The latest sleep research says that you should be getting at least eight hours of sleep a night for optimum health and performance. But, we rarely get the amount of sleep we need.
Chronic sleep deprivation is the curse of modern society. You don’t have to be an insomniac, awake until the early hours, to be sleep deprived. Just getting less sleep than you need is enough to make everything feel like an effort and to impact your cognitive ability.
Thanks to the increasing demands of modern life, expectations of round-the-clock availability, the incursion of the smartphone, and lack of downtime, people are just not getting enough sleep. You may be finding that 24 hours is just not enough time to cram in work, exercise, family life, and downtime. Many of us are storing up a bigger and bigger sleep debt every night.
You might think you can make it up on the weekend, but sleep doesn’t work like a bank. You can’t keep making withdrawals and then top up your sleep credit over a couple of days. The chemical effects in the brain that lead to sleep are complex interactions of hormones, including serotonin and melatonin, that form a delicate balance that is easily disrupted, or set off course by stress, light stimulation, and even being overly tired.
Research has shown that the effects of sleep deprivation are comparable to alcohol impairment – you are more likely to make poor decisions, have slower reaction times, and are more likely to be involved in car accidents. Your body needs sleep to repair itself, to grow muscle, synthesize hormones and to process all the information received by the brain during the day. If you don’t get enough sleep, your body simply doesn’t get enough downtime to do that work.
Research has demonstrated that chronic lack of sleep is also implicated in a range of health conditions:
- Heart disease
- Mental illness
- High blood pressure
- Alzheimer’s Disease
Conversely, among the many positive effects of getting enough sleep are:
- Increased immunity
- Better concentration
- Weight loss
- Greater sex drive
Add to that the fact that the human body was not designed to sit for eight or more hours a day at a computer, and then slump on the sofa in front of another light-emitting and brain-stimulating box for another few hours every evening. Artificial light is in stark contrast to our previous lifestyle which was much more closely attuned to the natural rhythms of sunrise, eight to ten hours of daylight, and going to bed not long after sunset for most of the year.
Our brains are constantly bombarded with more and more stimuli and information every day while enjoying less and less sleep time or downtime to process and recover. No wonder so many people feel tired all the time! The Royal College of Psychiatrists in the United Kingdom estimates at least one in five people feel ‘unusually tired’ all the time. Fatigue is one of the most common reasons people visit their doctor, yet ironically it’s the thing they have the most control over.
You might feel helpless in the face of all of this, but you are absolutely not. Sleep is something you can totally control and you can do it without sleeping tablets or going to a sleep clinic. There are many things you can adjust in your life to support you getting enough sleep. And surprisingly, the food choices you make are one of them.
You probably know that increasing your exercise, going to bed at the same time, and getting about the same number of hours every night is important for resetting your sleep. But did you know that the food you eat can also have an effect?
It turns out that your mother was right—having the right sort of snack before bed can help you sleep. Traditional bedtime snacks of a glass of warm milk and a banana turn out to have high levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps your body make serotonin and melatonin, making you drowsy. But if you don’t like bananas or can’t drink milk, there are a whole range of foods that turn out to be good for your sleep.
The top three sleep-inducing natural chemicals found in food are:
These work together with calcium, potassium and B vitamins to balance your delicate brain chemistry and help you sleep. Luckily, the best foods for sleep often contain or can be combined to have the right mix of sleep-promoting elements.
Top 10 Sleep-Inducing Foods
- Turkey or chicken (tryptophan)
- Cheese (calcium, tryptophan)
- Black walnuts (tryptophan, melatonin) — where to find
- Sour cherries (melatonin) — where to find
- Chickpeas (tryptophan)
- Bananas (potassium, magnesium, tryptophan)
- Oats (melatonin, Vitamin B6) — make sure they are labeled as gluten-free
- Milk (tryptophan, calcium)
- Fish, especially shrimp, cod, halibut and tuna (tryptophan)
- Almonds (tryptophan, melatonin)
If you’re game, you could also try snacking on elk, which has nearly twice as much tryptophan as turkey.
Herbs and spices can provide a healthier alternative to stimulating caffeine-based drinks, like coffee. Herbal teas containing lemon balm, valerian, and chamomile have been used for centuries to help sleep, and there are also tasty spice-based drinks that can help you sleep, boost your immune system, and lower inflammation. Try replacing your afternoon coffee with caffeine-free green tea or a turmeric latte, which are also full of health-promoting antioxidants.
Just before bed, have a drink of warm milk with honey, nutmeg, and cinnamon – a lovely comforting combination of tryptophan, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
Starting from today you can make the choice to sleep better by making these five changes to your life:
- Be more consistent in your sleep habits by going to bed at the same time and limiting your screen time in the evenings.
- Get some exercise every day.
- Replace your afternoon caffeine-spiked drinks with more sleep-friendly alternatives, like green tea and spice-based drinks.
- Adjust your diet to increase foods that are sleep-enhancing.
- Have a snack half an hour before bedtime that is rich in sleep-inducing tryptophan, magnesium, and melatonin.
There’s not a lot you can do about the business of modern life, but you can decide to be kinder to yourself and make sure there’s time for your mind and body to relax, reset, and be better prepared for the day ahead.
Bonus sleep tips:
- You can also read more about sleep in my sleep post, and read about how blue light affects your sleep in a negative way.
- One of my favorite ways to induce sleep is to use my bedtime sleep spray on my pillow every night, you can grab the recipe here.