October Newsletter: Nutrition Article (The Sleep Edition)

Whole 9 South Pacific‘s nutritionist Jamie Scott reminds us that sleep is an essential part of any healthy lifestyle. 

How to improve your sleep – the before lunch edition

We know that people are very food-focused and like to manage much of their health through diet – and rightly so.  However, good health cannot come solely through diet alone and at the exclusion of the many other lifestyle factors which go hand-in-hand with dietary changes.  This is none more true than for sleep.

A good night’s sleep, every night, is critical for ALL aspects of your health.  There is no part of your biology which can function optimally, even if you eat and exercise well, when your sleep is off.  Certainly you can feel okay on suboptimal sleeping patterns if you are eating well and you are keeping your body fit through low-stress exercise.  But okay is not the same as optimal.  It is only a bit better than average and, let’s face it, when you look around, ‘average’ isn’t a particularly high standard these days.

Most people actually agree and recognise that sleep is important.  But most people I present sleep workshops to seem to be largely clueless as to how to fix their sleep.  Their hope, in most cases, is that they just go to bed one night (usually after watching all the late shows), fall into a deep sleep within minutes, and wake up the next morning, on time, and thoroughly refreshed.  If only.

The biology of sleep is much more complex than this.  To sort through the common sleep issues, and to improve sleep, takes, at the outset, a similar set of planning, dedication, and focus as an exercise routine (yes, I can hear the groans from here. It is what it is).  And like a solid fitness routine, you cannot just rock on up to it 5 minutes before you hope to throw down a top performance – something far too many people attempt to with their sleep.

The fact is, there is much about the quality of your sleep that is predicated on what you do throughout the day.  From your light exposure patterns, to your food, your caffeine intake, the timing of your exercise, and your bedroom environment – all of these factors intertwine themselves into your sleep.  The fact that you have climbed into bed relatively tired, yet cannot fall asleep might very well be linked to what you had for breakfast that morning.  Truth.

So here are three evidence-based strategies, which you can put in place immediately, to improve your sleep.  And they all begin as soon as you get out of bed in the morning.

1.  See the Light
In order to set up good rhythms between the hormones which put you to sleep and those which wake you up, you need to get bright, natural light exposure, direct to the eyes, as early as possible in the morning.  Without this, and if your light exposure patterns in the evening are abnormal, it is likely that the hormone which should put you to sleep isn’t high enough come bed time and is actually too high come wake up time.  Thus making it hard to fall asleep and hard to wake up.

Getting up and drawing the curtains to get the first rays of natural light in your eyes will help suppress the hormone that is making you feel sleepy in the morning and will help boost the hormone which helps wake you up.

2. Big Breakfast
If you want to be able to fall asleep with ease at night, you need to be able to produce large amounts of melatonin after the sun has gone down.  To produce large amounts of melatonin, you need to be able to produce large amounts of its precursor, serotonin.  To make large amounts of serotonin, you need to be able to get bright light in the eyes early in the day (see point 1), AND, you need to be ingesting, via your diet, large amounts of the serotonin building block, tryptophan.  Tryptophan is an amino acid, found in high-protein foods of predominantly animal origin.  Your average cereal-based breakfast just won’t cut it (and will likely make things worse).  Having a high-protein breakfast (eggs, anyone?) floods your body with the prerequisite building blocks necessary to put you to sleep at night.

3. More Light
So you have had the first burst of light into the eyes just after awakening, and you have sat down for a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs (I recommend Gordon Ramsey style).  Next you need to get more light in the eyes, which can be easily done on your morning commute (or a morning walk if you are lucky enough to avoid the traffic).  The light helps you wake up more, but also drives the conversion of your high-protein breakfast to the much needed serotonin.  This is why this doesn’t happen at night – why a high-protein dinner meal won’t do the same trick.  Because you need the bright natural light to drive it.

There are some more ‘after-12’ tricks which can help with your sleep, but we will cover those next time.

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