We spend approximately a third of our lives asleep. For some this may seem wasteful, for others blissful. Where there is no dispute is in the fact that sleeping is as essential to our bodies as eating, drinking and breathing. Whilst sleeping, our body can detoxify, repair and regenerate its cells and tissues, vital for maintaining both good physical and mental health. There is no set amount of sleep suitable for everyone, and it is true that some people need more than others. However, good quality sleep is important for all, and poor sleep over a prolonged period can lead to problems such as lowered immunity, weight gain, poor concentration and memory, anxiety, stress and depression.
Sleep and mental health
Those who don’t get enough sleep may often not recognize the toll it is taking on their cognitive function and mental well-being. It’s whilst we sleep that our brains can consolidate memories and process information, enabling us to learn and function effectively throughout the daytime. Poor sleep can impact on mood, affect our everyday thought processes, and lessen the body’s ability to cope with stress. Lack of sleep increases the risk of mental health problems; in fact the two are inextricably linked. In a study of approximately 20,000 young adults, lack of sufficient sleep was linked to psychological distress, and insomnia has been shown to increase the risk of developing both anxiety and depression. It is estimated that 65% to 90% of adult patients with depression experience some kind of sleep problem.
Supporting sleep through diet
Sleep problems are multifactorial, and in more serious cases may need medical intervention and psychological support. However, we do know that certain nutrients can play an important role in aiding a restful night, and below are just a few recommended dietary approaches to poor sleep.
Tryptophan – an amino acid that our body uses to make the sleep-inducing substances serotonin and melatonin. To help with sleep, try having a food containing tryptophan in the evening. Nuts, seeds, yoghurt, turkey and banana are all great sources. You can increase the levels of tryptophan in your blood by combining this with something carbohydrate-rich. Good pre-bedtime snack ideas include a small bowl of natural yoghurt with fresh fruit, or nut butter spread onto oatcakes.
Sleep superfoods– cherries are one of the only natural food sources of melatonin- the “sleep” hormone. Fresh cherries, dried cherries, tart cherry juice (without added sugar) or a cherry based supplement are not only delicious, but may also be a useful sleep aid. A recent study also found that eating kiwi fruit before bed may help aid sleep. In this small study, 24 subjects consumed 2 kiwis 1 hour before bed every night for 4 weeks, and after this time both total sleep time and sleep efficiency were significantly increased.
Nature’s tranquillizer– the name often given to magnesium due to its calming properties. Magnesium can help the body to relax and the mind to unwind at the end of the day. Dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and broccoli; nuts, seeds and pulses are all packed with this mineral. You can also try bathing in magnesium and allowing it to be absorbed transdermally through the skin. I always recommend BetterYou’s magnesium products especially the Magnesium Flakes and Magnesium Oil Goodnight spray.
Supplementing sleep – there has been increasing interest in the natural supplement 5-hydroxytryptophan, more commonly known as 5-HTP, as a natural sleep aid. 5-HTP works by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain, which can then be converted to melatonin, the hormone needed to regulate the sleep-wake cycles. Low levels of serotonin have been linked with both insomnia and depression.
Whilst it is easy to view sleep as just a bit of “downtime”, increasing evidence suggests that getting a good nights kip is one of the most important ways we can better our health.