Almost everyday I get asked: “If I should do just one thing to be healthy, what should it be?” Each month, I send you one of my answers. This month, if you do one thing: SLEEP DEEPLY.
Waking up from a nine-hour sleep is epic. You see the world through different eyes; troubles melt away, productivity soars and skin lightens. It is when we sleep that our body has time to get all the admin done that we don’t get time to do during the day – it’s an essential restorative measure that helps to counteract the negative effects of the busy and stressful modern lifestyle that most of us lead. Not surprising then that when we don’t sleep well we feel like poo.
Thankfully, help is at hand for those struggling to get 40 winks. No surprise that nutrition can do much to help you get to sleep, stay asleep and wake up feeling refreshed. If you have an issue, try these five suggestions.
1. Take Some Magnesium
I know I bang on a lot about magnesium, but it’s for good reason. This nutrient does so much in the body and unfortunately we get through it at a rate of knots when were really busy. Working out also burns up magnesium and so it is pretty common to be deficient, especially if you don’t eat plenty of green leafy veggies, wholegrains, beans, pulses and seeds.
Magnesium is great for relaxing muscles and tension, which can really help you switch off and chill the hell out. Ideal after a stressful day at work or if you are just a bit wound up.
If you struggle with drifting off to sleep owing to an active mind or restlessness, try supplementing 300mg of magnesium an hour or two before bed.
2. Manage Cortisol
Cortisol is a big hitter in the body – it has enormous impacts on the way we function. It’s the hormone responsible for waking us up, keeping us alert, warm and compos-mentis; but it is also the driving force behind our all important ‘fight or flight’ response. Get stressed, and by that I don’t just mean emotionally, but physiologically (tired, hungover, injured, low blood sugar etc) then cortisol is normally being secreted in increased amounts to help get you through. As important as this is, we don’t want too much cortisol floating around before bed as it keeps us awake.
This is a common problem I see with people who are living and working in stressful environments; even if they don’t feel stressed per-se, cortisol can often be raised for other reasons, meaning they either cant drop off to sleep, or wake up at odd times.
To stop cortisol from rising too much later in the day:
- Learn how to deal with stress. I fully realise that is easier said than done.
- Make sure you keep blood sugar balanced by eating often, with low GI carbs and protein rich meals and snacks. Avoid carb-abundant dinners like pasta, risotto, pizza etc.
- Stimulants like caffeine, sugar, sweeteners stimulate your adrenal glands to secrete cortisol and adrenaline so ensure you limit as much as possible and cut out after 4pm.
- Try herbs such as adaptogenic ashwaghanda that have a balancing and restorative effect on the adrenals.
3. Love Herbs
Don’t underestimate herbs – these guys can really lay the smack down when needed; believe me, it’s not just a load of hocus-pocus.
Herbs can help with sleep in a number of ways – quietening a busy mind, relieving anxiety, bringing down cortisol, inducing sleep and preventing wake ups.
Valerian – really good for a racing, worried mind. Valerian is a good sedative, but you won’t have any of the groggy side effects of a regular sleeping pill. Can be drunk as a tea, used as a tincture or capsules.
Hops – Hops is a fast-acting nervine (plant that is beneficial to the nervous system) and sedative, good for anxiety and stress-related illness. Best as a complex with valerian.
Passionflower – Passionflower is wonderful for those who tend to wake frequently throughout the night. It also helps with anxiety during the day. Try capsules or a complex with other sleepy time herbs.
Chamomile – calming for body and mind and induces soporific sensations. Drink as a tea at anytime of the day.
Lavender – Amazingly, lavender has been shown to stimulate relaxation in the brain via the olfactory systems (our smell). Add drops to a bath, mist over pillows etc.
4. Eat Foods Rich in Tryptophan
Our sleep hormone melatonin is made in the brain from combinations of different amino acids that we obtain from dietary protein.
Tryptophan is particularly important for the production of melatonin, as well as serotonin, our happy hormone. Whilst all sources of animal sources of protein will contain some tryptophan, the best way to get it in is in foods that contain it in high amounts. This includes banana, oats, potato, turkey and above all – dairy (possibly the reason for the old wives tale of hot milk before bed).
Go for cottage cheese on oatcakes, or a couple of spoonfuls of natural yoghurt before bed, or have turkey with dinner.
5. Have Acupuncture
Sometimes, you can do all of this and still struggle. Stress, anxiety and an overly active mind can banish sleep and aside from seeing a shrink, it can feel like you are powerless.
My advice in this case is to try acupuncture. The triggering of a certain acupressure points with very fine needles has been scientifically proven to help reduce cortisol, helping to promote relaxation, ease tension and calm a restless mind.
I can personally vouch for this – acupuncture works and can help access the problem on a deeper level. You never know, it might be just the ticket for you.