One in three people suffers with sleep problems according to the National Sleep Foundation, and the number of hours per night is on the decline for the rest of us, with a third of adults getting by on only 5 or 6 hours. The situation is so serious that insufficient sleep has been described by health professionals as a public health epidemic! Our busy lifestyles mean that getting enough, good quality sleep has fallen down the list of priorities while trying to squeeze in everything life demands of us.
Sleep has thus become a much-neglected area of our health, despite its huge importance when you think that we spend about a third of our entire lives in bed! Lack of sleep can contribute to depression, anxiety, stress, weakened immune system (1), weight gain (2), skin ageing, relationship problems and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. In fact, sleep is as important as healthy eating and exercise for both physical and mental health, so it’s absolutely essential we address this deficit.
The good news is that everyone is born with the natural ability to sleep, so if you’re not sleeping well, it means something is getting in the way of your body’s natural ability. Identifying and removing the cause is therefore what’s needed to restore good quality sleep, along with genuinely making sleep a priority. The benefits of doing so will include improved mood, reduced disease risk, improved brain function, memory and concentration, more energy, helping appetite and weight control and slowing down the ageing process.
The chemistry of sleep depends on two key hormones: melatonin and adrenalin. Melatonin is released by the brain, as it gets dark to induce sleep, which is made from the tryptophan, amino-acid found in protein foods. Providing the protein building blocks to make these brain chemicals is therefore key, along with the co-factors needed for the conversion process, these are folic acid, B6, vitamin C and zinc.
The second hormone is adrenalin, the ‘fight or flight’ hormone, which needs to be switched off so we feel relaxed enough to sleep. Many people find it hard to switch out of a state of general anxiety sufficiently to fall asleep, factors such as high pressure lives and over-use of technology don’t help. Learning how to switch off adrenalin in the evening is key for people who find it hard to get to sleep.
Nutrition for Good Sleep
Including foods in your diet that are high in tryptophan will ensure your body has the building blocks to produce the sleep hormone melatonin. The best sources are eggs, spirulina, fish, soya, sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, turkey, chicken, oats, chickpeas, almonds, peanuts, dates, bananas, cottage cheese and yoghurt. You will also need the vitamin and mineral co-factors needed to convert tryptophan into melatonin, shown below.
Complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, root vegetables and pulses help raise the body’s levels of tryptophan and make it more available to the brain. Eating an evening meal containing both protein and a small amount of complex carbohydrates is therefore useful – for example chicken with roasted root vegetables or lentil curry with brown rice.
The mineral magnesium found in dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, wholegrains, fish, beans, lentils, avocadoes, bananas and dark chocolate calms the nervous system and relaxes muscles, helping to reduce restless legs and insomnia.
Caffeine can take 10-12 hours to be fully metabolised and can suppress melatonin production for 10 hours. If you are having severe sleep problems, I would advise cutting it out completely, otherwise limit yourself to 1 coffee, 2 black teas, or 3 green teas per day, no later than midday. Alternative hot drinks that actually promote sleep and relaxation are chamomile, valerian and sleep formula teas. You could also try a glass of cherry juice, which contains small amounts of melatonin and has been shown in studies to increase melatonin levels, sleep duration and sleep quality (3-5).
Avoid eating too late or large, heavy evening meals, and difficult to digest foods like red meat, fried foods and spicy foods. A large meal can cause indigestion and discomfort that can interfere with sleep and eating too late means that you won’t have fully digested the food before you go to sleep, which can do the same. Aim to eat your evening meal at least 3 hours before bed to allow time to fully digest it. If work or other commitments mean you have to eat late, eat more during the day and have a light evening meal like a vegetable and lentil soup. Also avoid drinking too much fluid in the evenings if waking up in the night to go to the bathroom is an issue for you.
Conversely, going to bed very hungry can lead to low blood sugar levels at night, which results in the release of stimulating hormones. A small snack such as an oatcake or a glass of warm almond milk about 30 minutes before bed will be enough to prevent this if it’s a problem for you.
Sugar can be stimulating, so try to avoid refined sugar in the evenings (or all together!). If you crave something sweet try natural yoghurt with berries or some dried fruit and nuts. Unfortunately, chocolate contains small amounts of caffeine, another stimulating chemical called theobromine and sugar, so should be limited in the evenings if you are sensitive. You can indulge in a few squares of the dark stuff though, just have it as an afternoon snack with some nuts.
Many people resort to a glass of wine to relax and alcohol does temporarily promote the brain-chemical GABA, which switches off adrenalin and makes us feel relaxed. Unfortunately, the effect doesn’t last and too much alcohol actually leads to GABA depletion. Although alcohol can help you fall asleep it actually reduces the quality of your sleep, so in the long run doesn’t help.
Exercise and Meditation
Regular exercise helps to improve sleep quality, morning exercise is best if you can fit it in, but if you do need to exercise in the evenings watch out for over-stimulating yourself by doing anything too high intensity. Practising yoga, T’ai Chi, Pilates or meditation are all great for calming the mind and body and enhancing sleep. Yoga and meditation are both scientifically proven to improve sleep and reduce stress levels; for more information on the benefits of meditation click here.
Establishing a routine is the key to work with your body’s inbuilt body clock, so aim to go to bed and wake up at fairly consistent times as often as possible. Try to be in bed before 11pm, as late-hour sleep is not as beneficial as earlier sleep, and start winding down an hour before this.
Make the bedroom as restful and comfortable as possible; it should be dark, quiet, free from clutter, cool but not cold and somewhere you feel relaxed and cosy. If you live in a noisy city, earplugs and eye masks really help and getting the best bed, duvet and pillows you can are important.
The screens of laptops, tablets and smart phones give off a type of light that ‘tricks’ our brains into thinking its daytime. This results in reduced production of the hormone melatonin. Avoiding exposure to bright light for an hour before bed can really help you drift off more easily. Instead establish a calming bedtime ritual, avoiding all technology and either reading something absorbing, which has been shown to reduce stress levels or have a bath as the change in body temperature helps induce sleep.
Calming Your Mind
Avoid stimulating or stressful activities close to bedtime such as watching the news, studying, high-intensity exercise, checking financial records, video games, difficult conversations and any other stressful situations. If you are anxious about anything or have a to-do list running through your mind, write it down so you can switch off from it for now, and deal with it the next day.
What If I Still Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
For those mornings when you feel tired and low in energy, try a Beauty & Go Vitality drink, which contains energising ingredients for your body, mind and skin. It contains natural stimulants green tea and guarana, Coenzyme Q10 needed for energy production in the body and energising superfood baobab.
2. Shechter A, O’Keeffe M, Roberts AL, Zammit GK, Roychoudhury A, St-Onge MP Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2012 Nov;303(9):R883-9. doi:
Alterations in sleep architecture in response to experimental sleep curtailment are associated with signs of positive energy balance.
3. Burkhardt S, Tan DX, Manchester LC, et al. Detection and quantification of the antioxidant melatonin in Montmorency and Balaton tart cherries (Prunus cerasus). J Agric Food Chem 2001;49:4898-902.
4. Howatson G, Bell PG, Tallent J, et al. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality.Eur J Nutr 2011 Oct 30. [Epub ahead of print].
5. Pigeon WR, Carr M, Gorman C, Perlis ML (2010) Effects of a tart cherry juice beverage on the sleep of older adults with insomnia: a pilot study. J Med Food 13:579-583.