We, as human beings, are designed to switch off in order to rest the mind and repair the body.
Chronic sleep loss is one of the most common modifiable health risks in today's society. Lack of sleep impacts performance, attention, long-term memory, and encourages drug and alcohol use. The brain becomes impaired by sleep deprivation, leaving us feeling tired, but wired. This leads to exhaustion, anxiety, weight gain, increases risk-taking, high blood pressure, lower immunity, and stress. Understanding of this is still emerging, the reasons are complex but are becoming clearer.
The notion that cheese can give you nightmares used to be bandied around, but is unproven. The truth is that dairy products provide the body with magnesium and tryptophan which when released into the brain produce serotonin, the serenity-boosting neurotransmitter. Warm milk seems to do something psychologically that induces a calm state. Having a glass of warm milk in the evening can be very comforting and may relax you and make you sleepy and calm. This may be just a placebo effect, but when it works it's powerful. Interesting new research coming from South Korea and Germany has found that cows who are milked at night produce milk that has substantially more melatonin than regular milk. These cows are fed on a diet rich in lucerne and alfalfa, which encourages melatonin production and are high in the amino-acid tryptophan. Scientists have demonstrated that this nocturnal or night milk - but not day milk - produces sedative and anxiety-inhibiting effects. This research is promising, and this special milk is available in Germany and the UK only at the moment.
One area that is now better understood is the role that sleep plays in weight maintenance and the prevention of weight gain. Appetite is controlled by the brain. There is a body clock in the brain called the circadian rhythm, which regulates hunger and satiety hormones. This system is very delicate and requires routine to maintain optimal functioning. It can easily be disrupted by physical and emotional stress and lack of sleep. Desire to eat or not, is primarily regulated by the hormone ghrelin (which stimulates appetite) and leptin (which suppresses appetite). Research has found that sleep restriction has the capacity to stimulate ghrelin secretion and suppress leptin secretion. In other words, sleep restriction has the capacity to alter these hormones in a way that can stimulate appetite. The crux of the matter is that if you haven't slept properly, you eat more the next day to keep going.
Regular meal times
Falling asleep at night is all about feeling comfortable and relaxed. If we eat late in the evening, the body remains very active for the following three to four hours digesting food. This interferes with sleep quality and rest. Studies have shown that eating late leaves the digestive system sluggish the following day. It also affects appetite the following morning, and we are less likely to want to eat a breakfast. This type of nocturnal eating pattern is not healthy. Hormones and enzymes facilitate the digestion and absorption of our food. Digestion is affected by the circadian rhythm and works best early in the day. To achieve optimal digestion, it is advisable to stop eating at 7.30 each evening. This allows the body sufficient time to absorb nutrients before you sleep. If you leave a 12-hour gap between dinner and breakfast, you are allowing the body to rest and support it's natural rhythm.
Although alcohol will make you drowsy, the effect is short lived and you will often wake up several hours later unable to fall back asleep. Alcohol will also keep you from entering the deeper stages of sleep where your body does most of its healing. Alcohol enters the bloodstream and it is detoxified through the liver. One unit is processed per hour, so depending on the amount of alcohol consumed, the body can be processing it for many hours during the night. The circadian rhythm is particularly sensitive to alcohol. Excess consumption lowers blood sugars and stimulates appetite the next day. Studies have shown that excess alcohol substantially increases food consumption for the following 12-24 hours.
Caffeine is a stimulant which makes us more alert. It induces the production of adrenaline which is a stress hormone. Like all substances that enter the body, it must be metabolised by the liver. Many of us have an inability to metabolise it efficiently, leaving us feeling its effects long after its consumption. Studies have shown that some people have a fault on a specific gene which inhibits the breakdown of caffeine in the body. So, for many, an afternoon cup of coffee may prevent a good night's sleep. Chocolate, energy drinks, diet pills and cola drinks are all sources of caffeine. To get a good night's sleep, caffeinated products should be avoided after lunchtime.
L-theanine and GABA
Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is an amino acid. It plays a huge role in the central nervous system, calming us down and helping us relax into sleep. Optimum levels of GABA in the brain leads to feelings of calmness and relaxation. L-theanine is an amino acid found in the tea plant Camellia sinesis. L-theanine increases levels of GABA and may reduce the effects of mental and physical stress and produce feelings of relaxation. Green tea and oolong teas are known for their ability to increase GABA. Both of these teas contain caffeine so should not be consumed late in the evening but drinking them during the day is advisable. The tea known to have the most relaxing effect is a herbal tea called chamomile. This herb is known to promote rest and a sense of calm. Drinking chamomile tea is associated with the production of glycine, an amino acid that relaxes nerves and muscles and acts like a mild sedative.
Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine found that people who slept less than six hours a night had blood sugar problems compared to those who got eight hours. Sleep can affect your blood sugar levels, and your blood glucose control can also affect your sleep. It's a vicious cycle. As the amount of sleep decreases, blood sugar increases, escalating the issue. Sleep deprivation has also been shown to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Excess cortisol interferes with blood glucose regulation. Excess circulating is associated with weight gain around the middle. Maintaining blood sugar balance during the day is important to prevent dysregulation at night. Aim to consume protein with each meal. The trick is to include a diversity of proteins. Focus on proteins from the plant kingdom, they contain fibre and many of them contain complex carbohydrates that slowly release glucose for energy. Avoid free sugars and processed carbohydrate foods, these foods spike blood sugars and cause them to crash quickly. To sustain glucose levels, choose whole foods that are not adulterated.
Bananas aid sleep
Having a banana after dinner in the evening may increase your chance of a restful slumber. Bananas are nutritional powerhouses and contain sleep-promoting tryptophan, an amino acid that has been linked to sleep quality. Tryptophan, which the brain uses to make serotonin and melatonin hormones, promotes relaxation and supports sleep and wake cycles. The carbohydrates in bananas make tryptophan more available to the brain. They also offer abundant amounts of magnesium and potassium. Both of these minerals help to relax muscles at night.
I see many people who tell me that they suffer with restless legs in bed. Typically, they experience uncomfortable sensations in their legs which may be eased by moving the legs. Often they experience cramping in the calf muscles. There is no known medical reason why this happens, but magnesium supplementation before bed may help to relax the muscles. Hydration has also been shown to help. Ensuring that you are sufficiently hydrated before bed may help ease symptoms. Increasing foods rich in magnesium, such as a glass of warm milk or yoghurt, is also worth a try.