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food and sleep

Foods You Can Eat To Help You Sleep

The Eat to Sleep Connection

The process of sleep and getting enough is one of the most frequent reasons many Americans suffer from a wide range of problems. There are numerous ways to help attain the state of sleep and get more of it by eating the right foods beforehand. But first, more information about the process of sleep is needed before detailing what foods will help in the sleep process.

Sleep & Deprivation

Sleep is a naturally recurring state by most species, characterized by reduced or absent consciousness, relatively suspended sensory activity and inactivity of nearly all voluntary muscles. Sleep is an increased anabolic state, promoting the growth and rebuilding of the nervous, skeletal immune and muscular systems. It is universal in all mammals, all birds, and many reptiles, amphibians and fish.

Chronic lack of sleep can have an extremely deleterious effect on every physiological, mental and emotional state. Sleep deprivation or insomnia has been linked to numerous problems including mental fatigue, mood disorders, depression and general physical breakdown, leading to loss of on-the-job productivity, increased risk of traffic and job-related accidents and even suicide.

The average adult sleep requirement is between seven and nine hours per day, nine to ten hours for a child, while elderly people usually sleep six to seven hours. Unfortunately, less sleep is common in modern societies; and sustained limitation of adult sleep to five or less hours per day correlates with negative effects in physiology and mental state, including fatigue, aggression, and bodily distress.

Few studies have compared the effects of acute total sleep deprivation and chronic partial sleep restriction. Complete absence of sleep over long periods is impossible to achieve and experiments with lab animals have resulted in death. A majority of the world’s population suffers from sleep deprivation, while others are plagued with more the serious problem of chronic insomnia that requires medical intervention.

Sleep Biology

There are some foods that can actually have a positive effect in helping to induce sleep, but first the dynamics and relationship of how sleep, relaxation and its complex consequences with the chemistry of the food cycle, must be understood.

Tryptophan is the most often mentioned element of some foods that is responsible for triggering a state of relaxation and helping to induce sleepiness. It is a protein-building amino acid and a routine element of most protein-based foods. But unlike some amino acids, it is an absolutely essential component for the body because the body cannot manufacture it on its own. Tryptophan plays many roles in animals and humans alike and its ingestion it is an essential precursor to the development of a number of neurotransmitters in the brain and is the only substance that can be converted into the sleep-inducing neurotransmitter Serotonin.

Serotonin is primarily found in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and is also nestled within platelets and in the central nervous system that produce amino acids, peptides, and monoamines. About 90 percent is found in the intestine where it regulates appetite, sleep, temperature, mood, behavior, memory, learning, muscle contraction and essential functions of both the cardiovascular and endocrine systems. Once Serotonin is biochemically converted from Tryptophan, it is subsequently converted into Melatonin, a compound which assists the sleep process as well as balancing mood and sleep patterns in plants, animals and microbes.

Many beneficial biological effects of melatonin are produced through the activation of melatonin receptors, while others are due to its role as a pervasive and powerful antioxidant, with a particular role in the protection of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA.

Sleep and Foods

Several foods contain Tryptophan and it is particularly plentiful in chocolate, oats, corn, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, fish, poultry, red meat, chickpeas, spiraling, bananas, peanuts, and also in sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Despite popular belief that turkey has a particularly high amount of Tryptophan, it is also found in the same quantities in other poultry and beef. Eating a diet rich in carbohydrates and low in protein will increase serotonin by secreting insulin, which helps in amino acid production. In humans, serotonin levels are affected by diet and an increase in the ratio of Tryptophan to phenylalanine and leonine also increases serotonin levels. Fruits that have a substantial ratio include papayas, dates and bananas. Foods with a lower ratio actually inhibit the production of serotonin. These include whole wheat and rye bread. [5]

The Tryptophan Sleep Menu

Tryptophan Content of Various Foods [g/100 g of food]:

Dried egg whites – 1.00

Dried Spiraling – 0.93

Dried Atlantic Cod – 0.70

Raw Soybeans – 0.59

Pumpkin Seed – 0.57

Parmesan Cheese – 0.56

Caribou – 0.46

Sesame seed – 0.37

Pistachio – 0.28

Cashew – 0.25

Pork Chop – 0.25

Turkey– 0.24

Chicken – 0.24

Beef – 0.23

Salmon – 0.22

Lamb Chop – 0.21

Atlantic Perch – 0.21

Almond – 0.21

Egg – 0.17

White Wheat Flour – 0.13

Baking Chocolate – 0.13

Milk – 0.08

White Rice – 0.08

Cooked Oatmeal – 0.04

Russet Potato – 0.01

Soup and Warm Foods

Having something warm in your stomach has a calming effect on the body. Eating warm foods has a psychological effect which calms the central nervous system. However, the amount of food we consume should be kept to a minimum prior to bedtime. The proximity of consuming large amounts of food closer to sleep time makes our digestive system work harder, thus inhibiting sleep. When preparing soups for bedtime, spend a little more time cooking it to make it easier for the digestive system to break it down.

Eating a combination of Tryptophan-rich foods and carbohydrates helps we get to the sleeping zone. Just like living a healthy life, finding the perfect balance in the types of food eaten before sleep makes this effort beneficial to overall health. Those who just can’t sleep without taking a snack should replace salty snacks with fiber-packed fruits. They are also high in antioxidants and help rid the body of toxins while sleeping. Late night cravings don’t have to be sacrificed, but replaced with healthy ones. Those with a sweet tooth will surely love the all-natural sweetness in fruits.


Oatmeal is a great source for serotonin-producing and system calming carbohydrates known to stimulate the release of serotonin. Try making this bedtime meal a little bit healthier by including a few fruits in the mix. This way, you now have two food groups working to help you sleep better.

Warm Milk

Many people grow up believing that drinking warm milk helps us fall asleep faster only because mom just wanted to sneak in a few more nutrients. But it has been proven to be medically sound, as milk also contains a good amount of  Tryptophan amino acids. Milk is also a rich source of calcium which is vital in the production of melatonin which regulates the sleep wake-sleep cycle.

Other Alternatives…

Before heading to the kitchen cupboard or refrigerator for those healthy snacks, eating your way to sleep does not exactly mean giving in to your guilty pleasure food cravings. The combination of a full stomach and sleep time can lead to weight problems. Too much food during sleep turns into fat because the body’s metabolism slows down and does not burn calories effectively while you sleep.

Finally, if these foods have little or no effect in helping you sleep, there are a wide range of medical, pharmaceutical and supplemental alternatives. Both Tryptophan and melatonin have been available in the United States since the 1990s as over-the-counter dietary supplements in drug and health food stores. A physician may also recommend alternative sleeping patterns—such as sleep hygiene and exercise—before prescribing medication.

Written by Ronald Uy, RN

© April 2012  H.I.C. Digestive Health

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