Getting a good night sleep can be hard to come by these days when so many people experience stress in their lives. Stress itself raises cortisol hormone levels in the body, which increases alertness in the evening and interferes with sleep. Cortisol levels typically are higher in the morning to help us feel alert and taper off by evening to support sleep.
If we are chronically sleep deprived, our cells can become less receptive to glucose, which means that it remains in the bloodstream. This can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease. When the brain does not receive enough glucose, we often feel fatigued and have food cravings, which over time can lead to significant weight gain. Similarly, without enough glucose to feed the brain, people can experience cognitive symptoms, such as memory, attention, and concentration problems.
Stress itself can interfere with our digestion of food. With this in mind we should consider the foods that are not taxing on digestion, especially in the evening. Indigestion can disrupt sleep and taking anti-acids decreases the very acid in our body geared to fighting off infections. Jeffrey Bland in his book, Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, also points out that reduced stomach acid can lead to gas and bloating, malabsorption of a number of important nutrients, and other gastrointestinal dysfunctions.
In terms of indigestion, it is key to have a small dinner to support a good night sleep. Simple carbohydrates found in refined sugars and processed foods elevate our sugar levels, calling insulin into play to clear it out of the bloodstream, another process that can disrupt sleep. As mentioned, the glucose-removing cells can lose their sensitivity over time with chronic sleep deprivation. It is important then to consume complex carbohydrates with dinner such as leafy green vegetables, and grains, beans, nuts, and seeds in moderation. Complex carbohydrates in the form of non-starchy vegetables are lower in sugar and therefore there is less of a need for insulin production.
Healthy fats, such as extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado should be part of our dinner because these fats are needed to manufacture sleep hormones. Foods high in anti-oxidants such as vegetables, and fruits in moderation, also are needed to produce sleep hormones.
Since we want most of our digestion completed before sleep, we want to have finished dinner at least four hours before bedtime. If this is not possible, you may want to consider consuming smaller meals and more frequently throughout the course of the day.
In terms of liquids, herbal teas containing passionflower, valerian root, chamomile and magnolia bark have been used to for their calming effects. Coffee and foods with caffeine, such as chocolate, are can be overly stimulating and interrupt sleep. While alcohol can make people drowsy, there also is a rebound effect after the alcohol is metabolized where we become aroused, which also interferes with sleep.
While exercising can help with sleep, it should not be too rigorous as it will be overly stimulating to the body. It is best to exercise earlier in the day if possible. Exercise can help to manage stress and maintain healthy cortisol levels, thereby decreasing alertness at bedtime. People with excess cortisol levels typically report getting a second wind late in the evening, which while exciting in some ways, falls flat over time. Mediation and relaxing music in the evening also can calm the body in preparation for sleep.