Insomnia sucks. I’ve always been really lucky that I’ve been a good sleeper, I can normally fall asleep in any condition, no matter the hour, bed quality or background noise. However, in the last few days my body clock has been messed up and my sleep cycle has gone completely awry. After trying all possible pillow-positions, flipping and flopping twenty times and checking my phone only to realise that I’ve been awake for three hours, I sunk into the depths of the night with utter despair. I’ve stopped being so smug about sleep and now feel really sympathetic for dismissing my friends who have sleeping troubles. My housemate once told me that the problem with insomnia is the more you think about it the worse it gets. Well now I completely agree – there is no worse feeling than knowing your body is exhausted as soon as you hit the pillow, your brain just won’t switch off.
I think the importance of sleep is really understated. There are numerous studies which highlight the dangerous effects of poor sleep – you only have to wikipedia ‘sleep deprivation’ to be met with a list of scary physical consequences such as headaches, hallucinations, risk of diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, obesity etc. This is coupled with adverse brain functions like poor cognitive function, memory, mood and inappropriate emotional response. Sleep deprived individuals almost always perform worse on cognitive and memory tasks than those who have had a full 8 hours.
When researching this, I was surprised to find that one of the greatest potential side effects of sleep deprivation is weight gain. Sleep deprivation disrupts hormones levels that regulate glucose metabolism and appetite. Acute sleep loss is associated with increased hunger and food consumption. One study compared healthy food decisions of healthy men after a good or disrupted nights sleep. They found portion size and hunger ratings were higher in those who had been disturbed in the night. Several studies even suggest that the obesity crisis may be partially caused by a general decrease in sleep.
So sleep deprivation can wreak havoc with your eating habits, increase your appetite, slow your metabolism and make your gain weight. But on the flip side, diet can be a helpful tool to help improve your quality and length of sleep.
I think this close interaction is understated in our general understanding of sleep. Here are some dietary suggestions for a better nights sleep:
In the daytime: The key nutrients the body needs for successful sleep is vitamin B and tryptophan. Tryptophan produces serotonin, which regulates sleep (and improves mood). Tryptophan-promoting foods include oats, dairy, eggs, fish, chickpeas, seeds, nuts and bananas. It is also important to include complex carbohydrates to improve the transportation of tryptophan into the brain. This means whole grains, oats and beans rather than high-sugar carbs like in white bread and pasta. When you eat high sugar foods, you get drastic highs and lows in blood sugar, and that doesn’t promote healthy sleep. So a food promoting diet should be balanced but rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and protein. Check out some of our previous recipes for inspiration.
Foods high in magnesium have also shown to be beneficial to sleep – Magnesium is vital for the function of GABA receptors. GABA is a neurotransmitter that has a calming response on the brain. Without it we find it difficult to switch off, become tense, our thoughts race and we lie in bed staring at the ceiling. High magnesium foods, are nuts and seeds, berries, melon, leafy greens, soya beans or black beans.
Before bed: Really high tryptophan foods are recommended about an hour before you go to sleep such as nuts, egg whites or dairy. This means serotonin will be released when as you start to sleep, which combats the insomniac brain. Also high-carb and sugar foods should be avoided before bed have been shown to interfer with sleep.
I asked the healthy food community on instagram to help me out, here are some of their recommendations for balanced and healthy sleep-promoting food. Click on the photos to get the recipes!
Based on these recommendations, I designed the perfect healthy pre-slumber snack to help me sleep… Spiced nuts. Ironically, the first time I made these I fell asleep while they were in the oven…apparently their magical sleep power can be gained from just preparing the nuts! The recipe is also made with egg whites so are high in both magnesium and tryptophan. Roasted nuts sold in supermarkets are packed with hidden sugar and oil – making your own is really simple and you have the upside of knowing exactly what goes in them.
Feel free to adapt this using whatever nuts and spices you like, it’s a pretty fool proof recipe (unless you are a big enough fool to fall asleep half way through).
1 bag of almonds
1 egg white
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon tumeric
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper
1. Grab two bowls, place all the spices in one and lightly whisked egg white into another
2. Coat the nuts in the egg white and transfer to the spiced bowl. Repeat until all nuts are coated in the spice mixture
3. Roast on a baking tray for 10-15mins.