By Justinne Lou Go, RND
IF YOU were able to read my previous articles on this column, I’ve been doing a series on sleep being the most neglected health determinant. The three-part series touched on what it means to have good quality sleep and how to practice good sleep hygiene. Now, the final installment of this series is about certain food items that influence your sleep cycle and sleep quality.
People are probably more familiar with food items that keep them up at night — caffeine and sugar. But just as there are such food to avoid if we want to have a good night’s rest, there are also certain food items that can help us get in those good z’s.
Hormones are mainly responsible for our sleep cycle and the quality of sleep we get. These hormones are namely melatonin and serotonin and these are produced in the brain from the amino acid tryptophan.
Tryptophan, aided by Vitamin B6 or pyridoxine, is the basic component needed for the production of melatonin. It is first converted into serotonin, the hormone responsible for mood regulation and closely related to the onset or development of depression, and then further converted into melatonin. Tryptophan, being an amino acid, is mainly obtained from protein-rich food, which also often contain Vitamin B6 or pyridoxine.
Melatonin is probably the most well-known among the hormones responsible for the regulation of sleep in our body — technically called the circadian rhythm or the sleep-wake cycle — such that this hormone has become a popular supplement taken by people who have a hard time falling asleep. However, studies have shown that melatonin as a supplement is not as effective as obtaining this naturally from food.
The production of melatonin in the body is directly related to the amount of light, specifically daylight, that we expose ourselves to. This is why it is important to get the right balance of sunlight exposure and light modulation during bedtime and why we need to sleep with the lights off or at least dim the lights.
So, instead of resorting to supplements, work on your sleep hygiene habits and try these foods to tuck yourself into bed:
Tart Cherry Juice
A study by Howard et. al. (2012) in the European Journal of Nutrition has shown that drinking a glass or two of tart cherry juice (30 ml of cherry juice concentrate equivalent to 90-100 cherries diluted in 200 ml water) every day can help people with sleep problems such as insomnia or interrupted sleep. This is due to the melatonin-raising effect of the cherry juice as observed in the melatonin levels from the urine samples of the subjects in the study. It was observed that sleep quality and duration improved, with subjects getting an average of 30-40 minutes more sleep than those who did not take the cherry juice.
Of course, when choosing your juice, make sure it does not have added sugars other than the natural sugar from the fruit itself.
Lean Meat and Fish
Since tryptophan is an amino acid, it is found in protein-rich food. The best sources of tryptophan and Vitamin B6 are from fish such as salmon, tuna and halibut. Turkey is also a great source of these nutrients.
Cherry juice: melatonin
Fish (salmon, tuna, halibut): Vit B6 help in the production of tryptophan
Chickpeas: B6, tryptophan
Turkey: B6 = tryptophan
Raw garlic: B6
Fruits, Vegetables and Nuts
Banana, almond, walnuts, pistachio, raw garlic and chickpeas are also the best sources of Vitamin B6 and tryptophan. So, you may have a light bedtime snack such as a banana with a tablespoon of almond butter or a handful of almonds, pistachios or walnuts, at least an hour before bedtime to get your body into the mood.
Studies have also shown that low levels of calcium and magnesium can affect your sleep quality, so try to make sure you get your dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, romaine lettuce, malunggay), nuts and seeds every day. This is also how drinking a warm glass of milk before bedtime became a habit for some, as encouraged by grandmothers and mothers, because milk has all the components needed for a good night’s sleep. However, make sure to get organic, raw milk and only if you’re not lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy.