Health & Nutrition with Rosie Shelley, BA, SAC.Dip, ITEC.Dip
TWO new studies have emerged about the importance of a good bit of shut eye. Firstly, US research shows that napping — for no more than twenty minutes — between 2 and 4pm ‘can increase mental focus and cognitive power.’ There may also be a proven benefit to heart health. Even higher levels of happiness, so there’s no need to feel guilty about that siesta.
A staggering 89% of Irish people report managing less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night, which is increasingly of concern as reports arise linking sleep deprivation with far more than the expected low energy and mood.
Last year saw various research demonstrating its connection with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, both caused by inflammatory processes, and damage to brain cells that is, alarmingly, irreversible. A lack of good quality sleep lowers immune function, and contributes to depression and anxiety.
And, when it comes to weight gain, it’s a perfect kind of storm: it causes an increase in the hormone that stimulates hunger and a decrease in the one that makes us feel satisfied. Just 30 minutes of sleep loss affects the insulin response and any shortfall affects the parts of the brain that deal with willpower.
It may interfere with the rate at which we burn calories, and it certainly makes us less inclined to be active the following day. The more time we spend awake, the more time we have for snacking. No wonder those getting five hours or less are 73% more likely to become obese.
GPs are reluctant to prescribe sleeping pills, mainly because of the real risk of developing a dependency, and what they call ‘rebound insomnia’ when the course is finished. At any rate, these medications actually only offer an average of eleven more minutes of sleep per night, and that slumber will be far from restorative. Recent research has also linked the use of sleeping pills with dementia in later life.
By far the most effective, long term answer — besides tackling the anxieties or health problems that may be contributing factors — is to make a few lifestyle changes. Innumerable studies have shown great improvements when subjects took more exercise, and consumed more magnesium (especially), calcium, selenium, vitamins B complex, C and E. Seaweeds are an excellent source of all of these nutrients, while a study showed that regular eaters of oily fish, with its excellent levels of calming, mood stabilising omega-3 and vitamin D, slept more soundly and for longer.
Drinking (or eating!) plenty of fluids is important, because dehydration raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while wholegrains and the antioxidants in fruit and veg also have a de-stressing effect and the omega-3s in oily fish help release the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin. Lettuce, cherries, bananas, brown rice, nuts and oats are examples of foods that contain compounds that specifically target sleeplessness.
Of central importance here is to eat plenty of foods containing tryptophan, which is turned in the brain into the serotonin and melatonin that control mood and sleep patterns. Some examples are fish, game, poultry, eggs, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, almonds, oats, wheatgerm, avocados, dried fruits and bananas.
These also contain B6 and zinc, which are both needed for the production of serotonin. Tryptophan is found mostly in protein foods, but you need to eat carbohydrates with them to get the tryptophan from the blood stream into the brain.
And it might seem trivial, but the second study I mentioned centred on the colour of the paint on your bedroom walls. Apparently blue, green and yellow are the best for restful sleep, especially blue which can actually reduce blood pressure and heart rate (not the blue light emitted by devices).
Pale pink works for me...
• Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, regardless of how much sleep you’ve had.
• For optimal release of melatonin, cell-repairing human growth hormone and adrenal recuperation, the best time to go to bed is around 10pm.
• Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark and airy. Use cotton sheets.
• Keep the TV, laptop, mobile etc out. Bedrooms are for sleeping and sex only.
• Use a battery operated alarm clock and keep it out of sight/earshot.
• Take a magnesium supplement in the evening.
• Regular exercise is vital, but do it earlier in the day.
• In the evening, avoid caffeine (also found in some pain/flu medications), sugary foods (which will upset your blood sugar levels), and heavy meals.
• Turn off the TV/computer etc an hour or two before bedtime. Harvard scientists have confirmed that the ‘blue light’ given off by these devices seriously interferes with your natural production of melatonin. Keep the lamps low.
• Have a hot bath before bed—it’s the cooling down that helps you to nod off.
• Sprinkle lavender oil on your pillow.
• Drink a cup or two of chamomile tea in the evening.
• Ask your GP about relaxation exercises.
• If worries are keeping you awake, write them down and then put the list away. To do lists are good too.
• If you can’t sleep after half read a book.