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Eat for Better Sleep

Nearly everyone has suffered from poor sleep (it’s not fun). Let’s talk about diet and lifestyle factors that will help you achieve quality slumber.

August 20, 2014

Establishing proper sleeping patterns is one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves. Sleep allows our bodies to relax and repair, preparing us to be at our best in life. Perhaps you have difficulty falling and/or staying asleep at night. Perhaps you get what should be plenty of sleep but still feel groggy during the day. You don’t have to trudge through life half-awake. Let’s talk about:

  • Side Effects of Poor Sleeping Habits
  • Habits that Counteract Sleep
  • Food and Drink for Better Sleep
  • A Nighttime Routine for Better Sleep

Side Effects of Poor Sleeping Habits

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1. Fatigue

This one’s obvious. Deprived of quality sleep you’re tired, cranky and unable to cope with the day. People notice.

2. Premature Ageing

During sleep, our bodies concentrate on renewing cells. That’s the reason well-rested people look fresh-faced and tired people look haggard.

3. Weight Gain

During sleep our bodies produce certain hormones, notably ghrelin and leptin, which control feelings of appetite and satiation. Without proper sleep you’ll feel hungrier and require more food to feel full.

4. Suppressed Immune System

Restful sleep is all about healing. When our bodies don’t have a chance to repair, we weaken ourselves and our body’s resistance to illness.

5. Stress Overload

Sleep keeps the body’s levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in check. Unfortunately, high cortisol levels can induce insomnia or make us feel tired even when we’ve had plenty of sleep. To treat excessive cortisol, implement stress management techniques throughout your day. We’ll talk more about this in a bit.

Habits that Counteract Sleep

1. Eating too close to bedtime

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The process of digestion can interrupt sleep. If our bodies are in the midst of breaking down food and assimilating nutrients, they can’t fully relax. Plus, digestive work becomes even harder for the body when lying down (the position most people assume for sleep).  Aim to have dinner completed at least 3 hours before crawling into bed. Dinners which are excessively heavy or spicy can keep slumber at bay as well.

2. Caffeine late in the day

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Caffeine stays in our bodies long after that cup of coffee has been consumed. Restrict caffeinated beverages to before 3 pm. Sound torturous? Fear not, once you’ve established a healthy sleep cycle, an afternoon pick-me-up won’t be needed. It may be caffeine that’s prohibiting restful sleep (thus necessitating the need for more caffeine) in the first place. This is what we call a vicious cycle.

3. Technology

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You’re probably aware of this: the light from t.v. screens, computers, and cellphones triggers the brain into full alertness. Bright houselights can do the same. Dim the lights (candlelight is great) and shut down all noisy and bright electronics at least one hour before bedtime.

4. Alcohol

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At first, it seems to work in your favor as you fall asleep quickly after a glass of wine. Staying asleep is a different story. Our bodies don’t like the dehydrating effects of metabolizing alcohol at night. Finish your drink well before bedtime, always drink in moderation, and make alcohol an occasional treat.

4. Poor Diet

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Practically every ailment is rooted in or encouraged by poor nutrition. Same goes for improper sleep. Is your diet full of refined sugar, refined starches, poor-quality animal protein and rancid fats? Might be time to try a whole foods plant based cleanse.

5. Stress

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This one is the trickiest to deal with since it requires lifestyle and psychological changes. Eating more of the foods I’ve listed below and avoiding the habits which counteract sleep will put you on a path of healing. However, if racing thoughts filled with dread and worry about the future keep you up at night, it’s time to confront the cause(s) of your stress. Then it’s time to try some stress management techniques such as yoga, massage, meditation, or simply sitting with your eyes closed and taking a few deep breaths. Then, devise a pre-bed relaxation routine that works for you. I’ve outlined an example of one at the end of this post.

Food and Drink for Better Sleep

1. Almonds

Eat for Better Sleep (9)Almonds contain magnesium which helps your muscles relax and prepare for rest. An Ayurvedic treatment for insomnia is to drink a soothing cup of warm almond milk spiced with a little cinnamon just before bedtime.


2. Whole Grains

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Whole grains contain B vitamins which produce neurotransmitters, particularly GABA. These signal to the body that all is well and allow us to become calm and drift into sleep. Healthy neurotransmitters establish a proper sleep-wake cycle. So don’t worry, that bowl of porridge in the morning won’t make you drowsy right away! You won’t notice its effects until nighttime, when it’s time to sleep. Look here for a guide to whole grains.

3. Tart Cherries

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Tart (or sour) cherries are one of the only food sources of melatonin, a hormone essential for sleep. Take note if you’re prone to waking numerous times during the night, tart cherries can help you stay asleep longer. The two major varieties of tart cherries are the dark red morello and the lighter red amarelle. When fresh tart cherries aren’t in season, source them dried (and unsweetened) or as juice. Most health food shops carry concentrated tart cherry juice with no added ingredients. Dilute this juice in room temperature or warm water to sip on before crawling into bed.

4. Bananas

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Bananas contain the amino acid tryptophan which serves as a building block of melatonin and serotonin, hormones which respectively induce sleep and happiness. Bananas are also a great source of magnesium and potassium which allow our muscles to relax. Only buy fair-trade bananas to ensure the harvesters aren’t subjected to unnecessarily dangerous conditions.

5. Chickpeas

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This legume contains folate, which regulates sleep patterns, and vitamin B6, which oversees the body’s internal clock. Besides their benefits for sleep, chickpeas are also great for the blood due to their iron content. Compliment your chickpea dish with vitamin C (think parsley and lemon juice) to encourage maximum absorption of this mineral.

6. Mushrooms

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Ancient Chinese Medicine turns to mushrooms to settle the nervous system, soothe the spirit and calm the mind. Ignore the flavorless and nutrient-deficient white button mushrooms in favor of crimini, shiitake, oyster, maitake, portabello, chanterelle…Make a nourishing and sleep-promoting broth by steeping dried mushrooms in simmering water for 30 minutes. Strain, season, slurp.

7. Chia Seeds

Eat for Better Sleep (15)Chia seeds, rich in protein, fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids, have a calming effect on the nervous system which helps treat insomnia. Soaking them for a few hours before consuming makes them more hydrating. Try chia seed pudding as a breakfast, snack or dessert.

8. Herbal Tea

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Several varieties of herbal tea calm racing thoughts, relieve stress and promote sleep. Some of the best for doing this are tulsi holy basil (long revered in India), lemon balm, chamomile and lavender. Whichever you choose, make sure the only ingredients in the tea are herbs, leaves and flowers. Many companies like to slip misleading “natural flavors” into their blends, industrial nomenclature for chemicals. Organic and fair-trade varieties are preferable to conventional teas. When purchasing bagged tea, it’s worth seeking out non-GMO certified brands to ensure the packaging isn’t made from genetically modified corn or soy. Besides the soothing effects of its ingredients, there is something relaxing about the ritual of sitting down with an aromatic cup of tea just before bed. This alone prepares the body for sleep.

A Nighttime Routine for Restful Sleep

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One of my instructors from the Natural Gourmet Institute suggested the following routine to a student who struggled to sleep every night. After finishing a light supper, make yourself a cup of herbal tea and enjoy it in your candlelit bedroom. Listening to soft, ambient music is optional. Soak your feet in a warm foot bath scented with calming essential oils like lavender or sandalwood. Drape a moist, heated rolled towel scented with the same oil around your shoulders. It’s even better if there’s someone handy to rub your shoulders and then your feet after they’ve soaked. Finish your tea in bed while reading a book, then lights out. Aim to go to bed and wake-up around the same time every night and day. Makes me sleepy just writing about it.

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