Getting a good night’s sleep is imperative for optimum health, yet for many of us this isn’t always an easy task. Whilst we may climb into bed exhausted from our busy schedule, it is not uncommon to lay awake unable to nod off. Our hectic lifestyles may well be contributing to our inability to sleep, but if our internal clock malfunctions then sleep will definitely be elusive. This ‘clock’ is regulated by the hormone Melatonin and levels of this hormone increase as light decreases, reaching maximal levels between 2- 4am to produce a natural circadian rhythm that induces us to sleep at night and then awake (refreshed) in the morning. When your body is producing adequate levels of Melatonin you will fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer; anything that disrupts Melatonin production will therefore interfere with this normal sleep-wake cycle.
If you have trouble nodding off at night, there may be some simple changes you can make to both your diet and lifestyle to optimise Melatonin production, therefore helping to improve your natural sleep patterns…
WHAT IS MELATONIN?
Melatonin is a natural hormone made by the body’s pineal gland. This is a pea-sized gland is located just above the middle of the brain. During the day the pineal is inactive; when the sun goes down and darkness occurs, the pineal is “turned on” and begins to actively produce Melatonin, which is released into the blood. Usually, this occurs around 9 pm.
As a result, Melatonin levels in the blood rise sharply and you begin to feel less alert with sleep becoming more inviting. Melatonin levels in the blood stay elevated for about 12 hours – all through the night – before the light of a new day when they fall back to low daytime levels by about 9 am. Daytime levels of Melatonin are barely detectable. Melatonin is also a very powerful antioxidant, protecting us from damaging free radicals produced during stress.
CREATE THE BEST ATMOSPHERE FOR SLEEP
We often think that watching a film in bed is a good way to relax, but any blue emitting devices (this includes phones, tablets, computers and TVs) suppresses Melatonin production by fooling the brain into thinking that it is daytime, therefore making us feel more alert than if we’d been lying in bed. These blue lights send alert signals to the brain which can affect the natural circadian rhythm, so by staying up late working or watching TV will prevent the natural process of Melatonin production.
The best way to encourage Melatonin release at night is to lower the lighting for a while before bedtime (maybe a hot bath to relax) and make sure you sleep in complete darkness. If you do need to get up in the night, try to avoid putting on bright lights as even short periods of exposure to light during the night hours can be disruptive to normal circadian rhythms.
BOOSTING MELATONIN THROUGH DIET
Adequate Melatonin production is dependent upon availability of its precursor Tryptophan, which first converts to 5-HTP then to serotonin (the happy hormone), and finally to Melatonin. Diet can either prevent or optimise both serotonin and Melatonin production. As an essential amino acid, Tryptophan must be supplied by the diet and, if intake is severely restricted, production of Melatonin is significantly reduced.
Ensure your diet is ‘Tryptophan-rich’ by including foods such as turkey, chicken, red meat, cheese and eggs. Whilst animal products are generally the richest source of Tryptophan, there are a number of non-animal sources such as seaweed, soy and dark green vegetables that will provide adequate amounts of Tryptophan.
It is also important to ensure you have enough B6 to also aid in the conversion of Tryptophan through to Melatonin, so up your intake of bok choy, bell peppers, garlic, cauliflower, salmon, sweet potato and bananas. Green vegetables such as spinach and Swiss chard are also rich in magnesium, which is well documented as a relaxant, able to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol which can be extremely beneficial for inducing that calm, sleepy feeling.
WHAT DISRUPTS MELATONIN PRODUCTION?
Alcohol: This is known to disrupt normal sleep patterns and this may be due, in part, to the impact on Melatonin levels. Alcohol causes both a decrease in Tryptophan and blood-glucose levels (both of which are required for Melatonin production) and the consequence is disrupted sleep.
Caffeine: It’s well known that caffeine is a stimulant and can have the opposite effect of Melatonin in your body. Studies show that caffeine at bedtime causes a decrease in the total amount of sleep and quality of sleep, and increases the length of time taken to fall asleep.
Smoking: Nicotine is a potent stimulant which can interfere with the ability for the nervous system to calm down. Smoking also is associated with a disruption of the basic structure of sleep called sleep architecture which is the pattern of sleep stages that occur during the night.
LEARN TO RELAX
Learning how to relax, as a way to reduce stress and anxiety and to promote good sleep, is a key life skill. Relaxation will allow you to release physical and/ or mental tension that has built up. Exploring different relaxation methods can help you look after your well-being when you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed or busy.
By lowering the stress response and turning off the ‘fight or flight’ mode, our bodies will start to relax and unwind so that the blood can move back to our digestive and reproductive organs; our muscles can relax and release tension and our bodies can start to initiate healing and repair – most of which is done whilst we sleep.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The following foods all contain tryptophan, an amino acid which has natural sedative properties and can help regulate sleep cycles:
Tryptophan: Milk, cheese, yogurt, potatoes (with skin on), poultry (darker meat), millet, sunflower seeds, egg white, soy beans, oats, sesame seeds
Sour Cherries: These contain melatonin, a hormone produced in the body which works as part of the sleep/wake cycle. Take as sour cherry juice, add to a smoothie, or cook. Sour cherries can also be sprouted to use in salads and cooking.
Seaweed: Helps fight the effects of stress. Sprinkle onto meals your, eat as sushi, or dried as a snack. Itsu do handy snack packets of seaweed sheets which you can keep in your bag as an on-the-go snack.
Valerian: Valerian is a herb which helps to calm nerves and promote sleep. Ideally this should be taken as a hot tea or herbal tablet before bed.
Magnesium: Magnesium plays a major role in the release of neurotransmitters which affect the discharge of brain chemicals such as a Serotonin which is our ‘feel good’ hormone – this is the precursor to Melatonin. So include Magnesium rich foods in your diet including pumpkin seeds, oats, quinoa, swiss chard, cashews, spinach, dark green leafy greens and almonds
Try the following tips to help you nod off…
Epsom Salt Baths: Epsom salts have a high level of Magnesium which can help to relax the muscles before bed, but having a bath also creates a different focus as it interrupts the normal flow and signals to the body that it is time to change rhythm. Use 600g per bath.
Sleep Routine: Be in bed by 10pm – Sleep taken between the hours of 10pm and 2am doubles its value in terms of quality, relative to that taken after 2am; a reduction in sleep can increase feelings of stress, anger, sadness and exhaustion. Also try to sleep with a window slightly open for air circulation.
Chamomile Tea: Chamomile flowers are known for supporting nerve health and mental alertness, they also aid digestion and support circulation. Two chamomile teabags can also be put in a bath to help calm the system before bed.
Clear Your Mind: Keep a notebook and pen next to your bed. If you’re still wakeful after 15 minutes, write down any thoughts circling your mind. Writing down thoughts can help clear your mind, leaving you more readily able to embrace sleep. Always stick to the same bedtime routine, no matter how little you’ve slept. Trying to catch up on sleep at weekends doesn’t help in the long run. Going to bed and rising at regular times each day is more likely to help re-establish good sleep patterns.
Essential Oils: Lavender is an age old sleep remedy and one that’s been shown to improve sleep quality by up to 20%. Placing a lavender scented sachet under your pillow or spraying lavender oil around your room works well. Also try sprinkling a few drops of lavender oil in an oil burner to diffuse the droplets even further
Binaural Beats: Binaural beats can be used to induce relaxation and promote a feeling of wellness. You can use them for sound therapy while you sleep, when you’re awake and needing more energy. DELTA waves are less than 4 Hz; and promote deep, dreamless sleep. THETA waves can also be used.
Salt Lamps: Think about investing in a Himalayan Salt lamp – these are natural negative ion generators which can help to increase oxygen supply in your room and provide more oxygen to your brain. They also emit a warm, light which will help you to relax in the evenings.