JBK Nutrition Notes: Sleep

Sleep – It’s Free & a Magic Wellness Solution 

When we think of wellness, we often think of food and exercise. While they’re both critical to overall wellbeing, there are so many other factors that contribute to your health. One of the biggest: sleep! And in the world of COVID quarantine where your exercise routine is disrupted, where getting fresh healthy groceries is a whole thing, and where lots of uncertainty is ramping up anxiety from all angles, getting good quality sleep is more important (but maybe more difficult) than ever.

But with a long list of health hazards associated with lack of sleep, we’re here to tell you why it deserves a higher place, and how to support a restful night’s sleep through nutrition. And the BEst part? It’s FREE!

Why does sleep matter?

Epidemiological studies show a strong correlation between short or disturbed sleep and a number of conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Sleep also plays an important role in inflammation and immunity. It is during sleep that your body produces and releases cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation. Less sleep means fewer cytokines and that means a greater risk of your body mounting an immune response. Now, you might have heard of the “cytokine storm” in association with a severe response to COVID. We won’t get into the weeds here, but know that getting good quality sleep will help to support your immunity and not put you at risk of a cytokine storm.  

Finally, sleep helps to regulate hormones. From ghrelin and leptin which stimulate and suppress hunger, to cortisol and insulin which contribute to stress and cravings, the connection between sleep and hormones is deep and it is broad. After all, it goes both ways – it is also hormones that help to regulate sleep. Without digging too far into the weeds in this discussion, the bottom line is that sleep is a crucial piece of your overall health puzzle. 

So, what can we do nutritionally to support a restful night’s sleep?

How to support sleep through diet

Shocker, nutrition matters! There are a number of ways to support sleep through making good food choices throughout the day:

  • Melatonin 

Melatonin is actually a hormone (a messenger in your body) as well as a powerful antioxidant. It’s often promoted as the ultimate sleep supplement, and for good reason. It helps prepare our bodies for sleep and helps ensure adequate restorative deep sleep. 

Melatonin is regulated by sunlight, so one way to support its production is through light exposure during the day (even 20 minutes is helpful!). This is best achieved by spending time outdoors, but when schedules, seasons, and many other reasons render that impossible, light therapy boxes are also effective. Foods with naturally-occurring melatonin include cherries (especially tart cherry juice, which is also lower in sugar), eggs, fish, and many nuts and seeds.

But be cautious with supplements. Studies have shown that the optimal effective dose is far lower than many of the supplements available would suggest – in the range of 0.3-0.5mg, which is more in line with the levels your body produces on its own. 

  • Tryptophan 

Tryptophan is melatonin’s BFF. Tryptophan is the precursor to production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is a precursor to the hormone melatonin. Food sources of tryptophan include turkey, chicken, eggs, sweet potatoes, chia seeds, hemp seeds, bananas, pumpkin seeds, and almonds.

  • Magnesium  

Magnesium is one of the body’s most essential minerals, responsible for over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. It’s no surprise then, that adequate levels of magnesium are necessary for restful sleep. Those with low levels of magnesium often experience difficulty both falling asleep and staying asleep. The science is clear: maintaining healthy magnesium levels often leads to deeper, more sound sleep. This is likely due to magnesium’s role in maintaining healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. 

The body cannot produce magnesium itself, it must be consumed through food. Best sources? Healthy whole foods, of course. Think dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds (cashews, almonds, etc.), broccoli, squash, and cacao.

Magnesium supplements are fairly common, but be aware that they can have a laxative effect if taken in excess, so start slowly if you go this route. If your gut is giving you problems, magnesium glycinate may be better tolerated and absorbed than the more common magnesium citrate. Magnesium is also well absorbed transdermally (through the skin). Try an oil or spray on the soles of your feet before bed, or even better, a relaxing epsom salt bath!

  • Carbohydrates

OMG, we said the C-word! But calm down (literally), because studies show that eating a moderate amount of starchy fiber-containing carbs (~30g) from whole food sources at dinner significantly improves sleep quality and latency (how long it takes us to fall asleep). This is due to the fact that carbohydrates increase the amount of tryptophan available to the brain’s pineal gland, which is where both melatonin and serotonin are synthesized. Think sweet potatoes, squash, plantains, cassava. Interestingly, our bodies produce more starch-digesting enzymes in the evening, so it’s almost as if they’re wired to promote better sleep!

  • Adaptogens 

Adaptogens are substances that help the body adapt or respond to stress. As a result, they have a calming effect on the body and may help promote restful sleep. For more, check out this post!

It’s not just WHAT you eat that matters

It’s easy to focus on what to eat when trying to focus on sleep quality, but remember, what you don’t eat (or drink!) and when you eat can be just as important. In terms of timing, try to give yourself 2-3 hours before bed to allow your body to begin the work of digesting your food.

You’ll also want to consider when you cut the cups of coffee and the sweets. Ironically, chronic lack of sleep prompts us to stimulate ourselves with the same substances that then sabotage restful sleep at night: caffeine and sugar! The afternoon pick-me-ups can stay in your system for 6-8 hours after consumption. They also increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which itself can disrupt restful sleep. 

Support your sleep at Just BE Kitchen 

Of course, Just BE Kitchen is happy to help lull you to sleep too. Our meals focus on whole foods that are balanced in macronutrients and rich in micronutrients. Check out the Just Be Relaxed section for calming caffeine free sips like the Adaptogenic Mushroom Latte or Golden Milk. Sweet dreams!

About the Author

Hillary Bennetts is the founder and owner of Purposeful Plate Nutrition, through which she provides nutrition consulting to individuals and businesses. She also provides business consulting and content creation services to companies in the health and fitness industry.

Prior to studying nutrition and launching Purposeful Plate, Hillary spent almost a decade in corporate consulting with Ernst & Young and KPMG. Purposeful Plate is the result of combining her lifelong passion for health and wellness with her business background and nutrition education. 

Hillary holds a BA in Economics from Washington and Jefferson College, an MBA from Emory University, and an NC from Bauman College.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

A marathoner, mountain climber, and mama, she lives in Denver with her husband, toddler son, and golden retriever. You can find her online at purposefulplatenutrition.com and on Instagram at @purposefulplatenutrition!