I’ve been a poor sleeper for over a decade now, often getting by on five or six hours a night. The recent spate of research showing the importance of sleep isn’t helping. Ironic, I know. But I’m not alone. The other day a girlfriend confessed to having lain awake all night worrying that if she didn’t get back to sleep she’d get Alzheimer’s.
Three new reports have highlighted the significance of sleep for ageing. Neuroscientists at the University of California tracked the sleep patterns and memories of a group of older people and subsequently described sleep as ‘the missing piece of the Alzheimer’s jigsaw’. They believe poor sleep creates a channel through which beta-amyloid protein attacks the brain’s long-term memory. Those of you who follow our blog know too much beta-amyloid is thought to trigger Alzheimer’s. Apparently sleep washes away these toxins before they build up into memory-destroying deposits. Read more here http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/294760.php
This was followed by a report from Florida’s Scripps Research Institute which studied the crucial role of sleep in laying down long-term memory. And then came another report from Russia, linking poor sleep with a greater risk of heart attack and stroke (twice the risk of heart attack and four times the risk of stroke to be precise). The report’s author, Professor Gafarov, went further by putting poor sleep in the ‘killer’ category – along with smoking, lack of exercise and poor diet. Additional reports have linked poor sleep to obesity, depression, poor immunity and anxiety. This ain’t rocket science – anyone who’s had a few sleepless nights knows you do less exercise, you eat more and you worry more – when you’re tired.
All in all it’s enough to keep anyone tossing and turning. But the key to sleep is melatonin – a hormone we produce less of as we age. Recent research now suggests that poor supplies of melatonin may be linked to certain cancers and a shorter life span too. So how can we help our bodies produce more melatonin – and sleep better? The good news? Diet can help! If you’ve already tried the obvious (cutting out caffeine after 2pm, no alcohol or heavy, greasy suppers, plenty of exercise etc.) and it’s still not working, take a look at what you’re eating in the evening.
Firstly, we need plenty of B6 in our evening meal (to be eaten no later than three hours before bed, say the experts) as B6 makes the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. Good sources include sunflower seeds, tuna and wild salmon, avocado, chicken, cooked spinach, bananas and prunes. We’ve written about the sleep-inducing amino acid, tryptophan, before. Tryptophan produces serotonin which produces melatonin (the three primary ingredients for good sleep). There’s lots of tryptophan in fish, nuts and seeds, eggs, soya beans, whole-grains and dairy. Magnesium is also important for sleep (lots in almonds, leafy greens, bananas, fish) and calcium (leafy greens, yogurt, cheese). A friend of mine swears by the 80mg magnesium supplement she takes before bed each night.
So the perfect pre-bed meal might look something like this: grilled salmon or tuna with our almond dipping sauce and wilted spinach topped with diced avocado. Follow this with last week’s banana ice cream or a few prunes and perhaps a small piece of Swiss cheese (interestingly you can forget the old wives tale about cheese preventing sleep – one piece of research found that people eating a small piece of cheese before bed actually slept better than those who had no cheese.) Give the wine a miss and see if you sleep any better.
There are also foods to avoid in your evening meal: aubergines, tomatoes, pineapple, chocolate, fermented/cured foods and wine all contain tyramine, a brain stimulant. So Moussaka with a glass of wine followed by a chocolatey pudding isn’t an ideal evening meal if you find it hard to fall asleep. Read more about diet and sleep at http://www.sleepcouncil.org.uk/how-to-sleep/diet/
And you can forget about using electronic devices in the evening – studies show that being exposed to backlit devices (including TV) stops the body producing melatonin. Indeed, the issue of light and dark is critical. You need to be exposed to sufficient light during the day and darkness at night to help induce melatonin (your body only produces it when it’s dark). If you’re spending your days in a windowless office and your evenings in front of your laptop or on your iphone, your body will become confused and stop producing melatonin.
I’m particularly excited about a new spray product from a Stanford University start-up called Sprayable Sleep. Melatonin can be bought over the counter in America but is only available by prescription here and only as pills which contain far more melatonin than our bodies actually need. Sprayable Sleep is the first product enabling melatonin to be applied topically. I’ll report back once my spray arrives. You can read more at http://sprayable.co/
Avocado on toast is hardly a recipe but this is my version and I often have it for a light supper (followed by a banana) as it contains the winning combo of B6, tryptophan, calcium and magnesium. Add a poached egg if you want extra protein and extra tryptophan. Don’t miss out the toast though – the carbohydrates help the brain absorb tryptophan.
Make it your own by adding chopped spring onions, fresh coriander, shredded greens etc.
AVOCADO AND SEEDS ON TOAST (serves 1-2)
- 1 avocado
- 2 tsps olive or avocado oil
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- Juice of ½ lime or a good squirt of lemon
- A good handful of toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds (I use the Food Doctor’s Savoury Seed Blend when I’m in a hurry) and/or toasted walnut pieces.
- 2 slices wholemeal toast
Mash the avocado with the oil, coriander and seasoning and spread it over the toast. If you’re having a poached egg, add it now. Sprinkle over the toasted nuts and seeds. Devour…and sleep well!
PS As I sign off, I’m reading an article on food for sleep that appeared in yesterday’s Daily Mail and lists the top slumber foods as: tuna, pumpkin, avocado, walnuts, almonds, halibut, peaches, oats, potatoes, buckwheat and bananas. Catch up at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-79360/Eat-way-better-sleep.html
PPS And if you didn’t see Susan looking gorgeous in last week’s Sunday Telegraph, take a peek here www.telegraph.co.uk/dovehair and read our top tips for diet and ageing. Who says middle and old age are boring!