Caroline Lilley March 03, 2014

Struggling to get to sleep at night or surviving on minimal kip can be a nightmare, especially if you have to be alert the next day. If you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, or tossing and turning frequently, making small adjustments to your diet could in fact help you drift off into a natural slumber.

What does your body need to get to sleep?

“Your body needs to be nourished and rested in order to get good sleep,” explains Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep and energy expert from Capio Nightingale Hospital. “This includes taking regular rests throughout the day to ensure you don’t go to bed wired - the body needs to be prepared for sleep both mentally and physically.”

Changes to your daily routine, busy lifestyle, stress and psychological barriers can stand in the way of a good night’s sleep, but by overcoming these you should see a difference in your ability to drop off.

1. Rest: “Regularly seeking rest and recovery throughout the day is one of the most effective ways of improving sleep quality,” says Dr Ramlakhan. “It gives your brain the opportunity to do a bit of processing as you go along so there is less mental work to be done when you go to sleep.”

2. Routine: “Human beings respond well to familiar rituals that tell our brains it is time to step off the treadmill and prepare to rest. Try to get into the habit of allowing yourself some time to wind down before going to sleep. Avoid anything over stimulating such as sending emails or surfing the internet before bed.”

3. Exercise: “There are many reasons why regular exercise is good for you but in terms of its relevance for sleep, exercise helps to reduce levels of adrenaline and other stress hormones,” explains Dr Ramlakhan. “Exercise also boosts the production of hormones which repair the body, making your immune system and overall health more robust.”

4. Relaxation: “For deeper, more peaceful sleep, get ‘to do’ lists out of your head and onto paper before you go to bed,” advises Dr Ramlakhan. “Keeping a notebook in the kitchen (not the bedside table) to write a list at the end of the day is a good wind down routine. Doing it this way keeps those ‘to do’ gremlins away from sleep, both physically and mentally.”

How does diet affect sleep?

There have been several studies into the relationship between how much you sleep and how much you weigh. One study followed the diet and sleep habits of more than 68,000 women over 16 years (i). Results showed those who slept five hours or less per night had a 15% higher risk of becoming obese compared to those who slept seven hours a night.

For the body to get a good night’s sleep, it needs a balance of the naturally produced, sleep-inducing hormones, serotonin and melatonin.

How can I boost my serotonin and melatonin levels?

“Adequate amounts of vitamin B6 and tryptophan are needed to boost these serotonin and melatonin levels,” says Dr Ramlakhan. “These are found in chicken, cheese, tofu, tuna, eggs, nuts, seeds and milk.”

Drinking a glass of milk before going to bed can help to promote sleep. Other sleep-inducing foods include oats and lettuce. There are also supplements available, such as valerian, which could improve your quality of sleep.

What to avoid to ensure a good night sleep

“Avoid skipping breakfast as this is vital to stabilising your blood sugar levels and helping you to produce the melatonin that will enable you to sleep later on,” advises Dr Ramlakhan. “Make sure your breakfast includes a source of protein such as nut butter on your toast or ground almonds on your porridge. “Caffeine has a direct impact on reducing sleep quality because of its stimulant qualities. It can take up to ten hours to completely remove all of the caffeine from your body if you drink a cup of tea or coffee, so if you are having problems sleeping or are waking up feeling tired, minimise caffeine and increase your fluid intake by drinking more water, herbal teas and diluted fruit juices.”

Five top tips to help you sleep

If you have been searching for the perfect recipe for a good night’s sleep, try these five simple tips to help send you off to the land of nod.

1. Eat within 30 minutes of getting up – skipping breakfast or eating too late suppresses the production of melatonin and causes the body to produce stress hormones such as adrenaline.

2. Drink plenty of water – dehydration creates restless muscles and disturbed sleep.

3. Rest frequently – pushing yourself relentlessly has a negative effect on your nervous system, creating a ‘tired but wired’ feeling when you go to bed. Try taking a three-to-five minute break every 90 minutes.

4. Avoid spending too much time in front of technology before bed. Aim for an electronic sundown 60-90 minutes before bed.

5. Think positive – try writing worries down before bed and practise gratitude by thinking of the positive things that happened that day.

(i) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16914506?dopt=Citation

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Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn’t possible supplements can help. This article isn’t intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.

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