I watched a great interview recently with Adriana Huffington, the founder of the 'Huffington Post'. One of the subjects she is passionate about is the importance of getting enough good quality sleep. In today's fast-paced culture, functioning on a few hours is applauded when, in fact, we are really doing serious damage to our health.
Not getting enough sleep is linked with increased insulin resistance and weight gain as our blood sugar levels go haywire. This is a precursor to Type 2 Diabetes and really should be taken seriously. Insufficient sleep also causes excessive hunger as brain chemicals like grelin go bonkers. So it is a double whammy for weight gain and our poor pancreas.
For every insomniac out there, you'll know the pain of waking up in the early hours of the morning, heart and mind racing, unable to get back to sleep. There are a number of things you can do, such as having your last tea or coffee six hours before you wish to retire. Not drinking alcohol can also help as it is a central nervous system depressant and stimulant.
And what you eat in the hours before you go to sleep can really help. Certain foods influence sleepy time brain chemicals, relax your muscles and balance blood sugar.
Almonds are an excellent bedtime snack. They contain magnesium, which promotes both sleep and muscle relaxation. And they have the added benefit of supplying proteins that can help maintain a stable blood sugar level while sleeping, and help promote sleep by switching you from your alert adrenaline cycle to your rest-and-digest cycle. Have a tablespoon of almond butter or a 25g portion of almonds to help your body relax before bedtime.
Tea and coffee are to be strictly avoided before bedtime but there are many tried and trusted herbal teas that will gently aid sleep. Camomile tea is a very helpful and safe sleep aid that has been used for centuries. Sip on two to three cups in the hours leading up to bedtime. Valerian, hops and passionflower teas are other relaxing teas that may prove beneficial.
Miso soup is a traditional Japanese soup made with a paste from fermented soy beans. It has a delicious savoury taste and can be mixed with other things. Buy the sachets of dried miso soup or the jars of paste from health shops.
Simply mix with boiling water for a quick savoury snack. Miso contains amino acids that may boost the production of melatonin, a natural hormone that can help induce the yawns. Research shows that warm liquids like soup and tea may also relieve cold symptoms, helping you sleep better when you're feeling under the weather.
Bananas are one of the number one nutritional remedies for a better night's sleep. They are an excellent source of magnesium and potassium, which help to relax overstressed muscles. They also contain tryptophan, which convert to serotonin and melatonin, the brain's key calming hormones.
You can just munch on a banana but why not try a smoothie and combine a few lullaby foods in one? In a blender or smoothie, blitz up one banana, a cup of milk and a tablespoon of almond or walnut butter. Absolutely delicious and far healthier than a naughty sweet treat.
Forget about the old wives' tale of cheese giving you nightmares. Yogurt, milk and cheese all contain tryptophan, but also have a surprising sleep-inducing nutrient:calcium. Calcium is effective in stress reduction and stabilisation of nerve fibres, including those in the brain. That means a serving of your favourite Greek yogurt before bed or a mug of warm milk can not only help you sleep, but also help you stop worrying about the many stresses in your life. Many menopausal women find calcium before bed particularly helpful to calm restless leg syndrome.
You eat it for breakfast, but a bowl of warm oats porridge could be the ideal bedtime snack. Oats porridge is warm, soft, soothing, easy to prepare, inexpensive and nourishing. It's rich in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, silicon and potassium – all effective nutrients known to support sleep. But go easy on the sweeteners; too much sugar before bed can have an anti-calming effect. Instead, consider topping your bowl with fruit, like bananas.
If you have trouble staying asleep at night, it may be because you didn't eat a pre-bedtime snack high in protein, or perhaps your snack was too high in simple, high-sugar carbohydrates, like chocolate or biscuits. The problem with simple carbs is that they can put you on a 'sugar rollercoaster' and drop your blood sugar while you're sleeping, causing you to wake at two or three in the morning. Eat an egg, cheese, nuts or other protein-rich snack instead so you can not only fall asleep, but stay asleep. I keep a few hard-boiled, shelled eggs in the fridge which are ideal as a snack with a low fat Marie Rose sauce to dip them in.
Sometimes we want something salty, not sweet, before bed. Check out lightly salted edamame beans as an option – especially if you're dealing with menopause-related symptoms. The natural oestrogen-like compounds found in soy-based products can be very beneficial in controlling those night-time hot flashes that can disturb your sleep.
If it's crackers and dip you're craving, try making this easy edamame recipe: In a food processor, blend together two cups of shelled, cooked edamame with 1 tsp salt, a drizzle of olive oil and one clove of garlic. You can find frozen edamame beans in many supermarkets, ideal for snacking.
A salad with dinner could speed up your bedtime since lettuce contains lactucarium, which has sedative properties and affects the brain similarly to opium.
You can also try making lettuce tea, an age-old remedy. Simmer three to four large lettuce leaves in a cup of water for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, add two sprigs of mint, and sip just before you go to bed. Another option is to juice lettuce with other fresh favourites such as carrots, cucumbers, apples and pears.
Walnuts are a good source of tryptophan, a sleep-enhancing amino acid that helps make serotonin and melatonin, the 'body clock' hormone that sets your sleep-wake cycles. Additionally, University of Texas researchers found that walnuts contain their own source of melatonin, which may help you fall asleep faster.
Enjoy a small handful of walnuts or try walnut butter, one of my favourite staples to add to smoothies or spread on brown toast.
Turkey does have the makings of a natural sedative in it – tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning that the body can't manufacture it. The body has to get tryptophan and other essential amino acids from food.
Tryptophan helps the body produce the B-vitamin niacin, which, in turn, helps the body produce serotonin, a remarkable chemical that acts as a calming agent in the brain and plays a key role in sleep. So think turkey mince for your bolognese sauce or turkey breast instead of chicken.
All recipes taken from 'Delish and Relish BBQ Cookbooks' by Rozanne Stevens. Log onto www.rozannestevens.com for healthy cooking courses and book orders.