How to sleep better
Are you struggling to get a good night's sleep? Nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains how a few diet changes can make all the difference.
Did you sleep well last night? If not, then the chances are you're feeling lethargic and low in mood, both of which can affect your productivity and overall health.
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. What's more, a lack of sleep is believed to suppress the immune system, leaving you vulnerable to infections and increased appetite, potentially contributing to weight gain.
Disrupted sleep can be caused by many factors, including heightened stress, poor diet and irregular sleeping habits. Below, you'll find a few ways you can improve your sleep routine, sleep better at night and feel better in the long run.
How many hours of sleep do you need?
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.
12 ways to improve your sleep
1. Drink a glass of warm milk before bed
It's not just an old wives' tale, as doing so will help you to sleep better because dairy products are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which helps in the production of the sleep-inducing brain chemicals, serotonin and melatonin.
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2. Make sure you're getting enough tryptophan
Other foods that contain good amounts of tryptophan are yogurt, oats, bananas, chicken, turkey, eggs, peanuts and tuna, so try to include these in your meals when you can.
3. Check your magnesium, calcium and iron as well
Magnesium and calcium work together to help calm the body and relax muscles. A lack of these may cause you to wake up after a few hours and not return to sleep. Interestingly, insomnia is one of the main symptoms of magnesium deficiency. If you're struggling to sleep, try eating more magnesium-rich foods, such as spinach, nuts, seeds, fish and wholegrains.
Restless Leg Syndrome is a constant urge to move your legs, often accompanied by a tingling sensation that can disrupt sleep. It's often experienced at night and may be indicative of a shortage of iron.
4. Choose a carbohydrate-rich snack
Snacking on a few oatcakes, or a bowl of cereal, an hour or so before bed stimulates the release of insulin. This helps to clear any amino acids that compete with tryptophan from the bloodstream, allowing more of this to enter the brain.
5. Sip on herbal tea
A warm, soothing cup of camomile, passion flower or valerian tea should have a sedative effect and encourage feelings of sleepiness.
6. Implement a relaxing bedtime routine
To help your body and mind switch off, have a bath, do some gentle yoga or read 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.
7. Find time for exercise and fresh air
Getting outside for enough time in the day can help you sleep soundly. This is because exercise produces endorphins which lift our mood and increase metabolism. However, exercise produces stimulants that stop the brain from relaxing quickly, so it's best not to exercise last thing at night.
8. Make sure your bedroom is neither too hot or cold
Our body temperature has its own day to night rhythm. At night, it usually cools down to signal that it's time for sleep. If you're too hot or too cold, your body may struggle to relax and your sleep will likely be disrupted.
9. Stop late-night scrolling
When it’s dark, your brain secretes melatonin, helping you to fall asleep. However, the blue light from your phone restricts the amount of melatonin produced, keeping you awake. Put your phone away at least 30 minutes before to help your body switch off naturally.
10. Keep an eye on your sugar intake
Eating too much sugar can cause your energy levels to spike and crash throughout the day, and make it difficult to sleep at night. This is because your body uses magnesium – a vital sleep-inducing mineral – to process sugar. What's more, if you're feeling low in energy after a bad night's sleep, you may reach for sugary foods to give yourself a boost but only make the problem worse.
Try to make smart choices, like choosing a healthy cereal for breakfast instead of one that's full of the sweet stuff.
11. Eat your evening meal earlier
The act of eating pushes up the body’s core temperature, and this can disrupt sleep. So try to eat your evening meal at least four hours before going to bed.
12. Gradually reduce caffeine
Have your last caffeinated drink no later than midday – this is because the time taken for the body to eliminate the caffeine you consume is roughly five to six hours. Sip on decaf coffee or caffeine-free tea, such as red bush.
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.
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