It’s a common scenario. You go to bed tired and fall asleep quickly. But around three or four o’clock in the morning you’re wide awake with your ‘busy brain’ in high gear, running through your ‘to do list’ for tomorrow. Worries amplify in the middle of the night.
You’ve tried everything you can think of to relax. Hot milk, camomile tea, over the counter medications. They might help a little, but usually not enough to get your brain to shut off. Eventually you drift off again, but the alarm goes off too soon and it’s time to get up. You become so stressed about getting a decent night’s sleep that it feeds a vicious circle.
Broken sleep can seriously affect the quality of your life. You wake up groggy and irritable, your days are less productive and you become forgetful. As a licensed nutritionist, my priority is to resolve sleep issues naturally. But before we get to that, let’s look at some more ways that interrupted sleep affects us.
Sleeping badly not only raises stress levels, but it also increases appetite and promotes weight gain. Scientific research confirms what many of us already know – a poor night’s sleep results in uncontrollable munchies the next day.
Studies have found that people eat on average about 300 calories more the day after a poor night’s sleep. Women are worse off than men – consuming about 329 extra calories compared to 263 for men. Since women need fewer calories daily (1,800 – 2,200) than men (2,500 – 3,500) you can see why this quickly adds up. After all 329 calories is more than half an average meal!
Compounding the problem is the fact that sleep loss impairs brain function. When we’re well-rested, we’re good at sorting out information. But when we’re sleep-deprived the stuff we’re supposed to ignore gets more distracting. This means that when we’re presented with a range of food options, we’re more likely to choose pizza, doughnuts, cake and ice cream over fruit and vegetables.
Unfortunately, these are precisely the kinds of foods that perpetuate the negative cycle by causing blood sugar imbalances that result in cravings for more fattening foods.
Broken sleep and food cravings
Simply put – its hormonal. Lack of sleep increases levels of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, while simultaneously decreasing levels of in leptin, a hormone that suppresses the desire to eat and boosts metabolism. Resisting the urge to overeat or snack compulsively becomes almost impossible when fighting against these powerful chemical messengers.
Poor sleep can make you sick
Lack of sleep can also suppress immunity. Studies show that just one night without proper rest quadruples your risk of catching a cold. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.
That’s because during sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines that you need more of to fight an infection or inflammation, or when you’re under stress. Sleep deprivation decreases the production of these protective cytokines and reduces the amount of antibodies we need to fight off pathogens.
Long term lack of sleep also increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart and blood vessel diseases cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Natural remedies to fix sleep problems
So why does your mind keep racing when you’re trying to sleep? Partly it’s because these days there’s less opportunity to completely switch off. We live in an era of twenty-four a day Internet access, the TV is always blaring and our mobile phones are our constant companions. Many of us live in a state of constant stimulation that negatively impacts the quality of our sleep.
But often it’s because your brain lacks certain sleep-inducing chemicals to signal that it’s time for your body and mind to relax and go back to sleep.
The most important of these is an amino acid called gamma-aminobutryric acid, or GABA. This brain chemical acts like the “brakes” of your brain and helps put a stop to those racing thoughts that make you feel anxious and stressed out at night. Your brain produces less and less GABA as you age and this can keep you from enjoying deep, restful sleep. Increasing GABA levels can help shut down the mental chatter that keeps you awake and restore the rejuvenating sleep you’ve been missing.
Unfortunately, GABA supplements are not very effective, so I believe it’s better to give your brain what it needs to raise GABA levels naturally. The best way to do this is by including fermented foods in your diet: kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, miso, tempeh and yogurt.
Passion flower is a mild relaxant that also helps increase GABA and has been used for centuries as a soothing solution for sleeplessness. It works on your central nervous system to induce sleep by relieving stress and anxiety. Passion flower has another benefit – it relieves muscle aches and pains that could be keeping you awake.
Foods containing flavonoids that may increase GABA function include berries, citrus fruits, apples, pears, green tea, cocoa and wine – but easy on that last one!
There are two minerals that I also recommend for good sleep. You need healthy levels of both for deep, rejuvenating sleep, especially as you get older. Many people are deficient in them.
The first is magnesium – particularly helpful if aches and pains wake you up at night. Magnesium is called the “anti-stress” mineral and for good reason – it has a calming effect on the nervous system. Magnesium also promotes normal muscle and nerve function, so it helps ease any tense muscles in your body.
The second mineral is calcium. You know that calcium is important for your bones. But did you also know that it’s a natural relaxant that’s essential for good sleep? Even a minor calcium deficiency can lead to muscle tension and sleeplessness.
If you suffer from sleep problems you’ve probably already tried it. It’s also a popular remedy to help reset your body clock and overcome jet lag. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate your day/night cycle, also known as your circadian rhythm. It’s also a powerful sleep enhancer. Unfortunately, it also makes some people feel groggy in the morning – especially if you take too much.
Melatonin also helps improve rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep – the kind of sleep that’s essential to help regulate your metabolism and protect your immune system. Research says by the time you reach age 65, you’re spending less than 5% of your time each night getting deep, rejuvenating REM sleep. Melatonin can help!
A safe dose of melatonin is the lowest dose that is effective in helping you fall asleep without causing side effects. In general, a dose between 0.2 and 5 mg is considered a safe starting dose. Any more and you’re risking an overdose that can actually cause insomnia.
8 tips for restful sleep
- Ban the TV from the bedroom and don’t eat or talk about emotional issues in bed. The bedroom is for sleep and sex only!
- If you must watch TV after dinner, choose carefully. Much of what’s on is violent and disturbing (including the news). A good book is much more conducive to a good night’s sleep.
- Fight off the temptation to check up on your Facebook friends or spend time surfing the Internet after dinner. Computer screens give off a light that interferes with our body’s natural ability to release melatonin – the sleep-inducing hormone.
- Avoid caffeine – a no brainer. Caffeine is a stimulant and should be avoided for at least 6 hours before bed or it may stop you falling asleep. Obviously this goes for coffee and tea (green tea too), but pay attention to other sources – like sodas and some medications.
- Go easy on the alcohol. Yes, it makes you fall asleep quicker, but it also causes dramatic fluctuations in blood sugar as our system tries to clear it. Waking up in a sweat, nightmares and a generally rotten night’s sleep often result.
- Establishing a routine and sticking to it helps support healthy circadian rhythms. Eat dinner at a reasonable time and try to go to bed no later than 10:30.
- Take steps to combat psychological stress! Yoga, meditation, visualization and any form of exercise (although not right before sleep) are all excellent stress busters.
- Make sure your getting enough tryptophan – the precursor to serotonin. Low levels of your brain’s “feel good “chemical can disrupt your sleep or keep you from falling asleep altogether. High tryptophan foods are: nuts, seeds, oats, beans, crab, chicken mozzarella, beans, lentils and eggs.
All these tips provide specific benefits, but together their power is magnified, helping shut down ‘worry mode’ and correct imbalances in your body and mind that are causing your sleep problems in the first place. They will help you fall asleep quickly, wake up less often and help you sleep more deeply, so you can finally get the precious, rejuvenating sleep you deserve.
For nutritional consultations on a wide range of health issues contact Susan Tomassini, Licensed Nutritionist BSc (Hons) @ email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.foodwise.life for your personalized nutritional program.