Why is it that we could so easily take 40 winks at 4pm but when it comes to bed time, we are wired to the ceiling and can't find the brain off-switch?
This is so typical of working life these days but something most of us CAN change if we are prepared to change our habits. Be honest, are you stressing about what you need to do tomorrow? Are you glued to your iPad? Scrolling through Facebook or having a quick check through those all important emails? If you think about it, the evening time is when our body, through it's own natural rhythm starts to wind down. Yet we do our utmost to combat this. Modern technology is turned ON. Even 'relaxing' watching TV artificially awakens and confuses our brain and then we expect to immediately fall asleep when we switch off the light. No wonder we can't.
Electronic devices and even some light bulbs emit blue light. Exposure to this before bedtime will prolong the time it takes to fall asleep, reduces the amount of REM sleep and reduces alertness the following morning. Switching off. It's a really tough habit to break that needs real discipline! Our brains thrive on rest and routine and there are so many benefits from creating a short wind down routine that helps prepare the body for sleep.
Why is sleep so important?
Soldiering on is what we are great at but running on empty through lack of sleep leaves us not only moody and exhausted but also with a much greater risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and depression.
What can you do?
Reading a book (an e-book with a blue light filter!), having a warm bath or using a relaxation app such as Calm or Headspace can do wonders but did you know we can also use food to help us you unwind? Don't expect miracles if you aren't prepared to limit your screen time but do give them a go if you know you would like to sleep better:
1. Nibble on nuts and seeds
Sesame, chia and pumpkin seeds, along with walnuts are not only a great source of protein but also rich in an amino acid called Tryptophan. We need Tryptophan to make one of our most important feel-good chemicals Serotonin. Among other functions, Serotonin promotes feelings of calm, relaxation, and sleepiness and low serotonin levels are definitely linked to low mood and insomnia.
Tryptophan is also central to the production of Melatonin, a vital hormone that we start to release in the evening and throughout the night that we need to induce sleep.
Other foods high in Tryptophan include cheese, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs. Before you ask no, eating cheese before bed won’t increase your risk of having nightmares (although there are some interesting reports how different cheeses might be associated with different types of dream?)
One school of thought suggests you would only benefit from a Tryptophan boost if you have an existing deficiency and this is actually pretty rare. My thoughts on this are you won't know unless you try. Our diet is often over-processed and not of great quality when it comes to decent nutrition so why not try including more of these foods in your evening meal or choosing a handful of nuts and seeds for your evening nibble.
2. Go Bananas
Potassium and magnesium are natural muscle relaxants, and bananas are a good source of both. Magnesium also helps lower levels of our key stress hormone cortisol - one that we don't want hanging around for longer than is necessary as it plays havoc with our health. Bananas also contain Tryptophan which will get converted to serotonin. Being a good source of carbohydrate, bananas are a great choice for dealing with the evening munchies because going to bed hungry will guarantee you won't sleep!
3. Warm some milk
An old wives tail perhaps but there may be something in that warm milk. It's not particularly rich in Tryptophan, not enough to warrant a sedative effect but what do you think of when you imagine warm milk? Memories of childhood, home and comfort? Perhaps its simply these memories that help you relax. Or if you are anything like me, my stomach churns at the recollection of warm milk in mini milk bottles at school as it started to turn sour, yuk!
So if you are a milk drinker, give it a go. Even if it's the simple fact that you take 10 minutes out of your evening to sip your milk and that in itself is your wind down time, do it. If it works, we don't really need to know why.
4. Put the kettle on
Caffeine free sleepy teas have become very popular and are now much more palatable than the good ole fashioned plain chamomile which was always far too flowery for me. Blends of different herbs such as Valerian (well known for its sedative effect), lemon balm, peppermint and lavender create teas that are much more palatable and take advantage of their calming and soothing properties.
Again the evidence of the effectiveness of these is a bit hit and miss but in my book, just because there isn’t much research, doesn’t mean a bedtime tea won’t help. A brew is going to be a much better option than a bedtime tipple because alcohol disrupts your sleep cycle and reduces the quality of your sleep. Keep it up too - it can take a number of weeks for some of the effects to build up in your system.
Another option is green tea. If you are caffeine sensitive then this probably isn't for you but if you are looking to cut down your caffeine, green tea contains about half the caffeine as black tea and much less than coffee. Green tea also contains 2 metabolites of caffeine - theophylline and theobromine which are thought to give a much less jittery boost than coffee. Another component of interest in green tea is L-theanine: this helps induce relaxation which can help to 'take the edge off' any caffeine and could be a good first line of treatment if you are struggling to drop off to sleep.
5. Try a kiwi
This is an interesting one, particularly as I am hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest this one works! There was a significant study a number of years ago that looked at the effects of eating 2 kiwi one hour before bed, for 4 weeks. The participants fell asleep more quickly, slept more soundly and sleep quality improved. What we don't know is if it's something to do with their very high antioxidant and vitamin C content or their Serotonin content. Either way, this seems a cheap, natural method and you will certainly come to no harm in trying!
So why not give some of these a go and I'd love to hear if any work for you........