Diet for Insomnia
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
– Specific foods to help you sleep better
Most people have experienced insomnia or some type of sleep difficulty at least once in their life. It could be from a short-term disturbance such as being restless or unwell, the bedroom too hot, cold, bright or noisy, your partner snoring, or a dog, cat or young child in bed with you taking up space.
These types of short-term interferences with sleep certainly affect you next day but are often easily overcome.
But when sleep is disrupted over a longer period, this can undermine your ability to function properly and can even negatively affect your immune system.
Almost all cases of chronic insomnia can be traced to one or more situations, be it from a medical condition or a diet or lifestyle choice. In this article, we look at diet and lifestyle factors, but do check with your doctor to see if you have any medical conditions that need attention.
Medical imbalances that can trigger insomnia are: gastro-oesophageal-reflux disease (GERD), sleep apnoea, restless legs syndrome, arthritis, kidney or heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer or Parkinson’s disease, depression, anxiety, and other mental-health disorders. And then there are possible side effects of certain medications that can trigger insomnia and even hormonal imbalances.
These disorders can affect neuron function, cause pain, interfere with breathing or trigger major muscle movements, all of which can lead to your sleep being affected.
That’s why it is important to have changes in sleep patterns checked out by a doctor to rule out the possibility of a medical disorder.
There are many lifestyle factors that can affect sleep patterns, some of which can be due to overstimulation of the nervous system from substances such as caffeine, sugar, alcohol, mental stimulation, blue screen effect (computers, phones), watching stimulating television before bedtime (e.g. murder mysteries or horror shows), ongoing stress, anxiousness or worries, being overtired, evening exercise, changes in routine or eating too late or too heavy. Let’s consider…
Even moderate grades of stress can drain your adrenal reserves and a hormone called DHEA. This is commonly seen in menopausal women and can account for some women not sleeping well when they have this hormonal ‘change of life’. But this can happen to anyone at any age.
Another stress hormone from the adrenal glands called cortisol (our wake up and run away from danger hormone) can trigger insomnia, especially if the level is elevated at night. Strangely, cortisol levels for some can be low during the day when it is meant to be high and high at night when it is meant to be low so we can’t sleep.
This could be because of a need to adjust the ‘body clock’ affected by travel, shift work, or staying up late at night. Substances that can help are melatonin and good essential fats (more on this later).
Get professional help to make sure you have ruled out any medical conditions. But before you reach for the sleeping pills, try some of the foods that research has shown can help with poor sleep patterns.
Most people are aware that caffeine can trigger insomnia, but are unaware how long this effect can last. Some need to stop drinking caffeine by 3pm; for others, they’re in trouble if they have coffee after 10am.
Caffeine can be found in many soft drinks/sodas, tea, coffee (iced or hot), some protein shakes and even chocolate.
One lady saw me for help with insomnia and weight gain. She was a competitive body builder who drank up to four litres of diet cola drinks a day to help boost her metabolism and dehydrate her body for better muscle definition.
Because it wasn’t coffee, she didn’t realise that her drinks were loaded with caffeine. On top of the diet cola she consumed a lot of artificial sugars that were detrimental to her health. Mornings also included some ‘pre-work out’ powders which I found contained a lot of caffeine in the form of gurana, a herbal stimulant, and straight caffeine for ‘extra punch’ as the label stated.
She was loading her body with caffeine and wondered why she couldn’t sleep. Initially she thought this would be good for her metabolism but after a while, the constant stimulation triggered the stress hormone cortisol which actually made it even harder to sleep and she put on weight, even though she thought she was doing everything right.
You may think, ‘that amount of caffeine would be enough to keep anyone awake, but I only have one cup of coffee a day for morning tea’. Well, while some can drink coffee just before bedtime and still sleep soundly, many cannot.
Experiment with your time frames, or substitute coffee with decaff, which still has some caffeine and tastes ok, or drop coffee all together. Try non-caffeinated Rooibos tea. See if these help you to sleep better.
It’s true that a drink (or two) can make you sleepy and may help you get to sleep. But after a few hours, alcohol can cause frequent awakenings and lighter, less restful sleep. I strongly recommend omitting alcohol for a few weeks to see if it resolves your sleep problem.
Outside noises and light, partner’s snoring, a dog or cat in the same bed, a child crying, shift work…these are all factors that can influence poor sleep, particularly if you don’t do anything about them.
For instance, my husband’s snoring stopped the day I bought the earplugs. The external street light that disturbed my sleep vanished the day I bought an eye mask. The dog or cat can be ‘re-programmed’ to sleep in another room. Partners can share child crying issues.
Shift work can be more difficult, but respect can help. Respect from other members of the household to be quiet while someone has to sleep during the day. Respect for oneself by setting up a cosy dark room, soundproofed as possible, perhaps cooled by a fan or air-conditioning and if necessary play soothing music or sounds of nature (water, rainforest). Also ensure that regular sleep patterns are established and maintained so the body knows when it’s time for sleep.
Eating a large dinner, or even a large bedtime snack may make you feel drowsy but the drowsiness may not last. When you lie down and try to sleep there’s a good chance you’ll feel uncomfortably full which can keep you awake. Even worse you may develop heartburn/reflux or gas which will only increase your discomfort.
Optimally eat at least three hours before bed and keep the meal size to one that doesn’t cause you to feel full or bloated.
Digestion uses up a lot of energy so even if you do sleep you won’t feel as rested when you wake up the next day because your body has been working hard all night digesting foods. This can also cause weight gain as all the food energy is not being used up, so it’s stored away in the body (somewhat like hibernation, but then you start to eat again the next day – not in three or four months).
By the way, Sumo wrestlers (those big guys) eat and then nap so the food isn’t used up and instead is stored so they get bigger. If you want to look like a Sumo wrestler that’s fine – but I suggest that they have many other health issues.
If you tend to wake up in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom, then it’s best to avoid drinking water or any fluids from 90 minutes before bedtime. It takes that long for your body to process liquid of any type (including soup). If you must have something to drink, such as for a prescribed medication, take a few small sips. If the medication requires a full glass of water take it earlier in the evening if possible.
Going to the toilet during the night can stimulate your body and mind and potentially keep you awake. As well, your sleep patter will be disturbed and it may take a while to get back to the deep restful REM sleep that is needed to feel energised the next day.
Sometimes going to the toilet in the middle of the night can become a habit, created because you are awake and decide to go to the toilet, rather than really needing to go. Then the body forms a pattern and keeps waking you each night, similar to how you can wake up by habit just before the alarm. This is best broken by simply not getting up unless you really feel ‘busting’ to go and after a couple of nights you won’t be woken that way.
If you continue to need to go to the toilet even if you haven’t drunk water for a couple of hours before bedtime then see your doctor to check your bladder, kidneys and prostate (for the guys) to see if there are any problems. Other possible issues to consider are constipation (pressure on bladder when you lie down), prolapsed uterus or bladder, urinary tract infections and even spinal nerve compressions (check with an osteopath or similar).
Vitamin & Mineral deficiencies (or excess)
Certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies can create imbalances that lead to insomnia, such as being low in magnesium, B6, zinc, essential fatty acids (good fats) or tryptophan which is an amino acid (comes from protein) that triggers the pathways to make melatonin and serotonin which help us to sleep well.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can relate to lifestyle, because stress, alcohol, the contraceptive pill and certain medications can actually rob the body of valuable vitamin and minerals that are needed to support the hormone and neurotransmitter pathways that help with sleep.
Excess vitamins or taking certain vitamins at night time such as B6, B12 or vitamin C can keep some people awake or have a restless sleep. Vitamins taken through the day that haven’t been metabolised properly or fully cleared from the body before bedtime can also stimulate some people. Some people get ‘bad’, weird or bizarre dreams from certain vitamins like the B’s if not cleared or utilized by the body.
Naps encourage insomnia
People with insomnia often resort to afternoon naps to catch up on missed sleep, but that can be a mistake. Napping encourages insomnia because you’ll be less likely to be tired at bedtime if you sleep during the day. It can become a counterproductive habit. Fight the urge, or instead, go for a walk. But if you must nap, don’t sleep for more than 20 minutes. After a day or two of not napping, your body will learn that the proper time for sleep is when you lie down in bed at the end of a day. However if you are unwell then napping is important to assist the body to heal faster.
How often have you had something on your mind and couldn’t sleep? Yet if you could have ‘erased’ those thoughts then sleep would follow quickly. So is the solution to simply stop thinking? Easier said than done, because it’s not really possible to stop thinking because the mind is always active, but there are some techniques that may help.
For example, you could develop a habit that prior to walking into the bedroom, any heavy mental activity is switched off, where you flick on an imaginary ‘postpone button’, so that any issues are left until the next day, because there’s not much you can do about them while lying in bed.
Consider the bedroom as your sanctuary, a place of calm. If any thoughts or ideas pop up, simply make a note into a notepad by the bed and leave them there to be dealt with tomorrow, rather than let them continue to rumble around inside your head.
And if those ‘tiresome’ thoughts continue, bring yourself back to the present moment. Focus on your breathing, feel the sheets on your body, bring your attention to your shoulders, neck, jaw, eyes and simply allow them to relax as you sink into your body. Focusing on your body rather than thoughts is a great way to ‘drop off’ to sleep.
Among the best natural sedatives is an amino acid component of many plant and animal proteins called tryptophan. Tryptophan is one of the ingredients the body needs to make serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter which then converts to melatonin, the sleep-inducing neurotransmitter.
A study of people with chronic insomnia found that all had improvements on all measures of sleep after three weeks of taking tryptophan supplements or eating foods high in tryptophan along with carbohydrates (which are needed to get tryptophan into the brain). The food sources worked just as well as the supplements.
When night-time munchies come calling, a plain rice cracker (those are your carbs) with a slice of turkey (that’s your tryptophan source) is the perfect sleep-inducing snack. Other good options are banana slices (tryptophan) with fresh or frozen coconut yogurt. Dinner option can include the tryptophan rich foods such as nuts, seeds, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, beans, lentils and eggs, served with a carb such as vegetables like sweet potato.
Exercise regularly, early in the day
Some scientists believe that regular exercise may be the single best and safest method to improve sleep.
Sensible exercise has many wonderful benefits for the body, all of which can contribute to better sleep. Exercise forces the body to work harder than usual, which means that we generally mean we sleep deeper as part of the body’s way to recuperate from the physical exertion.
Exercise also increases our natural production of endorphins that lead to feelings of calm and well–being. However time of day matters because if we ‘work out’ at night, this can be energizing, ultimately keeping you awake. If you find yourself struggling with insomnia, limit exercise to the morning or afternoon rather than the nights. Calming routines like stretching are fine at night (or anytime).
Daily wind down time
One of the main issues that I see with clients who come in with sleep issues is that their mind is too overactive. They may have a big day at work or running around doing things and then fall into bed exhausted, fall asleep easily but then wake up during the night after the body has had its ‘nap’. Then they are ‘wired’, thinking of what they need to do the next day, or thinking about various issues and their stress. The mind doesn’t want to switch off once it has had some rest.
It is very important to have some wind down time after your day has finished and give yourself time to ‘process’ the day.
This might mean writing a ‘to-do’ list for the next day, unloading by writing in your journal about your stressful day at work, and then having some relaxation time such as taking a relaxing bath with Epsom salts (magnesium salts) and lavender oil. Magnesium is a huge relaxer of muscles and nerves. Just don’t make the bath too hot or that can be stimulating.
For some, reading a light book can help to turn on the zzzzd’s. I say light book, for two reasons, one is that a heavy book can be hard to hold up and if you drop off to sleep you may hit yourself in the head (I’ve done that) but I’m also referring to a book that is not too stimulating, or you will be excited about the storyline and won’t want to sleep so you can find out what’s going to happen in the next chapter. It’s the same with television programs, some are great to put you to sleep and others can be stimulating (especially the emotional, scary, or violent ones).
Practice good sleep habits and patterns
A regular schedule of going to bed and waking will allow your body to learn to associate certain times of day with a particular part of your sleep rhythm. The same can be said for meal times, exercise times etc. If you have a child you will know how much more settled and how much better your child sleeps if they have a good routine or rhythm in their day. We’re the same.
White noise can help
For many people, noise that is steady and background is easier to tune out to than the erratic sound of snoring, the rumble of traffic, or the music choices of your neighbours. For others, total silence is disturbing. You can buy white-noise machines that emit a steady whirring or purring sound, like the sound of wind rustling through leaves.
When my son was younger (maybe he still does this now that he’s in his 30’s?) he always needed the fan on even in the middle of winter. He would curl up under his covers and the noise of the fan and the gentle breeze in his face, helped him to sleep much better. This also helped us to sleep when there was a loud party next door.
While a diet for insomnia is not considered a cure, the idea is to eliminate foods considered detrimental, and include foods to ensure easy healthy digestion to support and bring balance to the body. That’s why it is so important to exclude antagonistic foods and drinks such as gluten, dairy, additives and sugar.
A diet for insomnia should have breakfasts and lunches that are rich in nutrients to give your body the building blocks for the neurotransmitters needed for a good sleep. Choose dinners that are lighter to give you a better chance of a good night’s sleep.
By understanding these principles, it’s easy to see why we feel sleepy after certain foods or heavy meals. Think Christmas, Thanksgiving or other celebratory meals and how sleepy you can feel after eating.
There are many simple foods that can make a huge difference (see below) and certainly worth trying to help you get a good night’s sleep. But if this doesn’t help, seek advice from a health practitioner as lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can have severe detrimental effects on your health and vitality.
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Note: During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Specific foods to help you sleep better
Turkey and other rich tryptophan foods such as nuts (especially walnuts), seeds, red meat, chicken, fish, beans, lentils and eggs,
Cherries contain melatonin, the chemical that helps control our body’s internal sleep clock. One study found that drinking tart cherry juice resulted in small improvements in sleep duration and quality in adults who suffered from chronic insomnia.
Almonds are rich in magnesium, a mineral needed for quality sleep and relaxation. A study published in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine found that when the body’s magnesium levels are too low, it makes it harder to sleep. Other good sources of magnesium are leafy green vegetables, other nuts, seeds, fish, beans, gluten-free whole grains, avocados, bananas, dried fruit and dairy-free dark chocolate.
Fish such as tuna, halibut, and salmon are high in vitamin B6, which your body needs to make melatonin and serotonin. Other foods high in B6 include raw garlic, pistachio nuts, liver, bananas and turkey.
Chamomile tea. According to research, drinking chamomile tea increases glycine, a substance that relaxes nerves and muscles and acts as a mild sedative.
Green leafy vegetables like kale are loaded with calcium, which helps the brain use tryptophan to make melatonin to help us sleep better. Spinach and mustard greens are other good options.
Chickpeas are also a good source of tryptophan, so a light dinner of hummus and crackers made from rice, corn or flaxmeal (to help the tryptophan reach the brain) could be a good way to support getting to sleep. My husband and I used to go to Zumba which started at 6.30pm and we didn’t eat for a few hours before so we weren’t too full for the activity. But if we we’re hungry when we got home, we enjoyed some hummus dip with carrot and cucumber slices as a light snack so we didn’t wake from hunger, but were not too full to sleep.
Bananas are rich in potassium (another relaxing mineral) and a good source of Vitamin B6, which is needed to make melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone triggered by darkness. The bananas don’t make you sleepy, but they give your body the nutrients needed during the day to make the necessary hormones and neurotransmitters at night to help you sleep.
Note: If you find this insomnia diet is ineffective, while not a food, a diet that could be worth discussing with your health practitioner is a ketogenic diet. Research shows that for some people the keto diet is proving effective in increasing GABA, a relaxation neurotransmitter that helps reduce anxiety, improves sleep quality, and decreases ‘raciness’ of the mind.
The Keto diet uses fat as its main energy source rather than carbohydrates which are said to decrease the amount of glutamate. Think mono sodium glutamate (MSG) at nerve synapes, which is called an excitatory substance that increases raciness of the nervous system. Carbs alone can do that (make the nerves racy) so it makes sense that a fat and protein rich diet low in carbs could calm the nervous system and promote better sleep quality. This way of eating doesn’t make you sleepy but more relaxed.
Histamine elevation and insomnia link
Histamine is a neurotransmitter known to modulate our sleep rhythms (as well as being a part of the allergy response) and anti-histamines classically make us sleepy. I’m not suggesting to take anti-histamines to help you sleep, but if you have allergy type symptoms such as hay-fever, eczema, skin rashes, sneezing bouts etc, then it is worth considering that you may have a histamine intolerance.
Many foods in a diet for insomnia are high in histamine, so if you find that your sleep gets worse rather than better, it is worth trying a Low Histamine Diet instead, but check with your health care practitioner.
Client name and identifying information changed
When Judy saw me for a consultation, she said, “I sleep like a baby, waking every 2-3 hrs. But I want to sleep like my teenage son who sleeps like a log and even sleeps through a thunderstorm”.
Now I haven’t seen any research on the sleeping patterns of lumps of wood, but I do know if a mum’s sleeping like a baby, she’s probably waking several times a night.
Judy was going through a rough patch with her husband and was finding it difficult to know what to do with her life, which was having a huge impact on her ability to sleep well.
Judy woke every few hours, tossing and turning, and couldn’t get back to sleep for more than an hour, only to fall asleep again for a while and then wake again. By morning she was exhausted, grumpy and unable to cope with the stress of her upcoming day. Being overtired also meant she didn’t have the energy to talk to her husband about what was bothering her. It was a vicious cycle heading for divorce if things didn’t change quickly.
As a stay at home mum for the first couple of years of her son’s life, Judy did all the chores at home, which she enjoyed. But when she went back to work, the routine stayed the same in that she worked, plus continued to do all the chores.
Basically, Judy needed to express herself better, but didn’t have the energy or the space to think clearly enough to do so. Then with the work stress on top of the house stress, Judy was overwhelmed.
I asked Judy if she could get time off work for a few days (away from the family) for some ‘me’ time.
Consequently, she booked into a cheap hotel near a beach she loved and organised massages, facials and other beauty spoils, including long walks on the beach and swims in the ocean. Knowing she didn’t have to go to work, the stress of poor sleep patterns was one less thing to worry about. The time away was also phone call free so there was no needy child, husband, or work to interrupt her rest time.
I gave her a list of foods to eat and what to avoid, which included no coffee, alcohol, gluten, dairy and sugar to give her body a rest. This was a healthy, nurturing holiday that gave her time to think and contemplate about her life and what she wanted to do.
The combination of these things made a huge difference. After a few days, Judy was sleeping well again and armed with what to discuss with her husband and son about what needed to change at home.
Before she left for her break she constantly yelled at her son to clean his room, do the dishes and his homework. Her husband was taking her for granted and loved the fact that she mowed the lawns, cooked all the meals and cleaned the whole house.
He didn’t even know there was an issue, but I think he must have worked it out because while Judy was away he swung into action and when Judy got home she was surprised to see the whole house was spotless. Both the son and hubby realised that things needed to change, and were very receptive when Judy said they all needed to share the load.
Judy also found that her new food choices helped because she no longer had twitching muscles and restless legs because of the high magnesium foods I recommended. She was calmer and hormonally balanced with the B6 rich foods (and her previous PMS symptoms faded). Judy said her digestive system felt much better, with less bloating and flatulence once she was off gluten, dairy, and (almost) sugar, with only the occasional piece of dairy-free chocolate.
Judy now has more free time to relax and enjoy herself with the ‘space’ to ponder on the important stuff. With less issues spinning around her head at night, she now sleeps…like a log!