It’s time for a blog: how are you sleeping and is your nutrition affecting your sleep?

As we head towards World Sleep Day: Regular Sleep, Healthy Future, The Nutrition Pod’s Lisa Parker has taken an in-depth and comprehensive look into the connection between nutrition and sleep, exploring the relationship between these two lifestyle factors. Read on for some excellent tips on key nutrients for healthy sleep.

Risks associated with lack of sleep:

Depression, irritability, anxiety, over-eating, weight gain, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, poor memory and brain performance, low immunity, impaired decision-making, increased risk of accidents, poor balance, low sex drive, substance abuse, food addiction and even suicidal thoughts.

How long can a human survive without sleep before death occurs? Seven to eleven days.

You see how important sleep is. 

  • Sleep deprivation is actually one of the worst forms of torture.
  • Sleep isn’t fully under our control. It’s not an act or a behaviour – it’s a temporary condition of the brain and the body.
  • You can start to fix your sleep problems with environmental changes such as sound, room temperature, blue light exposure and sedative foods to produce the desired end result of falling asleep more easily, sleeping deeply without interruption for long enough (7 to 8 hours for the average adult) and waking up feeling well-rested.
  • Metabolic disorders are much more likely if you have irregular mealtimes, working hours and sleep patterns.
  • A regular routine will help restore balance to your circadian rhythms.

Alcohol – whilst a good drink may help you fall asleep quickly, it really does affect the quality of your sleep and often results in you waking up in the early hours, way before you have had enough deep sleep. Deep sleep should make up 13 to 23% of your total sleep hours and is the stage in which memories are consolidated, physical recovery occurs, blood sugar levels and metabolism are regulated, the immune system is energised, the brain detoxifies and you process learnings and emotions. It’s a good idea to limit alcohol intake to a couple of drinks a couple of times a week to minimise sleep disruption and these essential body functions. 

Caffeine – although great for its energising effects and promoting alertness, it can affect circadian melatonin rhythms and delay the onset of sleep if consumed too close to bedtime. It takes around 4 to 6 hours for the body to process caffeine and the older you get, the more likely you are to be troubled by caffeine-induced sleep problems. That post-dinner coffee that proved absolutely no problem in your 20s could be a huge problem in middle to old age. 

Too much fat in your diet or overconsuming calories can also make it harder getting to sleep as the digestive system is working overtime. Many people have their largest meal in the evening too close to bedtime and this can be another reason why they find falling asleep pretty tough. It’s best to leave at least 2 to 3 hours between your last meal and going to bed if you want to achieve a quality night’s sleep. People who are sleep deprived tend to be drawn towards high calorie, sugary foods, due to low blood sugar levels on waking. This in turn often leads to weight gain and the risk of affecting the hormones leptin and ghrelin which tell our brain when we are hungry and full. 

Key nutrients for good sleep:

Calcium – helps the brain use the amino acid tryptophan to produce melatonin which induces sleep. If you don’t consume dairy products due to an allergy or intolerance, sleep could become a problem. Dairy foods contain both calcium and tryptophan so including milk, cheese, yoghurt and butter in your diet is one of the best ways to ensure good sleep quality. Fish and tofu are also good sources of calcium. Smaller amounts can be found in dried fruits like prunes, almonds, pumpkin seeds, cooked beans and wheat. Be aware that alcohol and caffeine can hinder absorption and stress can cause increased excretion.

Magnesium – chronic insomnia is one of the main symptoms of magnesium deficiency. This mineral again plays an important role in promotion of good sleep by activating the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for getting the body calm and relaxed. It also plays a role in melatonin regulation alongside calcium and binds to GABA receptors to quieten down nerve activity. Have you ever suffered with leg cramps at night or restless leg syndrome? Eating more foods containing magnesium can help – wheat germ, almonds, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, cooked beans, garlic, raisins, green peas, potato skin, crab and dark chocolate (hooray!)

Vitamin C – helps to manufacture anti-stress hormones. Individuals with low levels of vitamin C in their blood tend to have more sleep disturbances at night. Vitamin C can also be of benefit to those who suffer with restless leg syndrome by helping the absorption of iron which is often a cause of RLS. Lastly vitamin C can relieve sleep apnoea by enhancing the function of blood vessels. Lots of fruit and veg called for here then!

Vitamin D – research on this link is still relatively new, but initial signs are that people with low levels of vitamin D have less efficient sleep. The receptors in the brain that are critical for sleep require vitamin D to function. Vitamin D is also vital for hormone regulation, reducing inflammation in the body and influencing the immune system, all of which play a role in sleep quality. Sun exposure to skin helps maintain healthy levels and the best food sources are oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines and herring. Lower amounts can also be found in eggs, cheese, chicken, beef and pork and for a vegan option, mushrooms grown under UV light. 

Vitamin E – an important antioxidant, vitamin E can improve breathing at night and sleep quality for those suffering from sleep apnoea. It also offers protection from memory loss by protecting the brain. Eating plenty of nuts and seeds, beans, peas, oily fish and sweet potatoes will ensure a healthy intake of vitamin E. 

Vitamin A – also plays a vital role in setting circadian rhythms. Eating fruit and veg that are orange or red in colour as well as watercress, cabbage and broccoli will help. 

Vitamin B12 – more research is needed into this one but current thinking is that higher levels of B12 have been connected to lower levels of depression and circadian rhythm disruptions are a significant underlying factor for depression. Animal protein such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy contain the highest amounts of B12 so vegans may need to get advice on supplementation. Alcohol, smoking and lack of stomach acid can all affect the way your body absorbs vitamin B12.

Vitamin B6 – aids the production of the hormones serotonin and melatonin. Also a natural anti-depressant. Good food sources are wheat germ, watercress, cauliflower, cabbage, red kidney beans, peppers, bananas, squash, broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, eggs, lentils, onions, salmon, tuna and turkey. Smoking, alcohol, birth-control pill and high protein intake can all affect absorption.

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