect.
- Foods that aid sleep include yogurt, milk, cheese, oats, bananas, poultry, eggs, peanuts and tuna as they all contain good amounts of tryptophan.
- Implement a relaxing bedtime routine, perhaps having a warm bath, some gentle yoga or reading a book rather than watching TV. Try to go to bed around the same time every night and get up at a reasonable hour in the morning as this will set your body clock to these times.
- Research has shown certain minerals to be effective as a natural remedy for insomnia. Magnesium and calcium work together to calm the body and help relax muscles. A lack of these minerals may cause you to wake up after a few hours and not return to sleep. Calcium helps the brain use the amino acid tryptophan to manufacture the sleep-inducing substance melatonin. This explains why dairy products, which contain both tryptophan and calcium, are one of the top sleep-inducing foods. In magnesium deficiency, chronic insomnia is one of the main, central symptoms. Magnesium rich foods include spinach, banans, nuts, seeds, fish and wholegrains.
- Exercise and fresh air can help you sleep soundly. Exercise produces endorphins which lift our mood and increase metabolism. However, exercise produces stimulants that stop the brain from relaxing quickly, so it's better to exercise earlier in the day rather than last thing at night.
- Restless Legs Syndrome, a constant urge to move the legs, often accompanied by a tingling sensation can disrupt sleep. It is often experienced at night and may be indicative of a shortage of iron.
- Make sure your bedroom is neither too hot nor too cold. Turn off lights and computer consoles. When it’s dark, your brain secretes more melatonin. A dab of lavender oil on your pillow aids relaxation too.
What to avoid
- Say no to an after-dinner espresso or late-night cuppa. The stimulant effect of caffeine reaches its peak one to four hours after it's consumed, but some people can feel its effects up to 12 hours later. Some over-the-counter cold and headache remedies are also high in caffeine.
- A large late evening meal interferes with sleep as your body is busy digesting. You may also suffer from heartburn or indigestion. Try to eat at least three hours before going to bed.
- Avoid watching TV or using your computer last thing at night.
- If you are eating high amounts of starchy or fatty foods, or very refined, sugary foods that stress your body, you are more likely to feel sluggish and lethargic as these foods place high demands on your digestive processes.
- Avoid foods such as pork, cheese, chocolate, aubergines, tomatoes, potatoes and wine near bedtime as they are rich in an amino acid called tyramine, which the body converts to noradrenaline, a brain stimulant.
- Although a couple of drinks may help you to drift off to sleep, too much alcohol decreases the REM sleep we all need and disrupts the body’s natural rhythms. It causes blood sugar levels to drop, so you may wake up in the middle of the night. Alcohol is also dehydrating so you are likely to wake up feeling thirsty.
- Nicotine is a stimulant, so smokers take longer to fall asleep and are more likely to suffer sleep problems.