Sleep is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Lack of sleep kills productivity and makes sticking to your fat loss regimen a lot tougher. Research is continually showing those who sleep less than 6 hours a night gain more weight over time than those who sleep the recommended 7 to 8 hours per night.
In our hyper-connected and stimulated world, sleep hygiene has plummeted. In fact, in 2011 over 15 million NHS prescriptions were given for sleep medication (1). This is a major problem.
Relying on sleep medication isn’t a long-term solution. In addition to reducing stress, having a regular sleep schedule and avoiding electronics prior to bed, there are certain foods and natural strategies that can greatly improve our ability to fall asleep at night.
For the clients we deal with on a daily basis, these are the top five dietary habits we believe to be the most beneficial and applicable to improving their sleep.
Consume a Carb Rich Meal Before Bed
One of the major ‘tricks’ we use with our personal training clients is to strategically position a good portion of their daily carbohydrate intake at night. After the initial low carb period we use with the majority of our clients (not all, but if we take our typical 20% body fat, sedentary and stressed client as an example), the two windows we like to add carbs in are post workout, and before bed.
In optimal cases, post workout is probably best, but if you’re someone who struggles with sleep and trains in the morning or afternoon, you may want to move it to bedtime (if your carbs are a little higher, you can split it between the two).
It’ll help you relax more and induce a quicker onset of sleep.
Bedtime carbs offer multiple advantages that extend beyond sleep improvements.
- Helps hunger. When you’re on low calories, your pretty much always hungry, especially towards the end of the day. In bodybuilding circles, suffering and hunger is part of the parcel, and competitors embrace it. Yet in the real world with normal people, it’s one of the most common reasons they fall off the wagon. Having a satiating bowl of porridge, or a sweet potato can really help curb cravings, and maintain adherence.
- Fits with the lifestyle. Most of our clients have busy lives, both professionally and personally. Allowing more carbs at dinner can help them relax a little after work, enjoy their meal and make the diet part of a sustainable lifestyle.
- Better body composition. If you’ve been following UP a while, you know that we don’t subscribe to the ‘no carbs after 6pm’ myth. It’s a myth that has been dissected multiple times now, and one we know now to be complete nonsense. Interestingly, recent research showed the group who consumed carbohydrates only at night lost more body fat than those who ate them in the morning, even when calories were matched. Improvements in insulin sensitivity, hunger scores and hormonal profiles were all contributing factors.
Trytophan and Serotonin
We know carbs are good at night – but why?
To understand the mechanisms by which this works, it’s important to explain the roles of tryptophan and serotonin.
Tryptophan is an amino acid which is found in turkey, fish and even bananas. One of its functions is to act as a precursor to various neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain), in particular serotonin. Carbohydrates are responsible for helping drive tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier and make it more available to the brain to produce serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps calm you down and regulates sleep, making an increase prior to bedtime perfect for someone who struggles to sleep.
What’s the ideal meal?
The key here is we want low glycemic carbohydrate sources. This isn’t the time to eat junk. An ideal solution would be a bowl of oatmeal after your supper. If your carb allowance permits, adding some chopped banana on top will enhance the effect due to its high tryptophan content.
Alternatively, salmon and sweet potatoes, or turkey and rice also make great options for dinner that adhere to the two principles discussed so far.
Magnesium and Calcium
Nearly every client that walks through the door raves about the improvements in sleep they get in the first two weeks of training with us.
One of the first habits we change is to vastly increase the consumption of greens in our clients’ diets. By default, their magnesium and calcium intake skyrockets.
Magnesium and calcium both have a critical role to play in sleep.
The benefits of magnesium are vast. Specifically to sleep, it can help in muscle relaxation, deactivation of adrenaline and the reduction of cortisol.
Calcium helps the body to use tryptophan to manufacture melatonin, which is a hormone that helps control your sleep and wake cycles.
Besides leafy greens, healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados and oily fish such as salmon are all high in magnesium and calcium, and are a part of the recommended food choices at UP.
For a number of our clients, we prescribe magnesium supplementation as well. When doing so, it’s important to use chelated forms of magnesium to optimise absorption. In fact, magnesium is so popular with our clients that some of them refer to it as the ‘sleep pill’.
Ditch Caffeine for Herbal Tea
It’s very rare we meet a first time client who isn’t consuming too much caffeine. Our sleep deprived, work driven society means a growing number of people turn to caffeine to provide them with ‘energy’.
A rule of thumb we like to give our personal training clients is to stop all caffeinated products after 2pm. Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours, so if you consume a cup of coffee (100mg) at 2pm, you’ll still have 50mg in your bloodstream at 8pm.
The problem is, most people’s caffeine habits are so excessive they’ll drink tea and coffee all through the day to keep them going. This will negatively impact sleep and their ability to experience deep, quality sleep.
If you do enjoy a hot drink in the evening, opt for herbal teas instead.
Valerian, lavender and chamomile tea are amongst the best due to their ability to help relax the body, making it the perfect choice for the evening.
Whilst your granddad may have suggested a night-cap to set you off to sleep, you may just be making things worse by doing so.
It is true that alcohol can have a sedative effect, especially red wine, yet this is short sighted, as sleep will be negatively affected in the latter stages where ‘REM’ (rapid eye movement) is greatest. The problem with drinking before bed is that your body can’t enter deep sleep until the alcohol is metabolised.
Many of our clients need to attend social functions during the week where alcohol is involved. Although the ideal scenario would be abstaining completely, sometimes this isn’t possible. Opting for clean spirits and focusing on staying hydrated at the same time is important to minimise the negative effect of sleep.
To conclude, whilst the above five pointers will serve you well in optimising your diet for more restful sleep, there is a caveat.
When it comes to sleep, you must make time for it. What we see with a vast majority of our clients, even ourselves, is how easy it is to work an extra couple of hours at night and find yourself left with 5 hours of sleep before you’re up again. No matter what the quality of your diet is, you must prioritise sleep and get at least 7 to 8 hours in order to reap the benefits food choices can make.
(1) – Barton, Laura. “Sleeping Pills, Britain’s Hidden Addiction”. The Guardian. August 20, 2012.
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