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Eat for better sleep.

Eat for better sleep.

No doubt you know the saying, ‘You are what you eat’. Just as you know that proper nutrition is important for proper health. You may be less aware however, of the role nutrition plays in your sleep. If so, read on.

We’ll avoid the obvious ‘what not to eats’, we presume you’re aware of the foods and drinks that upset your stomach and keep you awake.

Let’s instead talk about the ‘good sleep foods’. Those that help decrease cortisol the stress hormone and increase the production of sleep-friendly hormones like serotonin and melatonin.

Now, while our clever body is able to convert the foods we eat into many valuable fuels, it cannot produce tryptophan, an essential amino acid important for the development and functioning of many organs and used to produce serotonin and its product, melatonin. So, we need to eat it.

If you know the word tryptophan, it’s probably in relation to turkey, and aligned with falling asleep on a sofa thanksgiving afternoon. While turkey does contain tryptophan, there are many other good foods that contain more of it. Think chicken and fish, pork chops, egg-whites, parmesan cheese, sesame seeds, soybeans.

It’s best to eat tryptophan-rich foods during the day, as proteins take longer to digest. It also helps with the next point. For tryptophan to be used effectively, it must pass through the blood/circulatory system into the brain. Unfortunately, tryptophan is like a group of nerdy weaklings trying to get past the bouncers at a nightclub. Few make it. But, pair them up with complex carbohydrates (think celebrities), and they have a much better chance. Oatmeal, pumpkin, sweet potato, banana, brown rice, etc at dinner or as a snack are perfect for this job.

Now, while we’re discussing carbohydrates, a word of caution. All carbs are not created equal. And are certainly not equally good for you. A diet too high in carbohydrates (the non-complex kind), can negatively affect blood sugar levels. And conversely, a diet too low in complex fats won’t help either. The University health News puts it beautifully: “ Fats are like the big log that can sustain a fire for hours, whereas carbohydrates are like kindling, which burn quickly. A diet that includes ample natural fats (think avocado, coconut oil, grass fed butter, omega 3’s from fish - no processed vegetable oils or hydrogenated fats) will keep low blood sugar symptoms at bay so you can sleep through the night.

Finally, lets talk the big C: cortisol. It’s a stress hormone, made by the adrenal glands (small things just on top of our kidneys), that perform an important function every morning; as melatonin production stops, cortisol kicks in to wake us up and get us going. But cortisol is also produced when we are stressed, which unless we are being chased by a madman and need to run, it’s not that helpful. Among other issues, cortisol keeps us awake.

What we eat, can help. Magnesium & calcium-rich foods for instance. Magnesium helps decrease cortisol and also helps muscles relax. Calcium is directly related to our cycles of sleep. (A deficiency can cause disrupted sleep.) Calcuim also helps the brain use tryptophan to manufacture melatonin. (*Btw, you need twice as much calcium as magnesium if you’re taking a supplement, so read the labels.) Try eating almonds, spinach, quinoa, cashews, black beans, etc. Omega-3 fatty acids, think wild salmon, will help reduce cortisol levels. And citrus fruits, especially Kiwi’s (high in serotonin), and dark chocolate can slow cortisol production.

Lastly, there’s a secret sleep ingredient few know about. Cherries. “When consumed regularly, tart cherries can help regulate the body’s natural sleep cycle and increase sleep efficiency, including decreasing the time it takes to fall asleep,” says Russel J. Reiter, PhD, one of the world’s leading authorities on melatonin.

Indeed, drinking tart cherry juice twice a day was shown to help people sleep 90 more minutes a night. (If you try this, use the unsweetened organic variety.) But if you’re not into tart cherries, try orange bell peppers, flax seeds, raspberries and goji berries (lycium berries).

Sleep well now!