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Friday Feature - Sleep

I know to date the Friday Features have been about food but nutrition is just one small part of a whole exciting journey to a better, healthier, happier you. So - today - let us look at the importance of sleep, and how you can use nutrition to help you get a better nights kip!

How did you sleep last night? Personally I slept beautifully, however this is new for me. I used to be a terrible insomniac often coping on 2 or 3 hours a night, however this has now changed.

I hope you effortlessly drifted off to dreamland and clocked around 8 hours. But if you didn’t, you’re certainly not alone. Since I know how frustrating these nights can be and how crucial sleep is to our overall well-being, I wanted to look at how sleep, or lack there of effects us every day.

There are many approaches we can take to improving our sleep, from creating a cozy bedroom and reducing caffeine, to blocking out light, exercising at the right time, and limiting our use of electronics but in this post, I want to talk about how food can help us catch all the zzzzzz's.

To start, it’s important to understand how our inner clock works to help. Sleep is regulated by two body systems, sleep-wake homeostasis and the circadian biological clock. These two systems come together to create our circadian rhythms, which are the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. They govern our sleepy and awake periods throughout the day.

Here’s how each of them operate:

Sleep-wake homeostasis: This system causes your need for sleep to increase the longer you’re awake. Basically, it’s a science-y way to explain that the longer you’re cracking on with life the more tired you get and the sooner you’ll feel the need to sleep.

Circadian biological clock: This system is controlled by light and dark, causing you to be most awake during the day and sleepier as the sun sets and the day grows darker.

Here’s how these two systems work together to regulate your sleep:

  • As morning approaches, light triggers the brain to produce adrenalin, cortisol, and serotonin. These hormones help us wake up, feel energized, and regain consciousness.

  • As the morning progresses, cortisol production drops and adrenaline and serotonin production continue to rise along with body temperature, helping us stay active and full of energy

  • In the late afternoon, our body temperature, metabolism, and energetic hormone production starts to drop helping us wind down in the evening.

  • As light fades and evening starts, the circadian biological clock signals the brain to convert serotonin to melatonin. As melatonin levels rise we feel more lethargic and sleepy (this is where melatonin-rich foods can be especially helpful).

  • Throughout the night, melatonin continues to be released until the brain senses dawn’s gradual increase in light. That’s when melatonin production drops and the wake-up cycle begins again.

ok - blah blah, what does all of this have to do with food?

Well, some foods promote serotonin production, while others promote melatonin production, both of which are critical to keeping this sleep system in balance. These foods are especially helpful to people who have trouble winding down, those who have insomnia, and those who have trouble staying asleep. In addition, melatonin levels decrease with age or even in summertime when it’s light out longer in the evening.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter made mainly in the walls of the GI tract, and it’s a big player in our sleep-awake cycle since it powers the production of melatonin. As I mentioned above, light increases the production of serotonin, while darkness triggers serotonin to produce melatonin. So it makes sense that serotonin levels are highest during the daylight hours and lowest or nonexistent during REM sleep. Here’s where food comes into the picture. Even though serotonin cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, food can still have an effect on serotonin levels. The key is actually tryptophan, an amino acid that’s needed to make serotonin. By eating more carbs, we effectively shuttle more

tryptophan into the brain, which boosts serotonin production and therefore melatonin production. It’s a chain reaction. Whole grains, legumes, fresh fruit and other healthy, carby foods like baked oatmeal with berries, 100% whole grain bread with nut butter, baked sweet potato wedges, and brown rice with black beans will promote healthy serotonin production if eaten throughout the day.

So why is sleep so important and what happens when we sleep?

Many major restorative functions occur while we sleep. For adults, the main things that occur are muscle growth, protein synthesis, tissue and cell repair.

The number of hours you should sleep depends on your age, gender, lifestyle, current health, and simply how you feel after X amount of sleep. Basically, it’s different for everyone, but usually between 7 and 9 hours does the job. If you feel energized all day long on 7 hours of sleep, then you don’t need 8. But if you’re groggy and relying on caffeine to get you through the day, then you likely need more than that. When it comes to the timing of your night-time snooze, the most restorative window is typically between 11pm and 7am because your circadian rhythm is likely at its lowest point. (Although your dream time can vary—just try to nod off before midnight and sleep 7-9 hours.) Your circadian rhythm is influenced by your environment—namely lightness and darkness. It controls many of the physical, mental, and behavioral changes you experience in a 24-hour cycle, including your sleep pattern. Paying attention to your circadian rhythm and going to sleep when you feel drowsy means you’ll hit deep, restorative sleep more rapidly (National Sleep Foundation).

If you’re cutting yourself short in the sleep department, you’re also cutting your overall well-being short. Lack of sleep can lead to increases in appetite because your body is compensating for a lack of energy and struggling to find fuel for your everyday activities. This can result in weight gain and obesity. Too little sleep also increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes, heart problems, respiratory disorders, depression, and problems with substance abuse, not to mention a lessened ability to pay attention, react to unexpected events, and remember new information. (National Sleep Foundation).

Now that we’ve covered the impact of poor sleep, let’s talk about how you can improve your sleep habits with some simple foodie ideas.

Here are my TOP FIVE FOODIE TIPS for a better nights sleep:

1. Enjoy cherries, goji berries, and raspberries in the evening. These red babes are loaded with natural melatonin.

2. Snack on almonds and walnuts in the late afternoon or as a bedtime snack. Bursting with melatonin, a quarter-cup serving of these nuts can help your body wind down as the day draws to a close. A tablespoon or two of almond butter is also an excellent night time snack.

3. Get tropical for dessert. Bananas, pineapple, and oranges not only contain melatonin but also boost the body’s production of it. A scrumptious post-dinner fruit salad or green smoothie with these fruits can help your body easily get ready for sleep.

4. Enjoy balanced meals throughout the day. An overall balanced diet that includes complex carbs and plant protein will promote healthy serotonin levels for optimal melatonin production. Make sure your diet includes whole grains (including millet, quinoa, and brown rice if you’re gluten-free), plant protein, and some healthy fats throughout the day.

5. Eat a healthy carb-rich dinner to get back on track. If you’re extra droopy or have a big day tomorrow, enjoy a high-carb dinner such as beans and rice with roasted veggies for an extra boost of serotonin and melatonin production.

So now you know the secret to a good nights sleep... give it a try and enjoy the wealth of benefits you will feel, and wake up refreshed and ready to tackle the day!

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