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Ask Elsa: 15/08/2011

Q I have difficulty getting to sleep at night and wonder would changing my diet help at all. Is there any truth in the old wives' tale of having a cup of warm milk before bed?

A If you have difficulty sleeping, it could be due to a variety of reasons. One could be that your body is not producing enough serotonin or melatonin to get adequate sleep. Certain foods stimulate the production of these chemicals, which help the mind and body relax and get to sleep. Along with establishing a good sleep routine, eating foods rich in tryptophan or melatonin close to bedtime may help you get to sleep more quickly and stay asleep longer.

Cherries are one of the only food sources of melatonin, a hormone with antioxidant properties that helps regulate our internal body clock and sleep. Try eating a handful of cherries one hour before bed.

Dairy products such as yogurt, milk, and cottage cheese contain the amino acid tryptophan, which helps the body produce serotonin and melatonin. So yes, there is some logic behind that old wives' tale. Try eating some natural yogurt or a glass of warm milk an hour before bedtime.

You can make the tryptophan in dairy products more available to your brain by pairing them with a complex carbohydrate such as oats. An example of a good bedtime snack would be two oat cakes with cottage cheese or a glass of warm milk with a couple of oat cakes.

It's vital to avoid caffeine and to limit alcohol as both interfere with our sleep cycles significantly.

Q I keep hearing about the health benefits of chick peas but I haven't got a clue how to cook with them. Could you suggest a simple but tasty dish to get me started.

A Yes, you're right, chick peas are packed with nutrients and fibre and are associated with cholesterol reduction as well as hormone balance. Below is a recipe for a chick pea curry that you can make in 20 minutes.

Heat one tbsp of olive oil in a frying pan. Fry one chopped onion and red pepper for two minutes. Add two crushed garlic cloves, one tsp of curry powder, one tsp of cumin, one tsp of ground ginger and cook for another few minutes. Add one can of organic chick peas and stir through. Then add one pint of vegetable stock, two tbsp of tomato puree and some seasoning. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes.

Serve with wholegrain basmati rice sprinkled with fresh coriander. If you'd like to add more vegetables, there are certain ones that work particularly well, such as diced carrot, celery, tomato or spinach.

Elsa Jones is a nutritional therapist and presenter of How Healthy are You? on TV3. She offers one-to-one consultations to meet your individual health needs. Visit www.elsajones nutrition.ie