March is Sleep Awareness Month and what better way to celebrate it than by improving your sleep quality? Developing good sleep habits like going to bed earlier or making sure it is nice and dark in your room are not the only ways to get more out of your evening snooze. Diet plays an important role in sleep quality and can either hinder it or help it depending on what foods are consumed.
Many know that eating heartburn inducing foods and drinking caffeinated beverages before bed can lead to tossing and turning. Alternatively, regularly eating some or all five of the food groups listed below can improve sleep duration and quality.
Protein is an important part of a balanced diet but it also helps get us to sleep. Foods such as turkey, chicken, fish, and low-fat cheeses (like cottage cheese) contain notable amounts of tryptophan. This amino acid is commonly associated with overeating turkey on Thanksgiving leading to a “food coma.” Although overeating does tend to make one tired, tryptophan itself aids in the release of serotonin which induces sensations of relaxation and tiredness. The National Sleep Foundation states that properly combining complex carbohydrates (found below) and proteins containing tryptophan causes the amino acid to have greater availability for use in the brain. Pairing foods correctly can significantly increase tryptophan efficacy.
Fish are a particularly beneficial protein because they contain a significant amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which help regulate hormones and reduces stress levels. Furthermore, many fish are an excellent source of vitamin B6, which is a necessary component in melatonin production. This hormone helps keep one from waking during the night. Substituting beef or pork with fish as your primary protein may improve your ability to fall asleep.
Another sleep boosting protein is commonly found on the breakfast plate. Eggs are a good source of protein that also help regulate blood sugar. Maintaining proper blood sugar levels can aid in keeping one asleep throughout the night. Although it may not be the most common evening snack, eating an egg an hour or two before bed may help you sleep through the night.
Whole Grains or Complex Carbohydrates
Common foods such as whole-wheat crackers and breads, popcorn, and oatmeal, all improve sleep quality by increasing serotonin levels. Some believe that eating before bed always inhibits sleep. But, if you eat a small, healthy snack containing serotonin about an hour before bed you can actually improve that night’s sleep.
*It’s important to make the distinction between complex carbs and processed or refined carbohydrates such as white bread, refined pasta, and sugary pastries that reduce serotonin rather than boost it.
Sweet potatoes are another powerful complex carb that can improve sleep quality. When we talk about potassium, most people think of bananas, but sweet potatoes contain a great deal of this beneficial element as well. It only takes half a sweet potato to cause a notable boost in one’s potassium levels. Eating potassium rich foods can improve circulation and help relax muscles and nerves. For those who have restless leg syndrome or regularly experience muscle soreness and stiffness during the night, eating sweet potato at some point during the day may provide relief.
As mentioned above, the hormone melatonin is greatly beneficial in keeping one asleep during the night. Some even label it as the ruler of the body’s internal clock and day-night cycle. Eating fruits full of this helpful hormone may keep one comfortably dreaming through the night. Some fruits that contain notable levels of melatonin includes tart cherries, bananas, pineapples, oranges, and kiwis. Regularly enjoying melatonin-packed fruits can improve sleep consistency and regularity.
Fruits also provide another benefit in the form of antioxidants. Berries, prunes, raisins, and plums are full of antioxidants that can help reduce oxidative stress. Sleep disorders often cause bodily stressors of this variety. By following a well-balanced diet that includes powerful antioxidants you can help combat bodily stressors that inhibit sleep.
Walnuts, almonds, cashews, and nut butters are all good sources of heart-healthy fats. In addition to aiding heart function they also provide a boost to serotonin levels. This makes nuts a great pre-sleep snack. Spreading some nut butter onto whole grain crackers is a powerful sleep boosting combo that also tastes great.
Some nuts provide further sleep benefits. Like fish, walnuts also contain those beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. Furthermore, almonds contain a significant amount of magnesium and protein. Magnesium can help resolve muscle aches and promote relaxation. Both walnuts and almonds contain melatonin, which aids in sleep cycle regulation. This promotes unbroken sleep, a cornerstone of good health. Eating a handful of these sleep-aiding morsels is an easy step to take towards better sleep.
At the end of the day, few things are as relaxing as a tasty steamy drink. Many herbal and non-caffeinated teas offer various sleepy-time benefits. Chamomile, ginger, and peppermint teas are just a few teas that help the body relax while also calming the brain. Green tea is especially beneficial because it contains theanine. This amino acid is known to induce relaxation without causing grogginess. Helping the body wind down makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Although not universally accepted, it is theorized that the tryptophan and melatonin found in milk can aid the sleep process. Furthermore, milk may also improve sleep quality because it contains calcium, which is involved in melatonin production. There is still some debate as to whether milk is a true sleep aid. At the very least, drinking a warmed glass of milk forces one to slow down and relax.
Eating Your Way to Dreamland
Loss of sleep can cause serious health problems such as weight gain, heightened stress levels, high blood pressure, and in some cases depression. With over 50 million Americans experiencing sleep difficulties it is important to utilize what tools we have to combat it. By incorporating some or all of these rest-restoring foods into your diet, you can set yourself up for a relaxing return trip to dreamland.