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Struggle Sleeping? Fiona Lawson, registered nutritional therapist and nutritionist (mBANT), shares her top 5 lifestyle habits you need to take up now!

How many hours of sleep do you need to feel your best?

Chances are, it’s slightly more than you’re getting. A recent survey found that the typical Briton undersleeps by an hour every night. Over the course of a week, that constitutes a deficit of 7 hours—almost a whole night’s sleep.

Sleep is not something you want to skimp on. While your conscious mind may be taking a rest, your body is in full work mode. It’s an important period of growth and repair, during which your body takes out the metabolic ‘trash’, setting you up for another day of high-energy wakefulness. Sufficient sleep helps to control your appetite, stabilise your mood, enhance your memory, increase willpower and may even make you live longer.

Generally, for those not caring for young children, there are three reasons for not getting enough sleep. The first is not going to bed at a sensible hour, which is largely lifestyle driven (and totally reasonable from time to time!). The other two are struggling to fall asleep or waking up during the night. Believe it or not, tweaking what and when you eat can have an impact on your ability to fall and stay asleep. Here are some simple yet effective principles to up your chance of a restorative night’s slumber:

1. Eat a tryptophan-rich dinner
Tryptophan is a type of protein. It serves as the raw material for your body’s production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Eating a meal that’s rich in tryptophan can, therefore, help you to make enough melatonin, enabling you to drop off more easily.

Tryptophan-rich foods include free-range eggs, organic dairy, grass-fed beef and poultry, and wholegrain rice. For a sleep-inducing supper that can be whipped up in minutes, try a goat’s cheese omelette.

2. Choose complex carbohydrates
Let’s imagine a scenario: you’ve eaten a dinner that’s rich in refined carbohydrates—pasta, for example. Unbeknownst to you, your blood sugar shoots up and remains high as you go to bed. You then find yourself awake at 3 am, irritatingly alert. This is because your blood sugar has dipped again, causing the stress hormone cortisol to be released, which wakes you up.

To prevent this, focus on eating complex carbohydrates throughout the day, but especially in the evening. These include sweet potato, starchy vegetables, beans, pulses and some whole grains. These will help keep your blood sugar steady, preventing that sleep-breaking dip in the middle of the night. They also have the added benefit of improving tryptophan absorption (see above!).

So, going back to that goat’s cheese omelette, why not add a small sweet potato?

3. Minimise caffeine after midday
It can be tempting to turn to coffee when you’re feeling tired mid-afternoon, but this habit may be contributing to your sleepy state.

Caffeine is metabolised by the liver, and the rate at which it’s broken down varies dramatically between individuals. Studies show that some people can eliminate the caffeine from their systems within 5 hours, while others take over 11 hours to get rid of it. This means that if you drink a coffee at 3 pm, it may still be having a stimulating effect at 2 am the following morning.

For good-quality kip, it’s best to play on the safe side and stop drinking all stimulating beverages after midday. For a fresh, hydrating pick-me-up, try infusing filtered water with citrus fruit instead.

4. Harness the power of magnesium
Magnesium is a mineral that’s involved more than 300 chemical processes in your body. It’s also known as ‘nature’s tranquilliser’ for its calming effect on muscles and nerves.

Upping your intake of magnesium is a useful tactic to help you wind down in the evening. The best food sources are dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds and legumes. So, once again returning to that sleep-inducing supper, how about adding a generous portion of magnesium-rich greens to the goat’s cheese omelette and sweet potato?

Magnesium can also be absorbed through your skin, so another way of relaxing before bedtime is to take a bath with a couple of handfuls of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate). Add a few drops of lavender essential oil to really enhance the chill-out factor.

5. Drink valerian tea
Used medicinally since the time of ancient Greece, valerian root has been found in several modern-day trials to both improve sleep quality and reduce the time taken to fall asleep. Crucially, it has this effect without creating a sleep ‘hangover’ the next morning, which is typical of many over-the-counter sleep aids.

Valerian is available as a tincture, but it’s also effective when drunk as a simple tea. You can find valerian tea on its own, or it’s often combined with other sedative herbs such as lemon balm and chamomile. Leave your chosen tea to brew for 5 minutes, and drink 30–45 minutes before you turn in. Even better, sip it while in your Epsom-salt bath!

words by Fiona Lawson | Fiona Lawson Nutrition 

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