Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders, with chronic insomnia affecting one person in ten. While there can be several reasons why people suffer from insomnia, scientists have discovered that what we eat plays a significant part in our ability to sleep well.
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder wherein people are unable to sleep long enough to allow them to awake refreshed. For some, insomnia manifests by being unable to get to sleep at all, while others are able to sleep soon after retiring, but then wake after only a few hours and find they cannot return to sleep. Common symptoms of insomnia are lethargy, irritability and an inability to concentrate. However, insomnia can also have more serious effects, such as suppressing the immune system to make people more vulnerable to infections, as well as increasing the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Causes of insomnia
Stress and anxiety are often the major causes of insomnia, but food and drink have been found to cause insomnia too. Beverages that contain caffeine, such as cola, coffee and, to a lesser extent, tea, can act as stimulants, producing adrenaline that will keep you awake, whilst a heavy alcohol intake will force your body to work harder to detoxify, inhibiting your ability to reach a restful level of sleep.
Mealtimes may also be playing a part in your inability to sleep well. Going to bed soon after eating a large meal, or even soon after snacking, can cause indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux. Spicy foods, hot foods and even meals that have been high in fat will also cause these digestive problems.
What to eat and drink to sleep well
What you eat can impact upon your ability to sleep just as much as when you eat. If your evening meal does not contain any protein, your body will find it more difficult to produce the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan helps to boost serotonin levels in the brain, which is then turned into the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. If your diet lacks protein, introduce protein-rich foods such as fish and lean white meat, nuts and seeds and dairy products.
However, the body’s need for protein does not mean that you should overdose on foods that will provide it in order to sleep well. Too much protein will have the opposite effect, because your body will increase its levels of the tyrosine amino acid that will encourage the production of adrenaline, a stimulant. Your body also needs carbohydrates because these trigger an insulin release, which helps tryptophan and serotonin to be produced. Balance protein with good carbs that are kind to your waistline, such as wholewheat pasta, wholemeal bread and brown rice.
Old wives’ tales
A glass of warm milk is an old-fashioned remedy for insomnia, but it is one that has a basis in fact, because all dairy products provide the body with calcium and magnesium, which help the muscles to relax. A glass of warm milk will, more importantly, boost the levels of serotonin in the brain. Other beverages that may be beneficial for sleep include herbal teas, particularly chamomile tea.
Whether you are an occasional insomniac or suffer from chronic insomnia, science has proved that what you eat has a direct effect on your ability to sleep. Make small changes in your diet to improve your chances of being able to get to sleep quickly and to stay asleep, so that you wake feeling refreshed and ready for the day ahead.