“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Easy for Ben Franklin to say. According to the CDC, more than a third of Americans don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis, let alone get to bed early. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults get at least 7 hours of sleep every night for “optimal health and well-being.” Yet getting sufficient sleep, along with quality sleep, continues to elude many of us.
Risks of too little sleep
Not getting enough sleep is certainly a nuisance. It leaves us feeling groggy, grumpy, and unfocused the next morning, making it hard to concentrate at work or school. And while poor performance at our jobs is nothing to take lightly, the reality is that there are serious health consequences from insufficient sleep. A higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and obesity is linked to a lack of sleep. In addition, shortchanging yourself on sleep can affect your immune system, making you more susceptible to the flu, colds, and other infections.
Just last month, a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association revealed that people who had diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity had double the chances of dying from heart disease or stroke compared to people without these risk factors if they got less than six hours of sleep each day. Having diabetes is already a risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
How food can help
Gloomy news aside, there are steps you can take to help you sleep better. Many of these are related to lifestyle measures, and include:
• Setting up a sleep schedule — and staying with it. This means going to bed and getting up at about the same times each day.
• Exercising regularly (but not too close to bedtime).
• Keeping your bedroom cool — between 60 and 67 degrees.
• Powering down electronic devices, including your laptop, tablet, smartphone, and television, before bedtime.
• Using ear plugs or a white noise machine to block out noise.
• Investing in a good quality mattress and pillow.
• Taking a warm bath or shower before bed.
Foods that can help
Taking the above steps can definitely help. You might also think strategically about your food choices and your eating habits in relation to sleep. First, foods that can help:
Fish. Salmon, tuna, and halibut are rich in vitamin B6. This B vitamin is necessary for the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps to control sleep and waking cycles.
Chicken and turkey. Poultry contains tryptophan, an amino acid that boosts levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger) that impacts mood and also promotes healthy sleeping patterns.
Eggs. Don’t cut eggs out of your diet! Eggs — including the yolk — can boost levels of tryptophan in the blood, which, in turn, can help increase serotonin production.
Leafy greens. Yet another reason to eat kale! Or spinach or collard greens. Leafy greens contain calcium and magnesium, two minerals that researchers believe are important for helping to prevent insomnia.
Whole-grain foods. Whole-grain crackers, toast, or cereal can bring on sleep, as can brown rice or whole wheat pasta. Whole grains contain magnesium, and they also contain B vitamins that help convert tryptophan to serotonin.
Soy foods. Tofu, tempeh, unsweetened soy milk, and edamame all contain tryptophan, as well as isoflavones, which may help raise serotonin levels.
Lettuce. Here’s a good reason to include salad at dinner: lettuce contains lactucarium, a milky juice that has relaxation and sedative properties.
Bananas. Bananas are a super-sleep food because they contain complex carbs, magnesium, and tryptophan. An added bonus: potassium, a mineral that can prevent those painful muscle cramps that afflict many people in the middle of the night.
Montmorency tart cherries. Tart cherries are one of the few foods that contain melatonin. Eating a handful of these cherries before bed may help you feel drowsy. Speaking of cherries, a study published in the European Journal of Medicine showed that subjects who drank one ounce of tart cherry juice mixed with a pint of water twice a day (once when they woke up and once before they went to bed) had improved sleep. If you’re concerned about carbs in cherry juice, don’t be: One ounce of tart cherry juice contains just 4 grams of carb and 17 calories.
Almonds. Almonds can boost heart health and they may also help you sleep better too, thanks to their magnesium content as well as their healthy unsaturated fats, which help boost serotonin.
Herbal tea. Chamomile, peppermint, and passionflower tea contain natural substances that can make you sleepy and want to hit the sack.
Green tea. Green tea contains L-theanine, another amino acid that lowers stress and induces relaxation. Be sure to drink decaf green tea, however.
Foods that can hinder
What about foods that hinder sleep? Limit or avoid these foods before bedtime:
Fried or fatty foods. Fat is slow to digest and can affect your natural sleep cycle. Also, fatty foods can trigger heartburn, which can keep you awake.
Spicy foods. Along with potentially causing heartburn, spicy foods raise the body’s internal temperature, which can keep you awake.
Drinks that contain caffeine. Unless you need to pull an all-nighter, skip the coffee, tea, diet cola, or energy drinks close to bedtime. Their caffeine content may have you counting sheep into the wee hours of the morning.
Chocolate. A small amount of dark chocolate may help your heart, but it contains caffeine. If you’re particularly sensitive to caffeine, enjoy your chocolate earlier in the day.
Alcohol. You may feel drowsy after drinking a glass of wine or beer, but alcoholic drinks can decrease the quality of your sleep and actually cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.
And what about that old wives’ tale about drinking a glass of warm milk before bedtime? Does it really help induce sleep? Well, maybe. Milk contains tryptophan, which can help you to feel sleepy. However, in the lab, studies haven’t found it to necessarily be all that helpful. On the other hand, many people find that the ritual of drinking warm milk enhances peaceful slumber because it may be linked with memories of childhood (kind of like sleeping with your teddy bear, perhaps!).
The annual Students With Diabetes National Conference hosted by Nicole Johnson recently took place in Florida. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to read about highlights from the event.