If you’ve ever had a “cheese nightmare” – a vivid dream provoked by eating certain types of rich food – you may have wondered if what you eat and the quality of your sleep are related.
The answer is, absolutely, because the sleeping process and the digestive process both share a common regulator: the circadian system, or your body clock.
The good news is that improving what you eat and when you eat it will have a positive impact on how much restorative beauty sleep you enjoy.
The value of sleep
Good sleep is essentially a transformative experience that not only impacts on the health of your skin, but is increasingly being shown to reduce the risk of a broad range of health problems from depression to colds and flu, says Dr Rubin Naiman, Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine and Behavioural Sleep Specialist at Dr Andrew Weil's University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.
Restorative rest also reduces the levels of cortisol in the body, which is linked to thinning skin, stretch marks and discoloration, and increases the sleep hormone melatonin, a natural antioxidant. A 2012 study by the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in the United States showed poor sleepers had increased signs of skin aging and slower recovery from a variety of environmental stressors, such as ultraviolet radiation.
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And so to bed
Scientists say our sleep-wake system takes its cues to start inducing sleep after we have the last meal of the day and begin our bedtime ritual. Slowly dimming the lights an hour or two before bedtime, to stimulate melatonin; having a warm bath, or unwinding with an inspiring book are all ways to soothe yourself to sleep.
However, eat a heavy, rich meal before you slide between the covers – think pizza, a large steak with potatoes and sour cream, or even a generous serving of fettuccine carbonara – and problems ranging from heartburn to sleep fragmentation can kick in. Eating sugar-rich foods will also cause you to wake up more often because your pancreas has to work double-duty and that can mean interference with sleep. The result: you wake wired and tired.
It’s not only what you eat before bed that makes the difference, either. Research published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2016 suggests a greater intake of saturated fat and lower intake of fibre overall is associated with a lighter sleep. That’s a good reason to base your eating plan on leafy green vegetables, fish, and other lean protein.
A word about alcohol – it may help you to fall asleep but, just like a high-fat meal, it can also disrupt the rejuvenating REM sleep that you need to look and feel good.
The right snack
You probably already know that going to bed hungry can cause almost as much restlessness as late night indulgence in very rich foods. Encourage nourishing rest with a light snack rich in sleep promoters such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium, as well as those containing the amino acid tryptophan, the precursor to feel-good serotonin, which is the precursor to melatonin. Try having a banana, some yoghurt, a handful of cashews or cherries, or a warm nut milk – both almond and cashew milk both contain tryptophan, as does dairy milk.
As for dinner itself, there is some evidence that trying to schedule your carbohydrates – delicious sweet potato or grains (soaked overnight to improve their digestibility) – at the end of the day may also increase sleep quality. That’s because they can increase brain concentrations of tryptophan. Other tryptophan-rich foods include salmon, turkey, chicken, seeds, cheese, eggs, beans and lentils, oats, tofu, shellfish, lamb, beef, pork, and game.
Making sure you get plenty of B vitamins will improve your mood, relieve anxiety, and stimulate the activity of serotonin and melatonin. A balanced diet of green leafy veggies, lean protein (fish, beef, chicken) eggs, beans, dairy (fermented is best for the digestive system), seeds, grains, shellfish, cheese, liver, mushrooms, will ensure you're covering the big family of B's.
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… about that cheese
We weren’t joking about the cheese. A 2005 study by the British Cheese Board found that around 85 percent of women who were given a piece of Stilton before bed reported having super-crazy, vivid dreams. So, while cheese does contain B vitamins and tryptophan, and may be helpful to boost levels of this precursor to the feel-good hormone serotonin and sleep hormone melatonin, it may be worth eating it in the afternoon, not right before bedtime - and perhaps limiting the more exotic choices on the cheeseboard!
What is your daily bedtime ritual?