Feed your soul for a better night’s sleep zzzzz’

    Where is the seat of your soul?

If we are going to feed our soul, we need to know where it is located and what are the best nutrients.

The pineal gland was described as the “Seat of the Soul” by Renee Descartes, and it is located in the centre of the brain. The main function of the pineal gland is to receive information about the state of the light-dark cycle from the environment and convey this information to produce and secrete the sleep hormone, melatonin.

    The importance of sleep

We all know how bad we feel when we’ve had a bad night’s sleep. It can leave you struggling to focus and concentrate the next day and can leave you irritable, tearful and lacking in motivation. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, affecting one in four people. But even just a few nights of broken sleep can significantly affect your health. Poor sleep has been associated with a number of health problems including cardiovascular disease, suppressed immune function, depression, anxiety, increased sensitivity of pain and weight gain.   Do you regularly struggle to get to sleep or are you often woken in the night and find yourself lying in bed, tossing and turning? What you eat and drink can have a dramatic effect on your sleep patterns. A few simple adjustments to what you do and eat may help you have a more restful night.

    There are some obvious tweaks.

    Watch out for stimulants

Stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine contribute to poor sleep by making it harder for the brain to wind down. Caffeine has a half-life of around five hours in the body depending on your genetics so drinking coffee or energy drinks in the afternoon could impact your quality of sleep. As everyone is different you may need to experiment with the timing of your last cuppa but if you do struggle with sleep stop caffeine containing drinks by 2-3pm. Remember that foods like dark chocolate are also high in caffeine so you may wish to avoid snacking on chocolate late at night.

    Drop the night cap

It is more commonly thought that alcohol is a sedative, it however actually increases the levels of dopamine within the brain, which has a stimulating effect.  It also disrupts blood sugar levels leading to frequent waking and it is known to cause or increase the symptoms of sleep apnoea, snoring and disrupted sleep patterns.  Alcohol also alters the production of melatonin thereby disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm and of course sleep.

    Don’t exercise too late at night

Keeping active and exercising regularly has been shown to improve sleep quality but exercising too late or at least too close to going to bed is not a good idea. Exercising late at night, increases adrenaline and cortisol making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Exercising early in the morning may provide better time for that workout.

    Why lack of sleep can make you fat!

Poor sleep can lead to elevated levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other “stress” hormones. This can disrupt blood sugar levels as well as changes to hormones that regulate hunger and appetite. The hormone leptin suppresses appetite and sleep deprivation reduces its levels. On the other hand, the hormone ghrelin, triggers feelings of hunger and increases when you’re not sleeping well. This explains why the more tired you feel the more you are likely to crave fatty, sugar laden foods for a pick me up. One study found that just one week of poor sleep led to an average weight gain of 2lbs.

    Dietary changes that could aid a better night’s sleep

Although it is tempting to just reach for over-the-counter sleep aids, just a few changes to your diet and lifestyle could help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep for longer.

Firstly, nourish yourself regularly throughout the day, as skipping meals, eating erratically or overeating late at night will disrupt blood glucose levels.  Also, foods high in fat in the evening have been linked to poor sleep as fat may slow down digestion and could cause a build-up of stomach acids.  If you need to have a snack in the evening, make it light and easy to digest and preferably at least 1-2 hours before bedtime.  A snack that contains both protein and carbohydrates plus tryptophan, which aids the production of serotonin and melatonin would be ideal, such as a small greenish banana and a couple of walnuts nuts or a yoghurt and a kiwi.

Avoid the sugar and refined carbs especially in the afternoon/evening as they will disrupt blood glucose control which will affect your sleep by increasing cortisol levels which in turn blocks melatonin.

    Key nutrients for a good night’s sleep

Here in the UK melatonin is only available on prescription but you can improve levels naturally with certain foods.  Foods with the highest levels of melatonin include nuts and seeds (walnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseed), fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables (such as asparagus, olives, tomatoes, grapes and strawberries) as well as rice and oats.   Almonds make another evening snack as they contain both melatonin and an important sleep-inducing mineral magnesium.

A couple of studies have also shown that drinking Tart Cherry juice an hour before bed may aid your sleep and it is the most popular sources of melatonin.

Another option is to include foods high in L-tryptophan, an amino acid that is a precursor for the production of serotonin and melatonin. Tryptophan is converted in the body to a molecule called 5-HTP (5-hdroxytryptophan), which is then used to make serotonin and Melatonin.  It is possible to supplement with 5HTP as a sleep aid, but it is not suitable for everyone.  The best option is to eat more tryptophan or serotonin rich foods every day.

    Foods high in tryptophan/serotonin:

Dairy products                                                                 Poultry (Turkey, chicken)

Seafood (Shrimp. Salmon, halibut, tuna)                  Nuts & Seeds (Flax, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, cashews, peanuts, almonds)

Legumes (Kidney beans, lima beans, chickpeas)     Fruits (Apples, bananas, peaches, avocado, kiwi)

Veg  (Spinach, broccoli, dark leafy greens)               Grains (Wheat, rice, barley, corn, oats)

    Other important vitamins and Minerals

Magnesium, zinc and calcium are all important for quality sleep.  You can increase magnesium in the body by soaking in a warm bath of Epsom salts or using a magnesium oil spray on the skin.  Foods to include are dark green leafy veg, nut and seeds, avocado, fish, bananas and soybeans.  Having a warm milky drink at night seems to aid sleep and this could be due to dairy products containing both tryptophan and calcium.   Don’t forget boosting your B Vitamins to as B6 is important for the conversion process of tryptophan.

    Other things to consider

Try calmative teas such as chamomile and Valerian as both seem to work on the GABA system in the brain helping to reduce brain activity. 

Lavender Oil has been extensively studied as a treatment to improve sleep, so try adding a few drops onto your pillow before bedtime.

Manage stress by meditating before bed and perhaps using Ashwagandha, an Indian herb, that is known to modulate stress hormones like cortisol