Getting enough sleep is super important. How much or little you sleep affects your production of hormones and neurotransmitters, the level of inflammation in your body, your weight, digestion, body temperature, and blood pressure; not to mention mood, hunger and activity levels.
Many people have a hard time unwinding and calming their racing minds before bedtime, making it difficult to fall asleep. The harder you then try to force yourself to sleep and the more you think about how early you have to wake up, the harder it can be to relax. It’s a vicious cycle. Activities like watching TV and doing social media can make it worse.
Sleeping pills or supplements can help, but I recommend going as natural as possible (see my recommendations below) if you choose that route. There are also a number of things you can do that don’t involve popping a pill, for example changes to the way you organize your day and certain foods that help you sleep, all of which have the added benefit of being healthy for you anyway!
1. Wind down. In general, slowing down in the evening is a good idea. Dr. Frank Lipman says: “Expecting the body to go from full speed to a standstill without slowing down first is unrealistic. Our bodies need time to produce enough sleep neurotransmitters to send feedback signals to the brain’s sleep center, which will result in the release of sleep hormones to allow you to sleep”. I recommend that 30-60 minutes before you’re ready for bed, turn off your computer or TV, turn the lights down, or take a warm bath. Do some restorative yoga, breathing exercises or meditation. Try aromatherapy with calming essential oils such as lavender or chamomile.
2. Limit caffeine, alcohol and large heavy meals before bedtime. Caffeine creates a vicious cycle – you feel tired so you consume too much caffeine, which disrupts your sleep and makes you tired the next day. Alcohol may make you sleepy at first, but then disturbs sound sleep patterns later. So while the idea of a night cap may seem sophisticated and sexy, it really isn’t going to help you sleep. Heavy fatty meals take a long time to digest so your body is busy with the digestive process and indigestion rather than relaxing and helping you get to sleep.
3. Exercise early in the day, not at night. Exercise makes you alert and awake and decreases your melatonin production.
4. Drink decaf tea before bed. Tea, both black and green, contains L-Theanine, an amino acid that reduces mental and physical stress and aids in sleep. L-Theanine also increases levels of dopamine and GABA in the brain, which have a calming effect.
5. Some foods naturally contain nutrients that aid in sleep:
- Spirulina, soybeans, cottage cheese, pumpkin seeds, bananas, turkey, almonds, brewer’s yeast and yogurt contain tryptophan.
- Eggs, meat and seafood contain taurine.
- Garbanzo beans, pistachios, sunflower seeds, bananas, oatmeal and fatty fish contain vitamin B6, which the body needs to make melatonin.
- Leafy greens, oatmeal, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, brazil nuts, soy and black-eyed peas contain magnesium, which calms the nervous system, helps muscles relax and reduces stress.
6. If you’d like to take a sleep supplement, look for natural formulations containing the nutrients below:
- Melatonin: a hormone that maintains the body’s circadian rhythm, a 24-hour clock that controls when we fall asleep and wake up. Melatonin production decreases with age and is disrupted by certain lifestyle habits. Typical supplement dosages range from 1 to 3 mg. a night.
- 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan): After tryptophan is converted into 5-HTP it then is changed into another chemical called serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate mood and behavior, which in turn impacts sleep.
- Taurine is included in many sleep supplements because it is an amino acid that is already naturally produced by the body. Among its many uses, it helps to mitigate anxiety and depression, therefore aiding in relaxation and sleep. Taurine also raises your level of GABA, which is a hormone produced in the brain that increases serotonin levels.
- B vitamins affect the neurotransmitters. In particular, Vitamin B6 is needed to make melatonin. If you are taking a B-complex supplement, be sure not take more than 3 mg of B12 per day as it can inhibit sleep.
- Vitamin D3: deficiencies of D3 have been linked to insomnia.
- Herbs such as valerian, passionflower, lemon balm, St. Johns Wort, chamomile, skullcap all have a sedating and calming effect, and can be found in sleep supplements as well as herbal teas.
Developing good sleep habits can be a complex process involving a few different aspects of your life. Do what feels right for you and what works with your situation. A good start could be decreasing your environmental stimulation each evening, then eating some of the sleep inducing foods if you’re a night snacker. If you decide you would like to take a supplement, discuss your best options with your physician or dietitian.
Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She has been a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.
Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at DearLea@tastefulpantry.com