About a third of our adult life is spent sleeping -- or at least it should be. But many Americans aren't getting a good night's sleep, and according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep problems.
As fall sets in and the days become shorter, a lack of sunlight can interfere with sleep and may even trigger sleep disorders. Sleep deprivation can compromise our mood, work, and especially our health. Studies show that people who sleep less than six hours a night are more prone to obesity and are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
A 2008 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research suggests that even one night of sleep deprivation can raise levels of the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin in normal-weight, healthy men, which "in the long run may increase weight gain and obesity." Other studies show that children who don't receive adequate sleep are more likely to be overweight, and a decade of research has shown sleep deprivation is a risk factor for diabetes.
While numerous medical issues such as chronic pain or sleep apnea can interfere with a restful slumber, stress and an overactive nervous system is the culprit for most of us. We may not have much control over work schedules or stress levels, but sleep can be positively or negatively influenced by diet.
Foods that provide B vitamins promote wakefulness and improve mood throughout the day while encouraging restful sleep at night. Whole grains, dark leafy greens, legumes and meats are the best food sources, but to ensure a deep and consistent slumber try a B-complex supplement with breakfast or lunch.
If you're a caffeine user--90 percent of us are--keep in mind that the half-life of caffeine is five hours (up to 10 if you use oral contraceptives). Stop caffeine use four to six hours before you plan to sleep. Though green tea is a source of caffeine, it has only one-third the amount of caffeine of coffee, and it will keep your mind alert without delaying sleep onset.
Eat dessert early. The simple sugars in sweets, including juice and soda, will reach your bloodstream just as you've fallen asleep and can interfere with a restful sleep (and they contribute to weight gain).
If you're hungry before bed, have an easy-to-digest snack such as yogurt or a protein shake. Foods rich in the amino acid L-tryptophan--turkey, pasta, potatoes and plain yogurt--stimulate serotonin production, lulling you into sleep.
Spicy food is also a problem. Australian researchers found that a spicy meal before bed can lead to poor sleep by raising body temperature and metabolism, so be sure to eat chili, curries and the like at least five hours before bedtime. Gas-forming foods like onions, broccoli, beans, and lentils can also disrupt sleep as they move through your digestive system.
Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it disturbs sleep quality by suppressing the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) phase of sleep--the most restorative sleep phase--and can worsen sleep apnea.
Supplement support for a sound sleep
Known as the "anti-stress" mineral, magnesium relaxes the body and calms the nervous system. Eat foods rich in magnesium--pumpkin seeds, almonds, and green vegetables--at or after dinner and take a magnesium supplement just before bed (combine with bone-builders calcium and vitamin D for best results). Begin with 150 mg of magnesium and increase if necessary.
The hormone melatonin regulates the circadian rhythm--the sleep cycle. It's also a powerful antioxidant. Released as sunlight disappears, melatonin 'informs' the body that it's time to sleep. If you struggle to fall asleep, oral melatonin taken minutes before bedtime might help. The right dosage varies from person to person so speak to your doctor or health practitioner to find the amount that works best for you. In addition, sleep in a completely dark room to maximize melatonin production.
Finally, get to bed by 10 p.m. every night. That's when the adrenal glands work the hardest to help the body recover from the effects of stress.
(Lisa Tsakos is a Registered Nutritionist and a regular contributor to NaturallySavvy.com, a website that educates people on the benefits of living a natural, organic and green lifestyle. For more information and to sign up for their newsletter, visit www.NaturallySavvy.com.)