Why does some food and drink make you sleepy while others give you an energy boost? We asked expert nutritionists for advice on what you need to eat for a better night’s sleep.
A good night’s sleep may be the single most important thing you can do for your health. It can contribute to making you feel better, happier and slimmer — even smarter — and can raise your immune system to ward off disease. And how well you sleep is affected by what you eat. Here we look at how certain foods can help change your brain chemistry, boost your mood and regulate your sleep.
When to eat before bed
We might think that brain foods, such as green vegetables, fatty fish and berries, only have an impact in the longer term, but in fact they can be energising, or even calming, while also nourishing the mind. “The key is striking a balance between those foods that can help to keep you alert, such as dark chocolate, which contains caffeine, and those that soothe,” says Sana Khan, nutritionist founder of Avicenna Wellbeing. “So be selective before bedtime. The ideal time for supper depends on your lifestyle, but for the majority of people, 6-7pm is a good time for dinner followed by a healthy snack, such as a few spoonfuls of cottage cheese, around 9pm. This will help to support your blood-sugar levels through the night, which will have a positive impact on cognitive function and mood.”
Get a melatonin fix in the evenings
“Tryptophan converts the happy hormone (serotonin) into the sleep hormone (melatonin), which may help you to drift off more easily,” says nutritionist Jenna Hope. “Turkey, chickpeas, banana, cottage cheese and milk are just a few examples [of food high in tryptophan].”
Carbs before bed are allowed
“Complex carbohydrates can contribute to the production of melatonin, as can some fruits, such as pineapple,” says Jenna. “Incorporating more of these foods into your diet before your head hits the pillow may help your ability to fall asleep.” A serving of pineapple oatmeal fits the bill nicely.
“A starchy evening meal of rice, pasta, potatoes or bread can promote a good night’s sleep, as it seems to elicit the sleepy response,” adds dietitian Jane Clarke. “You could try a simple pasta dish, or fish pie topped with broccoli mash.”
Avoid caffeine and refined sugar
Jane advises that we should also consider how the food and drink we choose may impact our mood. “Dehydration, plus too much caffeine and sugar, can cause us to feel jittery or give us an energy high followed by a crash,” she says. “However, try not to turn to sweets, cakes and chocolates as they’re full of refined sugar. It’s better to have a fruit-based sweet fix, such as a few dates. The fibre in them slows the absorption of sugar into the body so you feel less wired after eating.”
Have a bedtime tea to help you sleep
Don’t like eating close to bedtime? “You may find that switching to calming chamomile or lemon-balm tea after 4pm can help you unwind,” says Jane. “Before bed, opt for more traditionally sedative brews, such as blue vervain, valerian and hops.” Jenna suggests a glass of tryptophan-rich warm milk with cocoa powder stirred through, while Sana points out that amino acids such as L-theanine, commonly found in tea leaves, can instil a sense of calm.
Eat foods rich in magnesium
“Magnesium may help relax the mind,” says Jenna. “Green leafy vegetables, beans and nuts are all great sources.” In addition, you could have an Epsom salts bath. “These salts contain magnesium, which is absorbed straight through the skin and into the bloodstream.”
Herbs that help sleep
“I’m seeing a rise in the use of adaptogens — herbs that can support the body’s natural ability to deal with stress — like ashwagandha,” says Sana. Buy it in powder form and add it to smoothies, juices and yoghurt.