When you can’t sleep and feel shattered during the day it’s easy to fall into the ‘quick fix’ trap by eating stimulating foods containing sugar and caffeine. Whilst these may help in the short term to boost your energy levels, they often lead to even lower daytime energy and worsening night-time sleep.
I’d like to give you an example of a ‘modern day’ food diary and explain how this can impact sleep quality.
The Modern Diet
- Breakfast – no food, just lots of coffee on the run
- Mid morning – a latte with skimmed milk
- Lunch – sushi and diet cola
- Mid afternoon – half a packet of biscuits (because ravenous) and more coffee
- Dinner – pesto and pasta with half a bottle of red wine while cooking
Some of these food choices are driven by the need for a quick energy fix, others by mainstream media messages that skimmed milk, sushi, and diet cola are supposedly good for keeping your weight down. Other choices are driven by stress and lack of time – e.g. the breakfast (or lack of it), and the classic pasta and pesto dinner. A couple of large glasses of wine also help to take the edge off a long, stressful day at work, as well as acting as a sleep aid by slowing a racing mind and dulling any anxiety that may exist around going to bed.
I could predict this person is likely to be experiencing problems sleeping before even being told their sleep is troubled. Why? Because there are some basic nutrients missing from the diet needed to support sleep. Here are the highlights:
Barely any protein – we need a portion of protein (that’s meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, pulses) the size of our fist with each main meal. Protein is needed to make hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. So if you’re not eating enough protein – where are the raw materials for sleep hormones such as melatonin going to come from? Postage stamp sizes of salmon on sushi, just aren’t sufficient.
Barely any fresh vegetables – load your plate up (at least half the plate) with vegetables and try to consume a rainbow of colours throughout the day. Green leafy veg are particularly important for sleep as they contain magnesium, which helps the body relax.
Too many stimulants in the form of coffees, alcohol, colas, and sugar – caffeine can stay in the body for between five hours and several days (depending on how well your liver is working). Alcohol may help you get to sleep, but may prevent you getting deep sleep. Skipping breakfast and loading up on caffeine, means stored sugar is released from the liver to get you through the morning. The white rice at lunch turns to sugar quickly in the body, and the biscuits in the afternoon are one big sugar rush. White pasta which turns to sugar quickly in the body is another big sugar hit. High sugar is usually followed by blood sugar levels plummeting and rising in a roller-coaster fashion. Did you know, unbalanced blood sugar could be interrupt your sleep?
So now you may be wondering what the optimal food diary for great sleep is likely to look like. Here goes:
Breakfast – Throw the following ingredients into a blender and pulse (this takes 30 seconds). Once you have all the ingredients in your kitchen, you can make this with your eyes closed (metaphorically).
- 250ml of kefir (this is an eastern European fermented milk, tastes like yoghurt and is now available even in Tesco). The bacteria helps boost the flora in your gut now shown to support sleep later on.
- A large handful of frozen blueberries (in winter the frozen are cheaper, and make the shake refreshing). Blueberries are low in natural sugars.
- Half a banana – this contains prebiotic fibres which help the bacteria in the above kefir proliferate even more in your gut.
- A large spoonful of ground flax or chia seeds. These contain protein to keep you full, and omega-3 oils needed in plentiful levels in the body to support sleep later on.
Drink – green tea (low in caffeine, and also contains amino acid L-theanine which is calming and may help you with that stressful workload). Also drink a large glass of water to help digestion of the seeds in the breakfast.
Lunch – Baked salmon with mixed brown rice and a pile of crunchy olive-oil and lime tangy coleslaw. You can find these protein/vegetable/brown rice combinations easily in many food outlets such as Leon and Pod these days or you can make your own. Have an apple for afters to push up your fibre intake for the day. Regular stool movements are a key to balancing your hormones. Balanced hormones, are needed to support sleep. Drinking water regularly can also help prevent constipation.
Dinner – You stop by the supermarket on the way home and pick up a warm, ready-roasted chicken. You also buy a ready-made fresh mash potato made with tasty Maris Piper potatoes, whole milk and butter, and a bag of magnesium-rich kale. At home you eat a decent portion of the chicken enjoying the roasted skin too, with the mash on the side and the kale you have quickly stir fried in a bit of olive oil. Whole milk and butter are not the demons of heart disease, outdated-science once had us believe, but that is another blog. It is sugar that is the real villain. Including butter, whole milk, the chicken skin, will also keep your blood sugar levels more steady in the night. The reason you’re having a spot of mash potato with all this is because it helps your body absorb a nutrient called tryptophan from the chicken quicker. This is needed to make sleep hormone melatonin. So having this combination at the evening meal may be a good strategy.
In summary, the aim is to eat a nutrient rich diet, which supports your sleep rather than steals from it.
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Jeannette Hyde is a Registered Nutritional Therapist in Marylebone central London.