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Sleep and Nutrition

We all had at least one bad night sleep at some point, and probably felt tired, more clumsy and more prone to make mistakes the next day. What happens if bad sleep becomes a routine? And, most importantly, what can we do to improve our sleep?





First of all, why do we need sleep?

Sleep is important for memory consolidation (especially during the REM phase)(1) , in preventing inflammation and infections, and it may also play a housekeeping role in getting rid of the toxins your brain accumulated during the daytime(2). Sleeping well and enough time also supports our mental and emotional health, professor Matthew Walker defines REM sleep as “emotional first aid”. This would explain why we may feel more irritable or moody after a bad night sleep.

Having a bad night sleep every so often is normal for most of us, that can be due to many reasons (e.g. night out, stress, indigestion). However, chronic sleep deprivation can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and weight fluctuations(2).



How many hours should we sleep?

On average, adults need 7-9 hours/night. However, sleep quality is also important. There are apps and sleep watches that can track your sleep, however the accuracy of these tools varies.


The practical approach would be to take a short note when you wake up in the morning for 1-2 weeks, and to ask yourself if you feel rested. Good quality sleep may look like this(3):

- Less than 30 minutes to fall asleep

- Not wakening during the night, or if you do, that should last less than 20 minutes

- Spending most of your time in bed asleep (about 85%)


It is important not to obsess or to overthink these things, as that may lead to sleep anxiety (you guessed it right, it’s not good for your sleep!). Observe your sleep with curiosity and if you think that there is space for improvement, give a try to the tips below to improve your sleep hygiene. If none of this helps, and you don’t think you are sleeping well, speak with your GP.


Nutrition and lifestyle tips to improve your sleep

Let’s start with nutrition:

o Caffeine:

Caffeine is a stimulant (it increases your alertness) and its half-life (time it takes to get rid of half of the caffeine from your body) is around 6 hours. However, this can vary from person to person. If you are sensitive to caffeine, it is best to switch to decaffeinated after midday, otherwise switching to decaf about 8 hours before bedtime may be enough for you. Caffeine is not only present in coffee, but also in tea, coca cola, energy drinks – and in smaller doses, in chocolate too.


o Alcohol:

Alcohol can make us feel sleepy, but it does not help you sleep well. In fact, it makes your sleep more erratic, and it reduces the time of restorative REM sleep, which is also why you may wake up the next day feeling fatigued and irritable.






o Foods containing tryptophan:

Tryptophan is an amino acid, which is the precursor to melatonin and serotonin (sleep neurotransmitters). It is present in chicken, eggs, dairy, nuts, cereals and bananas. There is some evidence showing that eating a food containing tryptophan along with a source of carbohydrates, helps tryptophan to reach the brain more effectively(4). Examples are: a couple of oatcakes with nut butter, yogurt with small handful of nuts, banana with nut butter or…one small glass of milk with a drizzle of honey, so our parents were right when they said that warm milk helps us sleep better??

Well, currently there isn’t evidence showing that a pre-sleep snack containing tryptophan can improve your sleep – more studies are needed. If drinking a small glass of warm milk or having a small snack before bed gives you comfort/you enjoy it, go for it.



Lifestyle:




1. Create a downtime routine and stick to it (most of the time)

Getting your body used to go to bed roughly at the same time every night can help you to fall asleep more easily. 30 minutes or one hour before bed, try to relax, avoiding blue-light-emitting screens (e.g. TV, laptop, phone) and dim the lights. The release of melatonin (hormone promoting sleep) is delayed by the presence of blue lights and it increases your alertness. You could read a book, have a bath, journal or listen to a podcast/audiobook.


2. Make a to do list for the next day

It is very common going to bed and starting to think about what you need to do and to remember for the next day. Do yourself a favour and write a list for the next day, so you don’t need to hold any thoughts and can simply relax.


3. Rest and digest

Use your energy to keep active and to do gentle exercise during the day. If you exercise in the evening, try to do it 2-3 hours before bed (and avoid pre-workout energy drinks). Even though exercise can be strenuous, we feel energised after it, which may delay your bedtime.

Try to give your body the time to rest and digest before going to bed by having your last meal 2-3 hours before bed. Going to bed feeling hungry or too full can compromise the quality of your sleep.




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