According to a Silentnight survey conducted earlier this year, 87% of us are not getting enough sleep. This is a scary statistic when you think about how important sleeping is to our body's systems! We have all had the nasty experience of a sleepless night or disturbed sleep at some point in our lives. You may be a new parent getting interrupted sleep, a person who wakes multiple times at night or one who simply takes hours just to get to sleep. Prolonged periods of poor sleep can have a negative effect on both our physical and mental health.
Stress is the most common reason listed by people who are not sleeping. However, have you ever thought about a connection between stress, sleep and the foods and times that we eat? Are sleep and stress connected, and how can what we eat influence this?
Consider our body's "circadian rhythm" - our internal clock. It secretes hormones in line with day light. When day light fades, our body clock cuts back on the secretion of "energetic" hormones, such as cortisol, the stress hormone. Our body temperature drops and starts to wind down. At this point, the pineal gland starts to convert serotonin to melatonin. As our levels of melatonin increase, our bodies slip into hibernation mode, we become sleepy. The body also tends to start holding onto fats and carbohydrates to convert into fatty tissues. Therefore, can you imagine the damage caused by consumption of a large meal after 6pm every night?
In today's modern world, after 6pm is often the time most of us get the opportunity to eat our biggest meal of the day. Our bodies are winding down at this point and are no longer making the hormones necessary for digestion, yet we are forcing to do so, upsetting the rhythym. In the long term, this can lead to internal stress, digestive health problems, a cortisol-melatonin imbalance, sleep difficulties and of course - weight gain!!
So what's the solution? If you experience regular sleeping issues or stress, a simple step worth trying is to swap your large evening meal for your lunch. Have your "dinner" for your lunch and enjoy a light meal in the evening instead. To help further re-balance your cortisol levels, you may also consider increasing your levels of Magnesium and Vitamin B6. These are crucial nutrients to the cortisol/stress pattern. They can be found in foods such as bananas, green leafy vegetables, brown rice, fish and meat. Including tryptophan rich foods in your diet may also helps. These include chick peas, spirulina and pumpkin seeds. Tryptophan is vital for promoting "normal sleep". The body converts this nutrient to serotonin and then to melatonin, the hormone which promotes sleep.
If you are a "middle of the night waker" and have difficulty staying asleep, it is important to ensure to balance your blood sugars throughout the day. This can done by ensuring that you have protein with every meal. Even if you have one meal during the day that does not contain a source of protein, this can be enough to cause a surge in cortisol levels in the middle of the night which can jolt you awake. Stable blood sugars can help to keep cortisol levels in check. This doesn't mean that you have to consume steak and eggs with every meal. Simply eating a handful of brazil nuts with your fruit, snacking on some almond butter or adding hummus to your salad will suffice. You can alternatively mix some easily digestible whey protein through a yoghurt or smoothie.
What is important to remember is that you do not have to suffer from sleep issues indefinitely. There are simple steps that you can take to improve your sleeping patterns.