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Written by:
Trinity Hall
17 Mar 2023

How to eat your way to a good night’s sleep (by Fiona and the Catering Team)

Some food can make us feel sleepy, others can make us ping wide awake.

Many food items contain an amino acid called tryptophan. When eaten the body uses this molecule in the brain to convert it into the neurotransmitter, serotonin which promotes relaxation, which in turn is converted into the hormone, melatonin, which promotes sleep.

What should we eat and what should we avoid to ensure that we get a good night’s rest?

Start the day the way you mean to go on

Breakfast is key to managing your blood sugar throughout the day and by eating one that contains plenty of good fats, fibre and protein it can help to produce melatonin later in the day.  Try to avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates and eat something a little bit more savoury.  Eggs; wholemeal toast with a whole-nut butter instead of jam; some Greek natural yogurt with berries and a sprinkle of seeds or nuts would all be a good start.

Cut back on the caffeine

When deadlines are upon us it is easy to reach for a strong coffee to keep us awake. However, for those of us who struggle with sleep it is best to stay away from coffee and other caffeinated drinks including green tea and matcha in the evening.  If you’re particularly susceptible you may need to start your caffeine curfew earlier.  De-caffeinated coffee still has a small amount of caffeine so avoid if you are really sensitive, herbal teas – particularly chamomile – would be a better bet. Watch out for the caffeine in chocolate too, the darker the chocolate the higher the caffeine content. And definitely ditch the energy drinks.

Booze isn’t the answer

Whilst even a small amount of alcohol can appear to help you drift off, it is significantly detrimental to the quality of sleep in the latter part of the night. There’s a difference between sedation and sleep. Therefore, one to be mindful of and to cut back on if sleep is elusive.

Yum scrum, full tum

Some people are fine going to sleep with a full stomach, yet most of us need a good three hours between eating and switching the light off in order to optimise sleep otherwise your body is putting more energy into digestion than into sound sleep.  Allowing this time reduces the risk of indigestion and won’t throw your circadian rhythm off balance and so the quality of your sleep.

On the flip side it’s best not to go to bed hungry.  If you fancy a snack before you hit the sack you could try something that is rich in magnesium, a natural muscle relaxant, such as oatcakes with almond butter.

Food to increase the zzz’s:

  1. Carb me up
    Who doesn’t feel sleepy after a carb heavy meal such as pasta or rice? It is because these foods increase the levels of serotonin, our feel-good hormone, in the brain. Sweet potatoes and brown rice contain complex carbohydrates so are a great thing to eat.  Though jasmine rice, which has a higher-glycaemic index than brown rice, has been shown to boost the production of tryptophan and serotonin and so encouraging sleep.
  2. Reach for the fruit bowl
    Kiwi fruits are an excellent source of antioxidants and serotonin. Studies have shown that eating two kiwi fruits an hour before bedtime greatly improves sleep quality. Cherries contain a good amount of melatonin with tart cherry juice having been found to relieve chronic insomnia. Bananas already get a lot of glory for providing potassium, essential for proper muscle and nerve function. They also pack a punch of tryptophan and so help to regulate sleep.
  3. Don’t forget the protein
    Protein is essential to produce melatonin allowing signals to the brain that it is time to sleep and also to stay asleep. But pick your protein wisely, don’t go too meat heavy or choose anything that could cause bloating, like too many beans.

Instead have some tuna – tinned is particularly good – which includes the sleep-inducing tryptophan.  It’s also high in Vitamin B6, which your body needs to make melatonin and serotonin and is important for the immune system.  Other oily fish is also good.

In addition to the nutty delights of magnesium rich almonds, try some walnuts.  They contain their own source of melatonin, unlike other foods that aid your sleep quality, these may help you fall asleep even faster.

Hard-boiled eggs are a great source of protein and by eating them at night they can help you fall and stay asleep through the night.

Dairy products that are rich in protein and calcium help the brain to use the tryptophan and also help regulate muscle movements. Greek yogurt is a top pick.

If you’re struggling to nod off, a leading nutritionist suggests that it might be worth having two slices of brown bread, some cheese, a hard-boiled egg and a glass of milk for your dinner. Hmm….

Have a milky drink, or end the day a breakfast way
The old wives’ tale suggest that warm milk can make you sleepy – turns out that science now backs this up! Dairy milk, almond milk and oat milk act in the same way and all work particularly well when mixed with a teaspoon of honey.  Also try them simmered with turmeric, cinnamon, fresh ginger and honey to increase your sleepiness.

Fortified cereals are a great source of vitamin B6 so eat a small bowl of fortified cereal making sure that it is low in sugar and adding milk of your choice if you’re hungry before bedtime and it will give you nutritional benefits and encourage sleep.

What to eat after a bad night’s sleep

If you haven’t slept well don’t succumb to the inevitable craving for sugary, fatty foods.  Go back to the beginning and start the day the way you mean to go on.  Have an orange and some berries – high in Vitamin C and containing natural sugar to give you energy quickly, but not too much to make you feel tired. Snack sensibly with some nuts and a square or three of dark chocolate thrown in. The cacao has antioxidants and can boost your energy as well as increase your focus. And avocados are packed full of vitamins, fibre and minerals, including potassium which helps prevent fatigue.

Food and drink can have a major influence on your sleep quality, duration and how quickly you fall into the land of slumber, so be mindful of your choices and reap the benefits.