Written by Pui Yi Ng from Grobo, a smart indoor gardening system that grows fresh food and medicine for you. Click here to learn more about Grobo.
For a few years now I have struggled with insomnia on and off. I say on and off because for a few days or even sometimes a week it will be extremely hard for me to fall asleep, while the weeks after I will be fine.
I have noticed that my caffeine intake really affects my ability to sleep. Knowing this, I wanted to learn more when I met Kelly Greer, who is a Registered Dietitian based in the Toronto Beaches Community. She holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Food, Nutrition and Consumer Studies. Kelly offers Holistic Nutrition Counselling at her business Nutrigal.
Below are some of the questions I asked Kelly:
1. How would you define insomnia in the simplest of terms? For example, what are common symptoms an individual may have?
The mayo clinic defines insomnia as, "a persistent disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep or both, despite the opportunity for adequate sleep. With insomnia, you usually awaken feeling unrefreshed, which takes a toll on your ability to function during the day." In my practice I see two types of insomnia, the inability to fall asleep and or the inability to stay asleep.
There are many factors that lead to insomnia:
- Depression/ anxiety
- Poor nutrition
- Low magnesium and B vitamin intake or absorption
- Menopause and peri-menopause.
As a dietitian, it is my job to sort out the dietary factors that can exacerbate any of the above imbalances. For example, a student who is frazzled and stressed with limited time to make meals might have a diet that is low in protein, magnesium, antioxidants, B vitamins and essential oils. The brain requires all of these things to make serotonin. Serotonin is your happy chemical. It’s responsible for feelings of calmness and ultimately needed for a good night’s sleep. Blood sugar fluctuation can also lead to poor sleep hygiene.
2. What is a leading cause of insomnia?
Elevated chronic stress is one of the leading causes of insomnia that I see in my practice. Cortisol is our natural stress hormone. It is supposed to have a natural rhythm of being slightly elevated in the morning with a decline at night. However, if someone is under stress all day every day, then this natural rhythm is disrupted. Often the cortisol is elevated at night leaving us feeling wired and tired and unable to sleep. The chemistry of cortisol is complex and beyond the scope of this article. However, I can say that refined sugars, chronic dieting, caffeine, alcohol and malnutrition can lead to an imbalance in our stress hormone, cortisol. When there is an imbalance in cortisol's natural rhythm all kinds of symptoms can occur such as early waking, insomnia, depression, anxiety, feeling wired and tired and plain old exhaustion.
For more information on cortisol you can read Kelly’s article here: https://nutrigal.wordpress.com/2011/03/06/reducing-stress/
3. What would you suggest are the best solutions to combat insomnia? Are there dietary changes that can be made?
First of all, I would like to recommend anyone who is suffering from insomnia to see their family doctor to determine if there is a medical reason underlying their insomnia. It is also important to seek out a health care professional prior to making any supplement or dietary change.
That said, my top "dietary" recommendations to help combat insomnia would be these:
- Ask your health care practitioner to recommend a high-quality Multi-Vitamin and mineral supplement that contains vitamin C, and a B complex.
- Ask your health care practitioner about adding magnesium glycinate before bed.
- Include small amounts of protein combined with complex carbohydrates throughout the day to keep your blood sugar balanced.
- Avoid caffeine (especially after lunch), alcohol and recreational drugs.
- Add a good complex carbohydrate to your dinner meal like legumes, sweet potato or wild rice. The slow acting carbohydrates will help to increase serotonin levels and get you ready for a good night’s sleep.
Meeting with Kelly was such a wonderful opportunity. I learned a lot from her, and it inspired me to research further into the topic of insomnia. My interest focused more on the relation to how food and nutrition can help combat insomnia. Below, are my findings and tips!
#1 Stimulants: What You Should Really Avoid!
As I mentioned before, my caffeine intake was something I noticed that really effected my sleeping. Even if I had it earlier in the day, it still kept me up. This is because it has stimulant properties that make it hard for your body to function at a normal level.
Other foods with stimulant properties include:
- Sugar (even sugar substitutes) – Sugar tends to wreck havoc on your body by drastically altering your glucose levels. It will give you highs and lows that affect your whole nervous system. Chemical sugar substitutes, such as aspartame and Splenda, are neither natural nor good for you! Eating less processed foods and maintaining a more natural diet will keep your body at a stable operating level and improve your sleeping patterns.
- Excessive protein – Too much protein from meat will stress your digestive system. If you want more protein in your diet, try eating nuts, beans and leafy greens!
- Excessive sodium – Too much sodium can increase your blood pressure, and you need a low blood pressure to catch some good Z’s.
#2 Complex Carbohydrates & No Food-Coma Meals Before Bed!
As Kelly mentioned, adding complex carbohydrates will better your sleep patterns because they increase your serotonin levels. A low carb diet is often associated with poor sleep, but with that being said, don’t go wild and eat large meals before bed! This will make it harder for you to sleep because it will make you feel sluggish, uncomfortable, and it increases the blood flow in your digestive tract. Doing so will make your intestinal muscles work harder than they should close to bed time, and it will cause your stomach to secrete more gastric acid… yikes!
The best low-protein & high carbohydrate foods for serotonin production include:
- Whole-grain bread
- Wild rice
- Fruit (ex. Mangoes, bananas)
- Veggies (ex. Spinach, yams, broccoli)
#3 Macronutrients: The Large Effect They Have on Getting Quality Sleep.
- Magnesium – Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant and can do wonders in improving one’s sleep. You can ingest it through a supplement, but you can also acquire it naturally by eating magnesium rich foods such as nuts, dark leafy greens, fish, dark chocolate, and bananas.
- Calcium – This nutrient helps a lot with calming the nervous system and works best with magnesium intake! You can naturally ingest it not just through dairy products, but also through foods like kale, spinach, and dried fruits!
- Iron – A deficiency in iron can cause Restless Leg Syndrome, where your legs will twitch more than usual causing a great disruption during your sleep.
There you have it, some tips to eat your way to a better and more restful sleep! If you wish to get in contact with Kelly feel free to send her an e-mail at MsNutrigal (at) gmail (dot) com, or contact her through her Nutrigal Facebook page.