Sleep Part II: How nutrition and lifestyle can help you get the sleep you need

Welcome back! I hope I convinced you that sleep affects your daily food choices in a BIG way. On the flip side, what you eat can also improve sleep duration and quality. Among other elements of sleep hygiene, choosing foods that impact your brain’s access to tryptophan (an amino acid) and the synthesis of melatonin may be helpful in promoting good sleep. 

 

Before we jump into some sleepy-time snacks, I want to emphasize just how important it is to have a personalized sleep routine, and to respect it! Try out a few of these sleep-hacks and I bet you will be amazed with the results:

Go to bed at a consistent time every day. (Yes, even on weekends).

Intentionally allot some time to unwind from your busy day and relax. Here’s my favourite sequence: get into comfy clothes, wash-up, dim house lights, climb into cozy pile of pillows on the couch, chat with loved one, read a few pages of nonsense fiction novel, sleep.

Include a mindfulness practice like yoga, gratitude journaling, meditation or sitting and breathing quietly.

Write down tomorrow’s to-do list and then FORGET ABOUT IT.

Use your bedroom for intimacy and sleep only. It is not for working or stressful conversations.

Make sure the room is dark, the sheets are clean, the temperature is cool, and the noise is white or (if you’re lucky enough) non-existent.

No screen-time for at least an hour before bed. (Yep, that includes Instagram scrolling).

Engage in any kind of activity or movement that gets your heart rate up. Figure out what time of day works best for you and stick with it.

Sleep-promoting nutrition

Tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein foods that your brain uses to make serotonin and melatonin – two neuroactive compounds linked to sleep. There are also other nutrients that affect the transport of tryptophan to the brain (like carbohydrates), as well as the process of synthesizing serotonin and melatonin (like B-vitamins andmagnesium).

Protein-rich foods like dairy, pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas), meat/fish, eggs, soy, and nuts/seeds contain the most tryptophan. But, even if you eat enough protein, it is just as important to pair that protein with some carbohydrate to help transport tryptophan into the brain where it is used.  Carbohydrate foods, especially whole grains, bananas and sweet potatoes are also a good source of vitamin B6 that is integral for converting tryptophan to serotonin.

Magnesium is a mineral that enhances the secretion of melatonin from the pineal gland – a key step in regulating sleep cycles. Great sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, brazil nuts, peanut butter, edamame beans, soy nuts, green leafy vegetables, and again our trusty pulses and whole grains.

Recipe for sleepy-time snacks:

If you are hungry before bed, have a snack. If you aren’t hungry, don’t. Hunger can keep you up at night and be distracting, but what is likely most important is getting enough of the above nutrients in your meals and snacks throughout the day so that your body can produce serotonin and melatonin when it needs to.

Eat a bedtime snack about one hour before bed, and make it about the size of your fist (not too big, and not too small). Being uncomfortably full when you go to bed can be distracting too. Avoid caffeine-containing foods, like chocolate or pop (for obvious reasons).

Choose one protein food and one carbohydrate food to make a tasty and comforting snack. Make them whole, nutrient-dense foods to maximize your B-vitamins and magnesium intake. Most importantly, choose a snack you enjoy that will be satisfying to you.

My top 5 bedtime snacks:

Hummus + whole grain bagel

Milk + muesli or small bran muffin

Edamame beans + leftover fried brown rice

Cinnamon-dusted brazil nuts + banana

Greek yogurt + ½ cup tart cherry juice    (this juice has been mysteriously shown to reduce the time it takes to fall asleep!)

Sleep is complicated. If you are still struggling to get enough despite adjusting your diet, lifestyle and sleep routine, reach out to your doctor to discuss your sleep issues.

 

Further reading and special thanks for inspiring this article:

-Peuhkuri, K., Sihvola, N, & Korpela R. (2012). Diet promotes sleep duration and quality. Nutrition Research, (32), 309-319.

-National Sleep Foundation: https://sleepfoundation.org/