Remember that time you ate some funky chicken late at night and spent the rest of it tossing and turning with gas, bloating and interrupted dreams. Why? How? What’s happening here?
Over the last few years, research from all around the world has gotten a little better at figuring out what aspects of our diet affect our sleep cycle.
Fibre: Fibre actually helps you fall asleep faster. A landmark study at Columbia University (J Clin Sleep Med 2016; 12:19-24) showed that diets high in fibre predicted a shorter stage 1 sleep duration (stage 1 is that time when you are getting drowsy, your eyes are closing and you start yawning). Also, high fibre food before bed ended up prolonging short wave sleep or SWS (let’s just say that SWS is good sleep, the sleep that actually helps restore your brain and makes you feel well rested).
Fats: The very same study showed that having saturated fats before bed tended to lower the amount of time one spent in SWS (lower SWS means less of the good sleep). So stay away from those saturated fats before bed.
Sugar/Carbohydrates: Processed carbs do other weird things to your sleep cycle. They tend to boot you out of your deep sleep and try to wake you up. The Columbia University study showed that people who were eating a lot of sugar before bed tended to have interrupted SWS cycles and to be less well rested overall, regardless of the amount of time they actually slept.
Complex Carbs: Carbs mixed with fibre (think apple, not apple juice) are a totally different story! Complex carbs increase the amount of serotonin (a brain chemical that makes you happy) in your brain’s sleep centre, thereby promoting healthy and restful sleep.
Proteins: Proteins don’t seem to mess with your sleep patterns directly. In that same study, there were no statistically significant links to sleep pattern when issues like acid reflux were controlled. But the link between high-protein diets and acidity is well known. So having excessive protein close to bedtime might leave you feeling gassy and irritable throughout the night. A simple fix is to not eat dinner so close to sleep. Try and make sure you have your protein-rich dinner at least 3 hours before your head hits the pillow.
Tryptophan: L-tryptophan is an essential amino acid. That means your body can’t make it on its own. You have to get it from the food you eat. Tryptophan is used by the body to make all kinds of cool things like vitamin B, for instance, skin cells, nerve cells and is also used by special cells in the brain to produce serotonin. That’s where the link to sleep seems to arise.
Eat more foods with tryptophan —> Make more serotonin —> Sleep better.
Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple. Tryptophan needs to have an escort to get from your digestive system into the brain. That escort is sugar! Remember how complex carbs are a good thing? How they increase serotonin levels on their own? Well, this seems to be part of the mechanism. So when you eat some protein which has a high amount of tryptophan (poultry, meats, cheese, yogurt, fish and eggs), try and balance it with a side of complex carbs (brown rice, anyone?). The tryptophan in the protein will buddy up with the fibre and the carbs and trek into your brain, leaving you ready for a good night’s sleep.
Read more: “Fiber and Saturated Fat Are Associated with Sleep Arousals and Slow Wave Sleep” at http://www.aasmnet.org/jcsm/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=30412