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Until recently, science had no answer for why we sleep. Their best guess? Because we get tired.
But, research has shown us that channels open up in the brain and clear away waste during sleep to help keep our brains healthy.
So we need sleep to stay healthy… yet sometimes this natural and necessary bodily function eludes us.
Some people can fall asleep quite easily. They simply tell their busy minds to ease up, hit the pillow and they’re gone. They’re the lucky ones. On the other hand, most of us have to approach sleep as a process.
You might develop a routine to help unwind: exercise, indulge in a good read, perhaps do a crossword puzzle. But even then, our stressful lives can intrude: What happened today? What’s going to happen tomorrow? Did I forget anything? Should I have said that?
There are enough sleep aids on the market to fill your entire house, let alone your medicine cabinet.
I use a simpler and healthier approach with my patients.
I have them watch what they eat.
For example, you may already be choosing foods based on their glycemic index (how quickly the body metabolizes them to produce sugar). At night, I would like to propose that you also eat according to an informal sleep index. Focus on foods that promote natural relaxation and help you get the rest you need.
High sleep index foods
You’ve probably heard of tryptophan, the amino acid that many people blame for their lethargy after Thanksgiving dinner. The body converts tryptophan into neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and melatonin, that help us relax. As a result, tryptophan-rich foods help us feel sleepy. Turkey, hummus, lentils and kelp are naturally high in tryptophan and contain many other beneficial nutrients.
Bananas are also a great “sleep index” food: They contain tryptophan, potassium and magnesium, all of which are natural muscle relaxants. Cherries are a good source of melatonin, which can help us get more restful, reparative sleep.
And did you know that in one study, people who ate two kiwi fruits before bed got an extra hour of sleep at night? They woke up later and took less time to fall asleep.
Carbohydrate-rich foods are often excellent at promoting better sleep. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that high-glycemic carbohydrates, which increase sugar levels rapidly, encourage sleep when eaten about four hours before bedtime. Jasmine rice, potatoes, carrots, corn and honey are healthy options.
Calcium helps the brain use tryptophan to create melatonin. Specific food combinations, such as whole-grain cereals and milk, peanut butter sandwiches, or cheese and crackers contain balanced amounts of calcium and carbohydrates. Calcium is also a natural muscle relaxant.
When to eat
Eating high sleep index foods calms the nervous system and triggers sleep-inducing hormones. But timing is everything. A large meal right before bedtime can interfere with sleep. Tryptophan takes at least an hour to reach the brain, so plan meals accordingly.
Avoid rich, high-fat foods close to bedtime. They require a lot of work to digest and may cause stomach trouble and heartburn. Also, moderate your beverages. Too many fluids will cause frequent trips to the bathroom during the night. In particular, caffeinated beverages stimulate the body and act as diuretics, a double whammy when trying to sleep.
Natural sleep aids
As noted, there is no shortage of sleep aids, either over the counter or by prescription. While these aids generally work in the short term, they come with a long list of detrimental side effects and can become habit-forming. In addition, these powerful drugs are known to interfere with a number of critical biological mechanisms. Remember, they’re not meant to be gentle, but rather to put you out like a light.
I recommend a combination of relaxing, non-habit-forming herbs: lemon balm, passionflower, vitamin B6 and small doses of melatonin, about 500 mcg, which can be very helpful.
When taken together 15 minutes before bed, these herbs and nutrients help to promote a gentle state of relaxation and drowsiness. Even better, they help optimize the body’s natural repair processes during sleep. They also work to support numerous other areas of health and longevity as well.
One of the shortcomings of modern society is that every problem requires maximum response. But when it comes to healthy relaxation and restful sleep, you should take a softer, gentler approach.
High sleep index foods, together with calming supplements can help you relax, enjoy a restful sleep and wake feeling refreshed. Other excellent sleep-supportive measures include mindful relaxation techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing.
Getting a good night’s rest is one of the best things you can do for health and well-being. When you support your natural sleep rhythms and cycles with the right foods, supplements and healthy relaxation measures, you reap significant and noticeable benefits. In addition to greater physical energy, mental clarity and emotional balance, getting quality sleep each night results in stronger vitality and better overall health, naturally.
For more practical health and wellness information, visit www.dreliaz.org.