Are you one of those people who struggles to get enough quality sleep? When we don’t get enough good sleep at night we tend to feel horrible the next day, and sleep deprivation can do funny things. But over time, if you’re having regular sleep issues, this can have a huge impact on your mood, your ability to function properly, and your overall health.
Now, as a mom of two (well, now three actually) young kids, I understand what it’s like to not always get enough sleep. But I also know the value of sleep, which is why today I’m going to share with you some simple dietary changes you can make to improve both the quality and quantity of the forgotten nutrient: sleep!
Whether you have trouble falling asleep at night or you wake up in the middle of the night and then can’t get back to sleep, these tips will have you on your way to more restful nights and quality slumber. But first …
Why is Sleep Important?
Sleep is important for our overall health but especially for our metabolism to function properly. If you’re wondering how much sleep you need, the experts suggest between 6.5 and 9 hours per night. Though, if you’re anything like me, I doubt your problem is too much sleep.
If you’re not hitting the low end of that scale regularly, you’re likely feeling stressed and irritable as a result. And when we’re not getting enough good sleep, our bodies tend to become insulin resistant.
Insulin resistance can lead to heart disease and type 2 diabetes. But it also makes weight management much more difficult, including that stubborn belly fat many of us deal with. So, if you’re not seeing results from your diet, it might not be diet related at all. It could be due to lack of sleep.
Sleep also affects appetite, and not in a good way. Perhaps you have some experience with this. After a bad night’s sleep, we’re more tired in the morning naturally, but we’re also hungrier than normal. And the foods we crave are those that will give us quick energy, like those simple sugars that aren’t healthy.
Not getting enough sleep also affects your satiety hormones that tell your brain when you’re feeling full and satisfied after a meal. These hormones can become suppressed with lack of sleep, which means you may end up eating more because of it.
Chronic sleep issues can also turn on your obesity genes. When this happens, your body activates fat storage vs. fat burning, which naturally leads to weight gain. Couple that with the poor diet choices we make when we’re tired, and it’s the perfect storm for poor weight management.
Studies have shown that after a poor night’s sleep, we’re more likely to eat more. In fact, according to one study, the average additional caloric amount consumed was 385 per day. That’s a lot of extra calories in a week, a month, a year.
Also, during those last few hours of sleep, our bodies are busy repairing and building lean body mass, which allows us to burn more calories. If we’re not getting enough sleep, it’s harder for our bodies to maintain that lean muscle, so we begin to lose it. And this is just another problem that drags down our metabolism and fat burning.
OK, I imagine you’re ready for those tips now. And don’t worry; these tips won’t require any extra time or cause any undue stress.
Tart cherries are more sour and bitter than fresh summer cherries, and you’ll likely find them in powder, dried, or juice form. But if you can incorporate more of these into your meal-planning, that’s a sure-fire way to fuel some better sleep.
Tart cherries are a fantastic natural source of melatonin, known as the sleep hormone. Research on the topic of tart cherries and sleep have produced some interesting findings. In one study, two cups of tart cherry juice per day increased the sleep time for insomnia sufferers by 90 minutes per night.
Tart cherries also increase the availability of the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan has a calming effect on the body and it’s a precursor to serotonin, the feel-good chemical in our brains that helps regulate mood. When serotonin is suppressed, this increases our chances of getting insomnia.
Tryptophan is especially beneficial if stress is what’s preventing you from sleeping better, along with eating more stress-busting foods. If you’re having trouble turning off your mind before bed or can’t seem to unwind, getting more tryptophan can help.
Other great sources of tryptophan are walnuts, chicken, and turkey. You may recall the Thanksgiving Day sleepiness you feel after consuming a big turkey dinner. However, that sleepiness is more a result of eating too much, and perhaps the beer or wine that went with the meal. Trust me, tryptophan won’t make you tired. Just thankfully calm.
2-High Calcium Foods
Eating foods rich in calcium will help your brain use the tryptophan your body produces. Good sources of calcium include yogurt, milk, cheese, and soybeans. And don’t forget that tryptophan will help your body produce more melatonin.
To improve your sleep, a great late night snack is a yogurt parfait – Greek yogurt with some walnuts and tart cherries. It’s a snack that can provide a combination of sleep-producing benefits in the form of more melatonin, tryptophan, and serotonin.
3-Magnesium Rich Foods
Magnesium is a mineral that most of us are deficient in. And this deficiency, according to research studies, is especially important for those of you who wake in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep.
If you’re having trouble staying asleep at night, try getting more magnesium-rich foods in your diet. Good sources include spinach, quinoa, soybeans, beans, lentils, and pumpkin seeds. You could also get a good magnesium supplement. Just know that magnesium increases muscle contraction in the colon, making it a laxative in larger amounts.
If you’re trying to stay asleep through the night, the last thing you want is middle-of-the-night bathroom trips.
4-Limit the Caffeine
I completely understand the need to combat fatigue with caffeine. However, it’s important to be careful with both the amount and timing, particularly if you’re experiencing sleep problems.
Caffeine in small amounts is great for a quick energy boost, improving productivity, and being more focused and alert. But too much of it puts stress on the body. Because caffeine is a stimulant, consuming too much of it can cause your body to release more stress hormones and suppress serotonin production, which you now know increases your risk of insomnia.
The general rule for caffeine consumption is to limit yourself to 300mg per day and none within eight hours of bedtime; by then it should be out of your system. The problem is that 300mg isn’t all that much, as in a medium sized coffee at your local coffee shop.
If you’re a prolific caffeine consumer, consider scaling down gradually rather than all at once. Weening yourself slowly will help eliminate the withdrawal or headaches you might otherwise experience.
5-Adopt a Regular Sleep Schedule
Think about your kids for a second. Do they have the same bedtime? Do they usually wake up at the same time? This is important for our overall health, and likely the reason you see to it that they do.
It’s also important to have a healthy routine before bed. Think about what would happen if you gave your kids a bunch of sugary snacks and told them to run around or play video games right before bed. They’d likely be a little too hyper to fall asleep.
As parents, the same is true if we’re running around, packing meals for the next day, taking care of last minute emails, cleaning, or doing laundry. There has to be some unwind time, otherwise, we’re going to have trouble falling asleep.
Try relaxing before bed for at least 10 minutes. Turn down the lights. Put on some relaxing music. Read a little. But no electronics. The blue light stimulates your brain, and the last thing you want before bedtime is a stimulated brain.
A Quick Recap
Five strategies to help you fall asleep easier and faster and stay asleep longer:
- Tart cherries
- Calcium-rich foods
- Magnesium-rich foods
- Limit the caffeine
- Sleep schedule and bedtime routine
For more sleep tips, don’t forget to check out my podcast: 5 Foods for a Better Sleep. And let’s all try to get more rest together!