If you’re interested in discovering your personal relationship between food and sleep, here are a few pointers:
1. Timing: There is no definitive research as to when people should and shouldn’t eat in relationship to sleep quality, but the National Sleep Foundation has stated that it’s best not to eat anything within 2-3 hours of bed. This is enough time to avoid sleep disturbances from gastroesophageal reflux as well as indigestion. There are also guidelines out there about when to eat certain things, as you’ll see below.
2. Protein: One of the biggies with food and timing is protein, which you probably shouldn’t eat too late. Heavy protein foods will often keep a person up at night because they take a long time for the body to digest and because they promote the synthesis of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that promotes wakefulness. One of the best things you can do for your sleep schedule according to science is exercise in the early morning in the sunlight and follow that with your protein-based breakfast. Doing this the same way daily is perfect as it trains your body to learn when the day begins and promotes body chemistry that helps folks stay awake and alert through the day.
3. Blood Sugar: Blood sugar is another consideration. Everyone has experienced that ‘food belly sleepiness’ after a giant meal. According to 2007 research from the University of Sydney, this is due to the amount of carbs in a heavy meal which produces a surge in blood sugar and a spike of insulin levels that promote a feeling of sleepiness. That same research demonstrated conclusively that high glycemic meals consumed four hours before bed resulted in a shorter time requirement for falling asleep than did a low glycemic meal. If you find you are kept up from a feeling of being hungry (pointer #4), grab dried fruit or cereal. These are high glycemic foods that can help promote that sleepiness once the sugar is processed.
5. Melatonin: Other good options for late-night munchies are foods that are high in melatonin, which helps a person sleep. My personal favorite is tart cherry juice, though the fruit works just as well. Walnuts are another favorite if you don’t want the sugar or sweet of fruit.
6. Tryptophan: You’ve heard of tryptophan, right? It’s part of the concept that the turkey over harvest meal is what makes you tired (due to pointer #3, you know that this is not actually accurate). Tryptophan can help people sleep better because it’s used as a building block when the body makes melatonin. Game meat is a good source, but for the aforementioned reasons protein close to bed is generally not a good idea. Try chickpeas instead. These have similar nutritional benefits (including a high level of tryptophan) but don’t stay in your system or promote wakefulness like meats do.
7. Minerals: Your body also needs a portion of calcium and magnesium to get proper sleep. Think almonds, kale, dark leafy veggies, other nuts and seeds, and legumes. If you are exhausted all the time you may need nutritional support for your adrenals (tip #8) which means higher levels of calcium, magnesium, potassium and natural sodium. If you’re missing one of those then you won’t be able to absorb and use the others. My favorite adrenal supporting food (for healthy sodium) is celery, but cucumbers are preferred by some.
9. Things to avoid: Besides getting the right foods at the right times, if you have a sleep problem, you should seriously consider removing alcohol and caffeine from your diet until the problem straightens out. Both these substances stress out your body and lead to adrenal problems. Nicotine is also a problem (it both keeps you awake and lowers sleep quality once you’re asleep). If you are going to partake in any of these, the half time of any of these substances in a person’s body is up to 12 hours. On caffeine, a study by Tom Roth in 2013 demonstrated that consuming caffeine up to six hours before bed lowered the amount of sleep participants were getting by an hour. Tea (non-herbal) and chocolate have similar results with this as does coffee. Alcohol worsens the quality of sleep, is related to more wakings during the night, and worsens night breathing problems including snoring and choking. If you’re using alcohol as a sedative, seriously bro, there are better options.
10: Herbs: If you need help falling asleep, many people find herbal tea helpful. Herbs are no joke and you should check with a doctor if you’re going to take them at any medicinal grade level, but most people are okay with a single herb as a tea at one to three cups (mixing herbs can lead to interactions, including both herbs being made toxic or stronger- check with an herbalist if you want to do that). Top favorites in my family are catnip, lavender, passionflower, valerian, chamomile and rose. These are pretty safe plants (the valerian carries the most risk) for most people, but again, check with your doctor if you’re not at average or better health or if you are using any medications. You can also consider diffusing the essential oils of any of those plants while you sleep (cedarwood is also good for this purpose). Just make sure your diffuser doesn’t make light in the room (a major sleep disruptor) and make sure the oils are high quality because, since harmful compounds in the oil can attach to the helpful molecules as they bypass your natural defense systems against harmful substances, using poor quality essential oils is a really easy way to get hurt.