Prepare yourself for a good night's sleep

Do you go to bed tired but then have difficulty falling asleep? Or fall asleep quickly but wake up a few hours later, lying there looking at the ceiling? Do you wake in the morning feeling like you need another few hours sleep? Well, you are not alone! 

Shockingly, it is reported that one in three people in the UK is regularly affected by insomnia. Furthermore, a research paper printed in the journal Nutrients (2017) reported that almost one-third of the world’s population is affected by insomnia. 

There are some helpful websites providing ideas about ‘sleep hygiene’, i.e. how you prepare yourself for a good night’s sleep, and I think it is important to look at your routine and see how to change it for the better. However, in this article, I’ll focus first on the food side of things.

The science behind insomnia

Hormones are immensely effective in changing our well-being for better or worse, and tiny amounts can swing the balance. I once heard an analogy likening them to a thimbleful in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. In the case of insomnia, the hormones you need are melatonin (circadian rhythm, your sleep-wake cycle) and serotonin (mood balance, amongst many other roles). In addition, you need to know about tryptophan which is a type of protein.

Tryptophan is the starting point for your body to make serotonin and melatonin, so, as a food focus for helping to sleep, you could try eating foods containing tryptophan a couple of hours before bed. To help tryptophan do its job, it is helpful to combine these foods with fast-releasing carbohydrates, by which I mean sugars such as fruit juice, fruit, crackers, rice, rice cakes, pasta. These release another hormone, insulin, that gives tryptophan a helping hand.

Sources of tryptophan include chicken, turkey, tuna, eggs, fish, tofu, cheese, milk, nuts, seeds, oats, beans, lentils and red meat. This is intended to be a very light snack a couple of hours before getting ready for bed. From a few research trials that I studied, the optimum time tended to vary between one hour and four hours before sleep, so a little individual trial and error is needed to see what works best for you. 

Here are some suggestions:

  • Two slices of cold turkey/chicken with one slice of bread and a little cranberry sauce.
  • Two tablespoons of cottage cheese with two Nairn's oatcakes and half an apple.
  • Two rice cakes with almond butter.
  • A handful of pistachios with 150 ml orange juice.
  • One chicken drumstick (no skin) and 150 ml apple juice.
  • Plain live yoghurt with oats (e.g. as in granola or muesli) and chopped pear.
  • Two Rich Tea biscuits with a slice of cheddar on each.
  • A few tablespoonfuls of a leftover meal, e.g. something with rice such as tuna risotto or tofu and rice stir-fry. Here the rice provides the carbohydrate (sugar).

I’m not encouraging you to eat a meal late at night, but this kind of well-chosen snack may be helpful. I often come across clients who snack late at night and frequent examples are sweets, chocolate, crisps, which aren’t going to help. It is best to eat your evening meal as early as possible, preferably to finish by about 7.00 p.m. which I know doesn’t fit easily with some people’s routines. Then don’t eat for the rest of the evening, however, going to bed hungry isn’t good either, so a snack as suggested here may work for you.

From these ideas, you can see why bedtime drinks such as Horlicks and Ovaltine are conducive to good sleep – tryptophan from the milk and sugar from the powdered ingredients. But they won’t work alone. Other factors are needed as well...

Ways to treat insomnia at home

  • Plan a relaxing routine to prepare for sleep, such as a soak in a hot bath, then go to bed and read for a while. If you can’t have a bath, a shower is still good – it’s the implementation of a nice routine that is of benefit.
  • Ensure the bedroom is a comfortable temperature for you.
  • Ensure it is as dark as you can manage to make it, e.g. flashing lights from passing traffic can be disturbing.
  • Play some relaxing music whilst getting ready for bed.
  • Some people find Lumie body clocks are helpful. They have a graduated light that mimics sunrise and sunset.
  • Avoid caffeine in the evenings as it is stimulatory, i.e. no coffee, chocolate, caffeine-containing soft drinks, etc.
  • Avoid alcohol in the evenings. It may appear to be helpful in causing you to zonk out straightaway but is not conducive to a night of restorative, quality sleep. If you find alcohol helps you to relax in the evenings, just try a couple of weeks without it but with your new sleep hygiene routine and see if there is any improvement.
  • Avoid screens for at least an hour before bed. There is a lot of research into this at present and they are found to be stimulatory, except for the Kindle type screens specially designed for reading. Reading a book or magazine is far more conducive to sleep than watching TV or browsing on a tablet or phone.
  • Don’t watch the news before bed! It barely ever contains any uplifting news so is a negative signal before sleeping. Imagine watching an uplifting, feel-good programme in the evening and then just catching the news headlines before turning off the TV – what messages are you going to be taking to bed with you?

In a one-to-one nutritional consultation, your nutritionist will look into your current routine and diet in detail to see what may be causing your insomnia, or look at other nutritional deficiencies that may be preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep. However, as you can see from these suggestions, there is a lot that you can try yourself. 

Poor sleep can impact so greatly on your quality of life, affecting your mood, interaction with other people, concentration, ability to function and do your job well, together with its association with many health conditions. It’s well worth trying to see what changes can help to improve your sleep and enable you to wake refreshed, revitalised and ready for each bright, new day! 

Good luck and sweet dreams!

Nutritionist Resource is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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