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7 Sustenance tips for great sleep

Last updated on February 29th, 2024

As the day winds down, the choices we make at the dinner table can significantly influence the quality of our sleep. Understanding how our evening meals interact with our body’s natural rhythms can help us drift off more easily and enjoy deeper, more restorative sleep. Here’s a closer look at how adjusting our dining habits can lead to better nights.

1. Protein at dinnertime

Protein-rich foods play a crucial role in preparing our bodies for sleep. They contain key ingredients that our bodies convert into hormones responsible for inducing sleep. Incorporating foods like chicken, fish, or eggs in your evening meal can subtly encourage your body to begin its night-time wind down. These foods are packed with amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, which play pivotal roles in various bodily functions, including the production of hormones and neurotransmitters that regulate sleep.

2. Notice how carbs affect your sleep

Minimising or avoiding carbohydrates for the last meal of the day has become popular. Some people feel better doing this and report sleeping soundly. What is less well known is that for others, this choice – eating low carb – will disrupt sleep. If your body has poor metabolic flexibility, if you don’t readily switch between glucose and fat being your dominant fuel to use (I talk about this in my first book Accidentally Overweight), when your blood glucose level falls low overnight, a surge of adrenaline is often produced to miobilise stored glucose (glycogen) from your liver and muscles, to top up your blood levels. Because adremlaine is your ‘get out of danger’ hormone, it wakes you up and you may struggle to get back to sleep. If this scenario resonates for you, incorporate some whole food carbs with dinner, such as potato, sweet potato, kumara, pumpkin, basmati or brown rice.

3. Minimise caffeine

Caffeine’s pervasive presence in our daily lives often masks its potent effects on our sleep-wake cycle. This stimulant, celebrated for its ability to ward off drowsiness and enhance focus, operates by blocking the action of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that promotes relaxation. As caffeine impedes adenosine’s natural build up and instructs the adrenal glands to make adrenaline, it consequently delays sleepiness and can significantly disrupt sleep quality. While many are aware of caffeine’s starring role in coffee, its stealthy cameo in chocolate, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks can catch many off guard, especially when consumed in the hours leading up to bedtime.

4. Keep dinner light and early

Digestion is an active process that requires a considerable amount of energy and bodily resources. When we consume a large or heavy meal shortly before bed, our digestive system is still in full swing as we try to drift off to sleep. This can lead to discomfort, heartburn, or indigestion, all of which are notorious for their ability to disrupt sleep. Moreover, lying down too soon after eating can exacerbate these issues. A lighter meal, by contrast, can be more easily and quickly digested.

The timing of this meal is equally crucial. Eating too close to bedtime can keep your body focused on digestion rather than resting. A general guideline is to finish eating at least two to three hours before bed, allowing your body ample time to digest the meal. This window not only supports the physical process of digestion but also signals to your body that it’s time to wind down, reinforcing your natural circadian rhythms and enhancing your overall sleep quality.

5. Go light on spice in the evening

While spices add a delightful vibrancy to our meals, igniting our taste buds with their complex flavours and aromas, their impact on our body’s readiness for sleep can be less than soothing. Spicy foods have the potential in some (not all) people, to disrupt the body’s internal equilibrium, leading to discomfort that is antithetical to the state of relaxation required for a deep, restful sleep. The capsaicin in spicy foods, responsible for their fiery heat, can increase body temperature and stimulate the digestive system, effects that are counterproductive to the cooling down process the body naturally undergoes in preparation for sleep.

6. Include tryptophan-rich foods in your evening meal

Tryptophan, an amino acid that serves as a precursor to serotonin—a neurotransmitter that’s later converted into the sleep hormone melatonin—is found in beef, lamb, pork, poultry and legumes. Of the legume family, chickpeas in particular, can offer a natural pathway to tranquillity. For those whose digestive systems can harmonise with the chickpea’s fibre content without experiencing discomfort or gas, this legume becomes an even more valuable component of the pre-sleep ritual. If chickpeas aren’t a friend of your digestive system, make sure other tryptophan-rich foods are present. Zinc is also needed for the biochemical pathway that produces melatonin, so beef and lamb have the added benefit of also containing this mineral in a bioavailable form.

7. Eggs and/or almonds may help

Rich in vitamin B6, eggs and almonds form a duo of unparalleled importance in the body’s preparation for rest. Vitamin B6 is not merely a nutrient; it’s a catalyst in the production of serotonin and melatonin, the hormones central to the regulation of sleep. Serotonin, known for its role in mood regulation, also serves as the precursor to melatonin, the hormone that adjusts our internal clocks and signals to our bodies when it’s time to sleep. Thus, the presence of vitamin B6 is crucial, ensuring the biochemical pathways leading to the production of these hormones remain fluid and unobstructed.


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