Sleep is one of the most essential parts of our daily lives. A good night’s sleep is critical to our health, giving our bodies time to rest, repair and rebuild. A lack of sleep can impact not just your mood, but also your motor skills, exercise performance and immune system.
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But even though sleep is so important, many of us seem willing to do a lot that counteracts our ability to catch some quality ZZZs. “Sleep has become a cultural sacrificial lamb,” says wellness expert Michael Roizen, MD. “We’d rather work late, binge TV or stalk social media. Our bodies just cannot shut down, or health problems make it hard to fall or stay asleep.”
What may surprise you, though, is how much food factors into getting decent sleep. “Food relates directly to serotonin, a key hormone that — along with vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid — helps promote healthy sleep,” says dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD.
It’s important to understand how poor sleep affects your health — and how a good diet can help.
Dr. Roizen doesn’t take a lack of sleep lightly. He says people don’t put lack of sleep in the same category as cigarettes or obesity because fatigue is more of a behind-the-scenes health threat — one that has a steady, creeping effect on our bodies. But the risks associated with lack of sleep are big.
Here’s how it works: While you’re sleeping, your body and brain cycle through various stages — ranging from light sleep to deep sleep — several times a night. Aside from dreaming, you’re not aware of all this activity going on. That’s perhaps one of the reasons people don’t give sleep as much attention as they should: They don’t feel anything the way they “feel” exercise or a change in eating habits.
But you shouldn’t simply dismiss the importance of a good night’s rest. When you fall asleep, your body’s cells start their work. “Think of the inside of your body as a big factory of shift workers,” Dr. Roizen says. “Cells clock in when you shut down. All day long, your body — at work, during exercise, while you’re going about your day — has been put through a series of cellular stresses.”
To maintain itself and recover from these cellular insults, your body needs a repair crew. Enter your shift workers. While you’re sleeping, they’re repairing your muscles, growing and strengthening neurons in your brain, and fortifying your body’s damaged cells, he explains. These cells can’t do their jobs optimally unless your body is shut down and in deep sleep.
If you don’t give these cellular fixers enough time to work, your body never gets fully repaired, leaving you a bit more vulnerable and a lot less healthy. In practical terms, Dr. Roizen says lack of sleep can contribute to immune problems, memory issues, higher stress levels and even obesity. Because your brain never fully rids of its waste products (the “poop” from your brain cells is removed at night, and is done more efficiently the longer you sleep), you can develop inflammation in your memory centers, as well.
One of the worst effects a lack of sleep causes is a high inflammatory response, which is your body’s way of fighting problems. If your body never shuts down for rest, that response remains at high levels and that, Dr. Roizen says, leads to a sort of friendly fire within the body. Your attacking immune cells begin to damage the healthy ones, putting you at an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.
“These bodily damages work in various ways,” Dr. Roizen says. “But if you think about your body’s function as a massive game of dominoes, you can see how it plays out. When you don’t get enough sleep, you feel fatigued. When you feel fatigued, your body wants to raise energy levels, so it reaches for the fastest solution: sugar. When you reach for sugar, you gobble up stacks of cookies. And when you do that day after day after day, you gain a lot of weight.”
Like many other health issues, Dr. Roizen emphasizes that sleep is one in which you may need to consider lifestyle and medical tactics to determine what’ll work best for you. But you can also use food and nutrients to ease into some possible solutions to help change your verbs from “tossing and turning” to “sweet dreaming” — as long as that sweet dreaming doesn’t actually include sweets.
So, what foods can help you maintain good, healthy sleep to allow your body to rest and recharge? “Try to consume foods that calm the body, increase serotonin levels and get you ready for restful sleep,” says Kirkpatrick.
And while there are no magic sleep-inducing foods that immediately induce drowsiness, research shows that having meals high in fiber and low in saturated fat and simple carbs (sugar) should help. In fact, a study in The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that eating high-fiber, low-saturated-fat meals leads to deeper, more restorative sleep.
Ready to eat right for good sleep? Here are six food choices to get you started on the path to slumber.
Embrace whole-grain bread, cereals, pasta, crackers and brown rice. Avoid simple carbohydrates, including bread, pasta and sweets such as cookies, cakes, pastries and other sugary foods. These tend to reduce serotonin levels and do not promote sleep.
Lean proteins include low-fat cheese, chicken, turkey and fish. These foods are high in the amino acid tryptophan, which tends to increase serotonin levels. Tryptophan can also be found in egg whites, soybeans and pumpkin seeds. On the flip side, avoid high-fat cheeses, chicken wings or deep-fried fish. These take longer to digest and can keep you awake.
Unsaturated fats will not only boost your heart health, but will also improve your serotonin levels. Examples include peanut butter (read the label to make sure peanuts are the only ingredient) and nuts such as walnuts, almonds, cashews and pistachios. Avoid foods with saturated and trans fats, like french fries, potato chips or other high-fat snack foods. These bring your serotonin levels down.
Like tryptophan, the nutrient magnesium is also associated with better quality of sleep. When selecting your dinner vegetable, try adding a leafy green like spinach, which is high in magnesium. Nuts, seeds, avocados and black beans are also magnesium-rich foods.
Certain drinks can promote or prevent sleep. A good, soothing beverage to drink before bedtime would be warm milk (your mother was right) or herbal tea such as chamomile or peppermint. As for caffeinated drinks, Kirkpatrick recommends that if you have difficulty sleeping, try consuming your last cup by 2 p.m. Caffeine can affect people differently, and even the smallest amount of stimulant can keep you awake.
Fresh herbs can have a calming effect on your body. For example, sage and basil contain chemicals that reduce tension and promote sleep. Try making homemade pasta sauce with sage and basil. It’s easy to do, and homemade sauces tend to be lower in sugar than store-bought versions. However, avoid herbs such as red pepper or black pepper at night, as they have a stimulatory effect.
Try some of these snacks to reduce your tossing and turning when you hit the pillow:
As always, snack in moderation and be sure to consult your healthcare provider for any ongoing sleep issues that don’t resolve within a few days.