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How food affects sleep

In the third blog in my series on sleep, I asked Alice Godfrey a Nutritionist who specialises in Thyroid health to write this latest blog. Alice posted tips on Instagram on reasons we may not sleep through the night, so I knew she would have some great advice for us.

Find out how food can affect our sleep.

Have you heard about lettuce being good for sleep? or turkey?

There are several foods that contain sleep-inducing elements which can be helpful but it’s also really important to know that certain types of food are better than others when it comes to waking in the night.

  • Lettuce has actually been shown in a study to have sedative effects when used in a concentrated form (on mice). But this was romaine lettuce, and whatever the variety I’m not sure that having a couple of leaves in your sandwich is going to knock you out.

  • Turkey is high in the amino acid l-tryptophan and this is needed to make serotonin (sometimes known as the happy hormone) which is then needed to make melatonin. Melatonin is necessary in order for us to sleep. So it’s not really that we eat turkey and we fall asleep, but we do need to make sure that we are consuming enough protein in order to get this amino acid. Meat contains all the amino acids but if you eat a plant based diet, you’ll need a variety of different plant foods to get them all in - pulses, nuts and seeds, vegetables.

  • Cherries contain natural melatonin and you can get supplements and juice containing high levels of the Montmorency tart cherry variety which have the highest levels.

Of all the vitamins and minerals, I’d say magnesium is key when it comes to relaxation and sleep. Western diets are relatively low in magnesium and I often recommend a supplement to my clients, especially for those with sleep issues. Magnesium-rich foods are dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and whole grains.

But beyond the foods that contain the nutrients we need for sleep is the important issue of blood sugar management, and when we eat certain foods.

When we eat a lot of sweet foods or carbohydrates in general, we can put ourselves on a bit of a sugar rollercoaster. Our blood sugar goes up sharply when we eat (affecting our energy and mood incidentally) and our body works hard to bring it down again. When we eat again, it goes shooting up again. If we’re on this rollercoaster in the day time, it can continue into the night. When our blood sugar slumps in the night, it can get so low that our body wakes us up with adrenalin. It’s a clever safety measure but it does mean our quality sleep is interrupted and of course, we can then find it hard to get back to sleep.

We can calm down this rollercoaster ride by eating proteins and (healthy) fats every time we eat and reducing sweet things later in the day. When we eat proteins and fats, our blood sugar is raised gently and it counteracts the steep surges we get when eating carbohydrates in isolation.

If you’re someone who wakes in the night frequently, it’s likely you’ll need to do some work on your blood sugar management in this way (see below), but in the meantime sometimes a small snack just before bed can stop the blood sugar sinking really low and adrenalin waking you up.

3 ways to help your balance your blood sugar:

  1. Reduce sweet foods and avoid sweet drinks

  2. Always eat a good amount of protein alongside carbohydrates. (eg. have some nuts with your fruit)

  3. Make sure you’re eating lots of fibre (mostly in the form of vegetables) alongside your carbohydrates.

To find out more about Alice's services visit her Facebook Group

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