Life is a whole lot brighter when you wake up from a restorative night’s sleep. Without those deep zzzs, energy, mood, health, work performance and quality of life all suffer. If you find sleep elusive, whether it’s difficulty falling or staying asleep, you may be overjoyed to discover that what you eat can play a huge role in calming the anxiety that keeps you awake. Incorporating these 11 foods for better sleep can help.
You might be surprised to learn that preparing for a successful night’s sleep begins when you wake up. What we eat in the morning, as well as what we eat throughout the day, all contribute to a successful night’s sleep.
The Best Way to Start off the Day to Facilitate Better Sleep
Protein especially plays a key role in assuring we take the deep dive into peaceful oblivion. Tryptophan, an amino acid from protein, is necessary to have in ample supply so it can be converted into serotonin, the feel calm neurotransmitter. In the presence of darkness, serotonin is converted into melatonin, the hormone controlling our sleep/wake cycle. Starting the day with plenty of protein helps the chemical cascade along. Skipping breakfast actually increases the odds of insomnia. Here are three great anti-inflammatory breakfasts to get you inspired, as well as 12 vegan breakfasts that aren’t cereal or toast.
The Best Way to Eat Throughout the Day
The glycemic index is a measure of a carbohydrate’s effect on the blood. Consuming low glycemic index (GI) foods like vegetables, avocados, nuts, meat, fish, eggs and beans helps to balance blood sugar levels throughout the day and improves your ability to sleep well.
When you eat excessive high GI foods like fruit juices and pastries, eventually blood glucose levels drop, and you experience irritation and anxiety as your adrenal glands (the fight or flight control centre) release adrenaline and cortisol to deal with what the body perceives as a crisis. In fact, the body can’t distinguish between different forms of stress, whether that’s from bad drivers, a heavy workload, emotional anguish or even blood sugar crashes.
If the crash happens in the middle of the night, our sleep is interrupted. Eating protein, fat and fiber with each meal helps to balance blood sugar. Save healthy higher GI foods like boiled potatoes till later in the day when they work with the natural sleep/wake cycle in the body.
11 Foods For Better Sleep
Besides being a low GI food with high fiber and protein, chick peas are resistant carbohydrates (RC), which means they burn slowly and keep blood glucose levels constant. Eating RC with their healthier higher carbs before bed actually works with your sleep/wake cycle preventing blood sugar from dropping off in the middle of the night. Green bananas and Cannellini beans are a couple of other sources of RC.
Boiled and Cooled Potatoes
Potatoes typically have a higher GI especially if they’re processed or heated at high temperatures, but boiling preserves some of the resistant carbohydrates (RC) that balances blood sugar. If you go one step further and cool those potatoes overnight, you gain back some of the RC in a process known as starch retrogradation. Sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips and rutabagas contain some RC too and benefit from the same preparation. Eating RC a few hours before bed allows the carbohydrates to slowly release for balanced blood sugar throughout the night.
Seeds contain an especially high amount of tryptophan. Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure, makes the case that people don’t consume enough tryptophan-containing protein and their sleep suffers. Natalie Turner, author of The Carb Sensitivity Program, calls pumpkin seeds the new “warm glass of milk” due to the high content of tryptophan.
Tart Cherry Juice
A study from the University of Rochester in New York found tart cherry juice contains a very small amount of natural melatonin—an optimal amount for initiating sleep. In another study, Montmorency cherry juice increased the availability of tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin. The juice inhibits an enzyme that degrades tryptophan, which can lead to insomnia. Drink 1-2 ounces in the morning and evening, but consume with a bit of protein, fat and fiber to modulate the higher GI of the juice.
Dark Leafy Greens
Magnesium, found in dark leafy greens, is necessary for proper nerve conduction and controlling blood sugar—two important roles for sleep. Mark Hyman, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine says magnesium “is an antidote to stress, the most powerful relaxation mineral available, and it can help improve your sleep.” (“Magnesium: Meet the Most Powerful Relaxation Mineral Available.” A recent study found that sleep quality improved when people added magnesium to their diet as it helps decrease sympathetic nervous system activity.
Nutritional yeast is rich in the B vitamins that support the nervous system and help convert trypophan to serotonin to melatonin. B12, specifically, helps to normalize sleep by stimulating the pineal gland to release melatonin quicker.
Eggs are high in inositol, another member of the B vitamin family. Our brain cells are lined with inositol so when we eat foods with it, the cells become more resistant to cortisol thereby improving sleep.
Red peppers are an amazing member of the foods for better sleep because they are very high in Vitamin C, which rapidly depletes when we’re stressed. Vitamin C also helps to lower cortisol so melatonin can be produced.
Anxiety and depression are strongly linked to lower levels of Omega-3 fatty acids. In one study, Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils showed a 14% decrease in pro-inflammatory chemicals and a 20% reduction in anxiety. When we feel more relaxed, we are better able to fall asleep.
Besides being delicious, bone broth or “liquid gold” as I like to call it, contains glycine, an amino acid which has been shown to improve our sleep. It’s easy to make your own bone broth and it’s a tasty, low-glycemic and fat-rich snack.
Foods to Avoid For a Better Sleep
Processed fruit juices typically contain very little fruit and a lot of added sugars, plus they lack fiber to slow down sugar’s release into the blood. The result is a sugar crash that can lead to increased anxiety and inability to sleep. If you do occasionally eat high GI fresh pressed juices, like orange, carrot, beet and apple, consume with enough protein, fat and fiber to slow down glucose’s impact on the body. Freshly pressed “green” juice, made with kale, celery, cucumbers, lemon and parsley for example, allows for maximum absorption of vitamins and minerals and won’t have the same blood sugar effects.
Even though alcohol is a sedating agent, it leads to increased arousal later in the sleep cycle. Sugar from alcohol is easily absorbed and causes a marked blood sugar response. Alcohol also suppresses melatonin and elevates cortisol.
Coffee + Chocolate
Caffeine is stimulating to the adrenal glands and can result in anxiety and insomnia. In the short term, it might give you an energy boost, but that will lead to irritability and sleep problems later. Instead of coffee as a pick-me-up, try a nourishing dairy-free elixir.
Dairy + Gluten
A strong association exists between food allergies and anxiety, with dairy and gluten being the two likely culprits robbing you of valuable sleep. In one study, infants who had unexplained sleeping problems were able to normalize patterns after eliminating milk from their diet.
Summary: Nutrition For Better Sleep
- Eat a nourishing breakfast with plenty of protein to provide the raw materials to make adequate hormones for sleep.
- Eat protein, fat and fiber with each meal to keep blood sugar levels balanced and prevent the sugar crashes that alert the adrenal glands to a crisis.
- Save higher carbohydrate foods with resistant starches for the evening when they work with the sleep cycle.
- To cap off the day, diffuse lavender essential oil which will help set the stage for an awesome night’s sleep.