‘That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all natural graces, sleep’
– Aldous Huxley
NEXT week sees the tenth annual World Sleep Day, carrying the message ‘Sleep Soundly, Nurture Life.’ Given that a worrying 89% of Irish people report managing less than seven hours a night, it’s really important to remember that sleep deprivation is about much more than feeling tired or moody the next day.
We know now that it’s connected, through various (often inflammatory and/or hormonal) mechanisms, with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, poor immune function, damage to brain cells, depression and anxiety. In fact a lack of good quality sleep ages us at a cellular level, making us more susceptible to all of the issues that revolve around the ageing process.
Rather than turning to highly addictive sleeping pills, which don’t in any case provide deep, restorative slumber and have been linked to an increased risk of dementia, making small changes to your diet and your routine can have real, and ongoing benefits.
• The central dietary strategy for tackling insomnia would be to eat foods that are rich in the amino acid tryptophan, because it is converted in the brain into serotonin, a master neurotransmitter that governs mood, mental activity, muscle movements and the ability to fall asleep. It is also the starting point for melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep regulation. Tryptophan is found in most high protein foods – particularly poultry, dairy, eggs, pulses, seeds and nuts (especially almonds and walnuts). To enhance its uptake, combine these foods with a carbohydrate, which was shown to significantly reduce the amount of time study participants spent awake during the night. A chicken or almond butter sandwich with that old favourite, a glass of warm milk, in the evening would be ideal. The calcium in the milk and the nuts also promotes melatonin production. Or have some oily fish with a salad for your evening meal; research has shown that regular eaters of oily fish, with its mood-stabilising omega 3 oils and vitamin D, sleep more soundly and for longer, while lettuce contains a sleep-inducing compound called lactuarium. A recent study found that eating two kiwi fruit every night helped participants fall asleep 35% faster after four weeks.
• Foods to avoid in the evening would be those that upset digestion or cause acid reflux (citrus, tomatoes, pickles, red meat), and those that contain the amino acid tyramine. These include aged cheeses, processed meats like salami and hot dogs, and soya sauce, which make you feel more wakeful.
• Some people seem to be able to consume caffeine long into the day, but if you’re having trouble sleeping ditch the coffee at lunchtime, and other sources including tea, colas/fizzy drinks (avoid altogether anyway!), chocolate and certain pain medications by 3 or 4pm. Switch to soothing mint and chamomile teas after that.
• 95% of serotonin is located in the gut, so taking a good probiotic and eating fermented foods will aid in its manufacture.
• Magnesium is known as ‘nature’s tranquiliser’ and is vital for the relaxation of both body and mind. Eat leafy greens, seaweeds, nuts and wholegrains.
• It would be worthwhile supplementing magnesium, but make sure it’s in the form of magnesium citrate, as other forms are very poorly absorbed. Take a high strength vitamin B complex (such as Sona’s) because B6 is needed to make the conversion from tryptophan to serotonin and melatonin, and the Bs all work together to support the health of the nervous system. 5-HTP (Holland and Barrett) is converted directly into serotonin. The richest source of melatonin is Montmorency (sour) cherries, which can be found in tablet or juice forms (Viridian, Holland and Barrett). In one study those drinking cherry juice morning and evening increased sleeping time by an amazing 90 minutes.
• Routine is king when it comes to establishing good sleeping habits. Research has shown that you can’t just make up the deficit by sleeping in at the weekend, and that irregular hours can actually contribute to raised blood fats, blood sugars and weight gain. And going to bed and getting up at the same time every day is just about the best way to establish that good routine once and for all. It’s fine to take a nap in the afternoon, but stick to 20 or 30 minutes.
• Get plenty of exercise, but not in the hours before bed. If possible, get outside in the daylight because melatonin is produced in response to light. Expose yourself to bright light as soon as you get up, and dim the lamps in the evening. The blue light emitted by smartphones, laptops and tablets tells the brain it’s time to wake up, so have a cut off point a couple of hours before bedtime, and read a good, relaxing book instead but not on kindle – scientists recently demonstrated that using an e-reader reduces melatonin release by 50%.
• Banish all ‘phones, TVs and devices from the bedroom, which should be a calming, safe place for sleep and sex only. Use curtains that completely block out any outside light, and put the alarm clock somewhere where you can’t see or hear it. Keep it cool, and choose natural fibres for bedlinen and sleepwear.
• An hour or so before bed, take a bath with a few drops of lavender oil in it; it’s the action of cooling down that tells your brain it’s time to sleep. For optimal
• Write a to do list so that the next day is taken care of. If worries are keeping you awake, write them down and then put the list away. If all else fails, get back to that good book and, as they say, let it go. Fretting about still being awake is sure to keep you that way ....