Govindaraj M, 73, a retired mill owner from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, says that he consulted a doctor as he had difficulty falling asleep and was sleeping for less than five hours in a day for the past two years.
He rarely ate twice a day and followed a poor diet plan, making him physically weak. Blood analysis showed he had anemia and a low level of serum calcium. He was advised to follow a light but nutrition-rich diet to overcome anemia and sleeplessness. His diet now included a banana or dates with honey, and a portion of rice with mixed vegetables before sleep.
Choosing food with good sources of nutrients contributes to deep sleep. The hormones melatonin and serotonin help one to fall asleep and improve one’s mood, respectively. Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, plays a vital role in the production of these hormones.
However, the body cannot produce tryptophan, which is where foods come into play.
Poulamee Ghosh, a nutritionist from Kolkata, offers some tips for an easy snooze. She says, “For good sleep, avoid fried foods and citrus fruits at dinner as they cause acidity. Consuming a light dinner, like mushroom soup, vegetable soup, vegetable stew, or a salad with carrot, cabbage and tomato helps us to catch sleep. Taking liquids just before bed can interrupt sleep as liquids cause frequent urination at night. Therefore, consume half to a full bowl of soup two to three hours before sleep. However, roti [flat wheat bread] with vegetable curry is also a good choice, but limit the portion, oil and spice for easy digestion.”
Gaining from tryptophan
A cross-sectional study conducted in 2019 among middle-aged and older adults of Singapore examined the relationship between dietary protein and sleep quality. The study found that dietary tryptophan obtained from nuts, seeds, and eggs had the highest brain tryptophan availability. However, plant sources of food were more beneficial than animal sources in improving sleep quality.
Ghosh adds that foods rich in tryptophan include chicken, fatty fish like salmon, soy milk and tofu.
Experts say an adequate supply of minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, and zinc is essential for efficient functioning of biological processes in our body. Mineral deficiencies cause leg cramps and interrupt sleep.
Age, diet and disorders
Sleep disorders commonly occur in individuals above 60 years of age due to decreased secretion of melatonin besides the presence of neurological conditions. In addition, sleep deprivation and poor diet are associated with an increased risk of metabolic, endocrine, and immune disorders.
Foods rich in magnesium help in reducing the symptoms of insomnia and restlessness. Ghosh adds that milk, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, and spinach are a good source of magnesium. However, eating too much of nuts at a time could cause indigestion. Two to three nuts could be included in milk shakes, cornflakes, vegetable salads and muesli.
If one cannot digest nuts, they can eat them in the morning, or only two or three times a week. Nuts are a good source of fat and provide energy. During sleep, our body depends on the energy acquired during the day.
In a 2020 study, researchers from Sebelas Maret University, Indonesia, determined the effect of bananas on insomnia caused due to chronic illness. The study involving people with hypertension concluded that consuming 100 to 140 grams of ripe banana twice a day for a week decreased the time taken to fall asleep. Bananas contain nutrients, tryptophan, and melatonin that reduce the symptoms of sleep disorders.
Ghosh adds, “Bananas are rich in Vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium, and fibre which is required for body metabolism and proper functioning of the body. Green bananas are a good source of prebiotics that help in improving gut health and digestion.”
Dairy and the milky way
A Japanese study involving 437 older adults evaluated the relation between nocturnal sleep and total dairy consumption in a day. It found that consuming milk, cheese and yoghurt, along with taking part in recreational activities, walking, exercise and other physical activities induced sleep in older adults who otherwise had to struggle for at least 30 minutes to fall asleep.
Dairy products contain nutrients and tryptophan that promote sleep and the calcium content reduces the risk of osteoporosis. Physical activity helps in regulating the biological clock, reduces anxiety and depression. The study concluded that dairy products aid in well-being during later life.
Ghosh adds, “Cheese is rich in aroma and flavours. It is a good source of calcium, fat, protein, and vitamins and helps in improving gut health.” She emphasises including peanut butter, a rich source of tryptophan, to promote sleep.
Dr Arjun Ravi, Ayurveda doctor from Tripunithura, Kerala, says a glass of warm milk contains protein and gives the stomach a feeling of fullness. The tryptophan in milk promotes sleep and calcium relaxes the muscles. To aid digestion, combine half a cup of milk with half a cup of water.
Dr Ravi suggests that a glass of lukewarm water an hour before sleep suppresses night cravings and helps in digestion.
“Sweet potatoes are a great source of potassium, magnesium and calcium to help you relax. Consuming sweet potatoes may improve brain function. They are easily digested and help to overcome indigestion that interrupts sleep,” Ghosh concluded.
The daily nutrient requirement of everyone varies depending on their health condition. Therefore, they should get their diet chart from a dietitian.