To mark World Sleep Day, Claire Murray, a registered nutritional therapist for Vitaminology, shares her top tips on how to get a good night’s sleep
Why is sleep so important?
Sleep is an essential component of human health and survival. Without regular sleep, we can suffer from reduced immune function, impaired memory and concentration, an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes as well as weight gain and poor mental mental health [i].
According to NHS statistics, poor sleep is thought to affect around a third of UK adults at some point in their life [ii]. Poor sleep can be caused by many factors including stress, an irregular sleep routine, illness and pain disorders, medications, mental health conditions and specific sleep disorders such as insomnia, sleep apnoea, narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome (RSL) [iii].
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. What many people don’t know is that their diet and nutrient intake plays a crucial role in their ability to sleep. Along with certain foods that are rich sources of melatonin, the sleep hormone there are also individual nutrients which help promote sleep and relaxation, by increasing melatonin production.
Which nutrients help with sleep?
Here are five key nutrients [iv] that have been found to support sleep and the best food sources of these essential nutrients. Make sure your diet contains a good supply of the following foods on a daily basis:
- Magnesium: the relaxation mineral – an essential co-factor in the conversion of serotonin to melatonin. Magnesium also helps muscles to relax and can therefore help with restless leg syndrome. Excellent sources of magnesium include dark green vegetables, oats, almonds, cashews, buckwheat, pecans and Brazil nuts.
- Vitamin B6: Vitamin B6, also needed for the conversion of serotonin to melatonin. Vitamin B6 is found in pistachio nuts, salmon, chicken, tofu, pork, beef, sweet potatoes, bananas, potatoes, brown rice, chickpeas and avocados.
- Omega-3 fats: the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA from oily fish have been found to play a role in supporting melatonin production. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies and sardines are top sources of omega-3 fats. If you’re not a fan of oily fish, vegan sources of omega-3 fats include chia and flax seeds or an algae oil supplement.
- Zinc: this trace mineral is needed to synthesize melatonin. Zinc-rich foods include oysters, beef, pork, firm tofu, chicken, shiitake mushrooms, yoghurt, nuts, beans, peas, lentils, pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds.
- Protein: the amino acid tryptophan is the main building block of serotonin and melatonin, therefore adequate protein is important for sleep. Make sure you’re eating at least 50-75g of protein per day. Good tryptophan-rich protein sources include dairy, chicken, tuna, oats, eggs, turkey, peanuts and pumpkin seeds.
Lifestyle tips for better sleep
There are lifestyle and environment factors that can prevent good quality sleep. Here are the most important areas to look at for improved sleep:
- Sleep hygiene: the best way to reset your sleep schedule is to have a regular sleep routine which means getting up at the same time every day, including weekends and going to bed at the same time every night too. Our sleep/wake cycle runs on a 24-hour clock, therefore irregular routines can disrupt your sleep pattern.
- Morning walk: Getting outdoors in the morning light can support melatonin release later in the day – and as a result, help you get to sleep. A morning walk – or any sort of outdoor activity before lunch – is a simple way to support your circadian rhythm.
- No screens before bed: Avoid using screens for at least an hour before going to bed. If you must use one, wear glasses that filter blue light waves. The blue light from screens has been found to interfere with melatonin production.
- Stress reduction: Stress results in the release of cortisol, the main stress hormone which can disrupt sleep. If you’re dealing with high levels of stress or feeling chronically stressed, make sure include some stress-management techniques such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, walking in nature, social connection and gentle exercise such as yoga or Pilates. Most importantly, don’t stress if you don’t sleep well. Good nights of sleep make up for the poor nights of sleep!
- Reduce stimulants: Stimulants like caffeine and alcohol are widely known to aggravate sleep problems. Avoid caffeine for at least 6 hours before going to bed. Alcohol is also known to interfere with sleep quality so avoid alcohol if possible.
[i] Medic G, Wille M, Hemels ME. 2017. Short- and long-term health consequences of sleep disruption. Nature and Science of Sleep. 2017; 9:151-161. Doi:10.2147/NSS.S134864
[iii] Walker, M. 2017. Why We Sleep. Penguin. Random House; London.
[iv] Meng, X., Li, Y., Li, S., et al. 2017. Dietary Sources and Bio-actives of Melatonin. Nutrients 9 (4), 367. Doi: 10.3390/nu9040367