6 min.

29 April 2022

What are the best and worst food habits to help you sleep?

If you’re looking to change your lifestyle, it might be beneficial to observe your sleeping habits beforehand. Exercise, diet and sleep are all connected, and mastering one without the other can leave loopholes in your overall health and wellbeing. Sleep Science by Emma are experts in the science behind our beloved shut-eye. In this article, we break down the links between nutrition and sleep, deciphering the relationship between the two and what impacts the other. 

How does nutrition affect sleep?

It’s commonplace to say we’ve all fallen victim to the effects of a food-coma once or twice in our life. Scientifically known as postprandial somnolence, this feeling of sluggishness and general drowsiness after a meal is usually associated with consuming too much.  

Whilst meals consisting of high carbohydrates can make you feel sluggish, tired and ready to curl up in a ball - this does contrast with the likes of athletes using high-carb meals to prepare for a long, strenuous sporting event or trail. High-carbohydrate meals can also make it difficult to get a good night's sleep. So what’s the link? Why do carbohydrates send some of us to the sofa, and others, to the treadmill?

There are, of course, factors to keep in mind when comparing the two outcomes. It could be down to the individual exercise regime, the time of day and the amount of sleep they have had, or typically get. 

Foods for deep sleep 

There have been a lot of studies into the foods that help you sleep through the night, with emphasis on tryptophan foods. Tryptophan, also called L-tryptophan, is an amino acid that can be found in turkey, chicken, eggs, and fish, as well as milk and yoghurt. It can also be consumed in supplement form, along with melatonin, and is proven to help aid better, prolonged sleep and can help alleviate symptoms of depression. 

When looking for foods to promote a better night sleep, it is important to include the foods that have the ability to help pass tryptophan into the brain more easily, such as high carb foods. The type of carb matters, however. As simple carbs, such as white bread, pasta and pastries contain more sugar which can cause disrupted sleep, and generally, people will wake up more times in the night. Complex carbohydrates provide a more stable blood sugar level, aiding a deeper sleep. 

A diet that promotes foods that make you sleep at night, or could help, is the Mediterranean diet; containing a range of high-protein, complex carbohydrates and fatty foods. One study looking at the link between cardiovascular disease and sleep reported participants on a Mediterranean diet reported fewer accounts of insomnia and short sleep. In general, foods that promote sleep are low in saturated fats, contain a higher count of fibre and complex carbs. 

Foods that disrupt sleep

There are a number of foods that disrupt the natural sleep cycle. By consuming them before bed, you run the risk of tossing and turning all night long, since most of them prolong the REM sleep stage.

The brain needs REM sleep to stimulate the areas of your brain that are essential in learning and making or retaining memories, but, after that, your body will need to, eventually, fall into a slow deeper sleep which is important for regaining energy.

So, here are some of the worst foods to consume before turning out the light:

Cheese

Whilst it’s warming, creamy and comforting, it’s true when they say don’t eat cheese before bed. Cheese is challenging to digest and is a tyramine rich food. Tyramine induces noradrenaline's brain production, which (promotes vigilance, increases arousal and alertness) acts as a stimulant. Because of this, your body stays in REM sleep mode for longer, keeping you half awake longer and causing more vivid dreams (nightmares). 

Sugary foods

This comes as no surprise, yet we’re all guilty of snacking on a tub of sweet, sweet ice cream in the evenings. Sugary foods such as ice cream and sweets will cause blood sugar levels to spike - these then plummet while you’re sleeping. When blood sugar drops in sleep, the adrenals are alerted that there is an emergency, which, in turn, increases cortisol levels, and wakes the body from sleep.  

Caffeine

A cup of joe is a large majority of the population’s go-to in the morning, but seemingly less common in the evenings. Late-night caffeine consumption is often associated with someone studying into the early hours, or a trucker hauling down the motorway. Whilst we’re a nation of coffee lovers, there’s definitely a large number of people opting for decaf. So why no blow before bedtime? Caffeine interferes with circadian melatonin rhythms, delaying the onset of sleep (known as sleep onset latency) if consumed close to bedtime.

Alcohol 

Whilst a ‘nightcap’ sounds good at the time, alcohol has a negative impact on REM sleep - causing you to wake up after a few hours of sleep and make it harder to fall back asleep. If you plan on drinking in the evening, it is best to try and wait a few hours before hitting the hay - your body needs time to process the alcohol in order to have a better night's sleep. 

Should you eat and drink before bed? 

Nutritionists recommend waiting three hours between your last meal and bedtime as a general rule of thumb. This enables digestion and the passage of stomach contents into the small intestine and could help you avoid issues like nighttime heartburn and insomnia.

If you must eat before going to bed, then consider a light snack like a piece of fruit (something low in sugar, like a banana), or yoghurt, or some low-sugar cereal. There are a number of foods that are considered to burn fat while you sleep - but take this with a pinch of salt - some include cherries, greek yoghurt, peanut butter, protein shakes and cottage cheese.  

Does drinking tea help you sleep better?

This does depend on the tea you are drinking.

Whilst a builders brew might not be the best bet, it doesn’t contain as much caffeine as coffee, however, it does contain some and isn’t the most efficient nightcap.

On the other hand, chamomile can aid a better night's sleep, which fortunately can be easily consumed in tea form. Other herbal teas that could potentially improve sleep quality are valerian root, green and any decaffeinated herbal tea. In addition to herbal teas, why not try adding a few drops of lemon balm to create a sleepy and delicious beverage. Several of these teas have relaxing or sedative properties, making them popular among people who are having trouble sleeping.

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What should your bedtime routine be?

Sleep is a natural cycle which our body and mind should be able to do with ease, however, according to recent studies, 36% of adults struggle to get to sleep on a weekly basis and almost 1 in 5 have trouble falling asleep every single night. 1 This is why, here at Sleep Science by Emma, we’re passionate about helping you get a better night’s sleep, as it’s one of the most important aspects of your health and well-being. Establishing a good bedtime routine for adults is a simple task and once you get into this routine, your brain will shortly understand when it’s time to go to sleep.  

Can music help you sleep?

There is a common perception that relaxing melodies can help you fall asleep. After all, parents have been singing lullabies to their children for centuries. But does this ring true for all age groups? Will your partner singing you a lullaby make you sleep? Can calm music aid in getting better sleep? The answer is pretty straightforward: yes! Loud sounds or noises make you feel agitated and annoyed, while soft, calming sounds help you relax and fall asleep.Research also shows that nature sounds such as rain, water streams and wind significantly improve sleep efficiency.

What happens to the body during REM sleep?

REM sleep is when we are most likely to dream, hence the other name for it being ‘dream sleep.’ However, it is still possible to dream in other stages of sleep, but they won’t be as vivid or ‘story-like.’  It is also referred to as a paradoxical sleep as the muscles are actually in a state of paralysis, but this is not as worrying as it sounds, as involuntary muscle movements such as breathing still occur, and the muscles are still supplied with oxygen and blood.

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