Whether it’s difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, sleeping issues are frustrating and increasingly common. Aside from the obvious fatigue and grumpiness, the repercussions of not getting enough sleep are diverse and can have detrimental effects on seemingly unrelated aspects of our lives, including:
- Reduced immune function
- Hormone imbalances
- Weight gain
- Poor memory, reduced concentration and difficulty learning
- Reduced libido
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart attack and heart failure
If you would like to become a morning person (mornings really aren’t that bad!) then getting enough sleep is probably a good place to start. Ancient traditions and modern research show us that certain foods, nutrients, herbs and lifestyle practices can support us in getting a good nights sleep, whilst others can impair our ability to both fall asleep and stay asleep.
Nutrition for sleep
- Avoid stimulants after midday as these can prevent sleep initiation. This includes caffeinated beverages such as coffee, green and black tea, theobromine (found in chocolate) and sugar.
- As well as being a stimulant, sugar also causes blood sugar dysregulation and hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) which can wake you up at 4am! Avoid refined sugars and carbohydrates such as chocolate, cakes, biscuits, lollies, white bread, pasta, pastries and the like to not only prevent fatigue during the day and the 4pm slump, but also ensure a restful nights sleep.
- Melatonin is our main sleep hormone and is naturally contained in a number of foods including cherries, bananas, oats, ginger and tomatoes.
- Tryptophan is an amino acid which is the starting block for melatonin production within our bodies. When we eat tryptophan, our bodies metabolise it into serotonin (our happy chemical) and then into melatonin (our sleepy-time chemical). Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, which means our bodies don’t make it and therefore we need to get it from the food that we eat. Tryptophan is found in foods such as turkey, chicken, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, eggs, sesame seeds, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, almonds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, pepitas/pumpkin seeds, peanuts, buckwheat and spirulina. Including some lentils in your evening meal or having a snack of almonds and pepitas before bed is a good way to ensure you’re getting a good dose of tryptophan.
- Magnesium is a mineral which is required not only for the production of melatonin but also for the production of GABA (our calming neurotransmitter), helping to relax the nervous system and therefore aid sleep onset. Unfortunately most of us (over 70% of Australians) are deficient in this crucial mineral. Magnesium is found in nuts, seeds, whole grains and green leafy veggies.
- Whilst alcohol can appear to help some people fall asleep quicker, it actually reduces the amount of deep sleep (also known as REM sleep) obtained, causing you to wake feeling unrefreshed.
Herbal medicine for sleep
Herbal teas can also support sleep onset due to their abilities to relax and sedate the nervous system. Herbs which can aid sleep onset and/or maintenance include Valerian, Hops, Californian poppy, Jamaican dogwood, Lavender, Lemon balm, Zizyphus, Passionflower, Chamomile, Kava and St John’s Wort. Keep in mind that some of these herbs interact with a variety of medications, including the oral contraceptive pill, so speak to your naturopath or herbalist before commencing use. An individualised herbal medicine prescription will depend on the cause of sleep disruption, whether the issue is with sleep onset, sleep maintenance, or both, and what else may be going on for the individual patient i.e. stress, anxiety, hormone imbalances etc which may be contributing to insomnia.
Lifestyle tips and tricks
- Ensure that your bedroom is DARK. This means proper blinds or curtains and ensuring there is no light being emitted into the bedroom from electronics. An eye mask can also be useful.
- Exercise is one of the best ways to regulate the bodies’ circadian rhythm (also known as the sleep/wake cycle). However in sensitive people, high intensity exercise should be kept to before 4pm as it causes adrenaline and cortisol to be released and can prevent sleep onset in some people if done too late in the day. Try more calming and restorative exercise in the evening such as yoga or walking, and keep high intensity exercise for the morning or early afternoon.
- Blue light (emitted from phones and computers) disrupts the release of melatonin from the pineal gland and dysregulates our sleep/wake cycle. Swipe your iPhone up to turn down the lighting on your phone a few hours before sleep, and never use your phone in bed. Apps such as f.lux automatically turn down the blue light on phone and laptop screens with the rhythm of the sunset, so the blue light fades as the sun goes down.
- Put pen to paper. Keep a journal or a note pad next to your bed so you can write down any niggling worries that can often arise the minute we hop into bed. Releasing thoughts onto paper prevents the mind churning over anything stressful that may have happened that day. It is a great way to allow room for positive thoughts to evolve.
- Managing any anxiety throughout the day to prevent it from building up in the evening (and therefore prevent you from sleeping) is really important. If you experience anxiety, speak to your healthcare practitioner to identify ways to manage this. There are many effective and safe herbal and nutritional medicines to help manage anxiety. Speak to your naturopath or herbalist about creating an individualised healthcare plan for you.
- Deep belly breathing into your diaphragm can help relax the nervous system and calm the mind before bed.
- A bath can be a nice way to wind down and prepare for sleep. Adding epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) can also aid sleep onset via relaxing muscular and nervous tension.
- Aromatherapy is also a lovely way to aid relaxation and in turn, sleep onset. Try using Lavender oil either burnt in an oil diffuser, dabbed on your wrists and temples or a few drops on your pillow slip or in a bath.
- Ensure your bedding is appropriate for the season. Our bodies temperature drops a small amount to induce sleep onset; make sure you are not too hot (but also not too cold).