If Disney taught me one thing, it was this; Sleeping Beauty was onto something!
We all know what we feel like when we don’t get enough rest; it feels like it’s harder to do everything. We hinder our work performance, finding the strength to do physical activity can be that much more difficult, and we’re more likely to get run-down and feel aches and pains feel or sniffles coming along.
We all know we need sleep, so if it has become a problem for you, maybe now is a good time to prioritise it. Rest is a massive piece in the puzzle of health and is vital for our brains, immune system, digestive system and ability to function as a human being.
Sleep gives us a chance to recover, rebalance and reset for a new day. Sleeping is also essential for brain health, allowing our neural networks to slow down and go back to baseline each night, so we don’t get overloaded and overwhelmed in the morning. On top of this, research is now suggesting that sleep can impact our mood, with sleep deprivation amplifying our response to negative emotional stimuli. So, when you lack sleep, your reactions to situations may differ significantly to when you’re well-rested.
Sleep is also essential for regulating our metabolism, particularly with the hormones that control our appetite, leptin (the hormone that signals satiety) and ghrelin (the hormone that increases hunger that is produced and released mainly by the stomach with small amounts also released by the small intestine, pancreas and brain). Sleep helps suppress ghrelin and stimulate leptin. Without sleep, these can reverse, which is why we’re likely to grab a chocolate bar mid-morning after not getting enough sleep!
Before we dive into specific foods, I'd love to touch on the importance of sleep hygiene; the things you can do daily to improve your sleep. I hope that these tips help you.
My essentials for sleep include:
- Create a sleep schedule. I recommend going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. We want to be getting at least 8 hours of sleep per night.
- Help your body wind down, switch off cortisol and retire for the day with a calming night-time routine. Try out a warm bath or shower, a delicious candle, writing or drawing in a journal, meditating or deep breathing, a relaxing self massage for the tummy, listening to relaxing music, chatting to your loved ones or reading a book.
- Watch your stimulant intake. Consider your consumption of caffeine, alcohol and refined sugar, especially in the latter part of the day. It’s said that two glasses of wine before bed can negatively impact sleep by up to 40%!
- Your room should be your sanctuary. Let me repeat that: your bedroom should be your sanctuary. Stop doing work on your bed! Before bed, your room should be pitch black, at a cool temperature and as quiet as possible.
- Avoid foods that are super spicy and rich, overly fatty and stimulating, especially before bed.
- I recommend staying hydrated throughout the day and try not to drink too much liquid before you go to bed – no one likes waking up for bathroom trips several times throughout the night.
- Exercise regularly throughout the day, aiming to get outside in the earlier hours of the morning. Regular exercise in daylight tells your body that it’s daytime, which is vital for our circadian rhythms. This increases our alertness throughout the day.
Now that the basics are out of the way, it’s time to look at specific sleep-enhancing foods.
The meal before you go to bed, usually dinner, should include foods with a low glycemic index, combined with a protein and fat, e.g. non-starchy vegetables, a portion of your favourite protein and some avocado. Eating a whole and balanced dinner will help keep you full and satisfied, without feeling overstuffed.
One of my favourite minerals in the whole world is magnesium (sorry to any other minerals listening)! Magnesium performs over 300 biochemical reactions in the body and supports the health of the nervous system, musculoskeletal system and digestive system. It also produces specific neurotransmitters that regulate our stress and sleep response.
Many of us are magnesium deficient, so I recommend upping your intake of magnesium-rich food. Include nuts and seeds such as almonds and pepitas, bananas, avocado, spinach and beans. And after dinner and a few hours before bed, try chocolate. Who doesn’t want to be told by their nutritionist that they should eat chocolate? Try out my Collagen and Flax Chocolate Bars for a delicious magnesium hit.
B vitamins are an absolute must, helping us turn the food we eat into energy and regulating our stress response. They’re integral in supporting neurotransmitter production too. Specifically, vitamin B6 synthesises melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy. Foods rich in vitamin B6 include poultry such as chicken or turkey, oats, bananas and pumpkin. Fish is another source of vitamin B6, giving your body the heads up that it’s time to produce melatonin and get sleepy.
Fish is also full of omega-3 fatty acids, which help regulate serotonin, responsible for our sleep-wake cycle. Omega-3 fatty acids help regulate cortisol, the stress hormone and reduce inflammation. For a fish delight, get your hands on my Delicious Salmon and Coriander Fish Cakes here or my Supercharged Fish Tortillas here.
The gut intricately connects to the brain via the gut-brain axis. Essentially, this means that the gut impacts the brain and visa versa. So, if you’re struggling to fall asleep, have a look at your gut health. If your gut bacteria is getting you down, clean the gut as you sleep with Love Your Gut Powder, Golden Gut Blend or LYG Capsules.
One ingredient you may have not yet heard about is tart cherry juice. Current clinical research is discovering that tart cherries can increase our time asleep and sleep efficiency.1 Tart cherry juice helps regulate our circadian rhythm (our sleep-wake cycle) and is also a potent antioxidant. Drink up!
If you’re a meat-eater, you’ll be happy to know that chicken and turkey are great for sleep. Both chicken and turkey contain the amino acid tryptophan, which helps make serotonin, causing a relaxing mood, which then helps produce melatonin. You don’t need to wait till Thanksgiving to have a turkey; supercharge every day with my Roast Turkey with all the Trimmings or give my Chicken Biryani with Cauliflower Rice a try.
Other natural sleeping remedies include teas that contain two powerful ingredients – passionflower and valerian. These herbs are both natural sedatives, reducing stress, calming us down and targeting sleep disorders.
Speaking of sleepy teas, how can we forget chamomile? While some people think of chamomile as hay water, I love the taste. Chamomile is a gentle herb that is incredibly soothing, and full of an antioxidant called apigenin that promotes sleepiness… I’m nodding off just thinking about it. Try these relaxing tea recipes here.
We mentioned that nuts and seeds are rich in magnesium, but they also contain that serotonin-boosting amino acid, tryptophan. Including walnuts, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds and almonds every day will do wonders for your sleep.
If you’re nuts for nuts, you’ll love my Pumpkin Almond Bake. This supercharged bake, packed full of mood-lifting and sleep-enhancing foods, is a great side dish at dinner before you hit the hay at the end of the day.
Pumpkin Almond Bake
A couple of everyday veggies combined with the right spices and a sprinkling of toasted almonds – you’ll be amazed at the paradoxical simplicity and flavourful complexity of this dish. Easy to prepare and easy on the wallet, it’s a bake that’s big on flavour yet low in calories. What more could you ask?
- 600 g (1 lb 5 oz) pumpkin (winter squash), cut into dice
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin coconut oil, melted, or olive oil
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 400 g (14 oz) baby (pattypan) squash, halved if large
- 1 large brown onion, cut into thin wedges
- Celtic sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 45 g (1 1/2 oz/1/3 cup) slivered almonds, to serve
Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F).
Put the pumpkin in a roasting tray, drizzle with half the oil and sprinkle with the spices.
Roast for 20 minutes, then add the remaining vegetables and oil, season with salt and pepper, and bake for a further 15–20 minutes, or until cooked through, turning once.
Meanwhile, toast the slivered almonds in a small dry frying pan over medium heat until light golden.
Serve the vegetables topped with the toasted almonds.
You can replace the baby squash with zucchini (courgette) if you prefer.