IF YOU struggle with sleep, you’ve likely tried everything from a hot bath to a meditation app.
But have you considered honing in on your diet?
Experts say this could be the key to improving sleep, but is often disregarded.
Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University in New York, has been researching the topic for almost a decade.
She said food is an “unrecognised contributor” to good or bad sleep.
And her work has returned the same findings repeatedly.
Cutting back on sugar and saturated fat, while upping fibre, could be the trick to getting a good night’s rest, she says.
Dr St-Onge wrote in an article for Knowable Magazine: “Our studies over the past seven years have shown that eating more fiber and less saturated fat and sugar during the day results in deeper, less disturbed sleep at night.
“It may be particularly helpful to eat a Mediterranean-type diet rich in fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains and olive oil."
The Med diet is also low in red and processed meat and whole-fat dairy, with more fish-based dishes.
“In our research, those who followed this diet were 1.4 times more likely to have good night’s sleep and 35 per cent less likely to have insomnia", Dr St-Onge said.
She explains that these foods are rich in tryptophan.
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The amino acid can't be made by the human body itself but can be consumed in foods like chicken, eggs, bananas, cheese, fish, nuts and seeds, turkey and tofu.
Tryptophan is commonly used as a supplement to ease sleep disorders, including insomnia.
While the evidence on its impact on sleep needs strengthening, experts say it may act as a precurser to sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain.
It increases the body’s natural sleep hormone melatonin.
Melatonin makes us feel sleepy in the evening – the opposite of cortisol, which helps to wake us up in the morning.
The body starts to produce it in the evening when it starts to get dark outside, and stays elevated throughout the night.
Dr St-Onge said: “Other foods — including tomatoes, pineapple, tart cherries, bananas, apples, vegetable oils, nuts and animal products — contain melatonin itself
“Eating such melatonin-rich foods may also boost your own melatonin levels, although research on this is sparse.”
One of Dr St-Onge’s most recent research papers was published in the journal Annual Review of Nutrition in August, Daily Mail’s Good Health reported.
The paper said “whole diets rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other sources of dietary tryptophan and melatonin” have been shown to predict favorable sleep outcomes.
These foods are also high in fibre – and most Brits don’t eat the recommended 30g of fibre per day.
Dr St-Onge’s said her work has shown fibre contributes to the best “sleep efficiency”, Good Health reported.
One diet that’s rich in both fibre and tryptophan is the Mediterranean diet, deemed the most healthy in the world after troves of research shows its disease-preventing links.
Catherine Collins, an NHS dietitian based in Surrey, said: “The Mediterranean diet is the gold standard of diets, there is no doubt about that.
“However, studies to date have not involved enough people or been conducted for long enough to say for sure that specific components of it aid sleep.”
She added that she believes there isn’t enough evidence yet to recommend a single diet or ingredient as a way to improve sleep.
Meanwhile, Dr St-Onge’s team found that some components of the diet could wreck sleep – namely saturated fat and sugar.
Saturated fat is the type of fat that can be found in butter, lard, ghee, fatty meats and cheese.
Sugar, on the other hand, is most dangerous in its refined form (think biscuits, pastries and fizzy drinks) when eaten in excess of the 30g per day NHS recommendation.
In one 2016 study, 26 volunteers ate healthily for four days followed by a day of gorging on what they wanted on the fifth day.
All the while, researchers were monitoring their sleep with specialised machines.
Dr St-Onge said: “On the fifth day, it took almost twice as long for them to get to sleep — 12 minutes longer — compared to the previous days.”
They also spent around five minutes less time in deep sleep, which is the most restorative stage of sleep when memories are formed and cells regenerate.
It may not seem like much. But it’s in fact 15 per cent less deep sleep than on the nights they had eaten well.
The good news is that the effects of a healthy diet on sleep appear to occur the same night.
Experts already know this by looking at specific foods and drinks like coffee, which, drunk too close to bed time, can keep you up all night.
Dr St-Onge said: “In the end, bad sleep and poor diet can be a vicious cycle: Lack of sleep leads to poor dietary choices, which in turn causes low quality sleep.
“But we can interrupt this cycle and turn it around.
“Eating well throughout the day could produce sounder, more restful sleep — which, in turn, could contribute to making better food choices.”
There are a number of factors that contribute to our sleeping habits, from genetics to lifestyle choices and physical and mental health conditions.
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