4 Great Sleep Hacks to Improve Mental Wellbeing - Food for the Brain

Just one night of little sleep can have a significant impact on our mental wellbeing and cognitive function.  Although it may appear that our brain completely switches off whilst we’re sleeping, it is actually performing highly sophisticated tasks and is very far from being inactive. During sleep the brain replays memories from the day, sifting out what is no longer necessary, then consolidating what needs to be kept. It also regulates emotional memory in the amygdala (the emotion centre of the brain). Studies investigating sleep deprived people and those who sleep optimal amounts, demonstrate stark differences in MRI brain scanning between the two groups. Interestingly, what is most apparent is that a lack of sleep can cause a disconnect between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that is associated with rational, higher-level cognitive processes that involve controlling short-sighted, reflexive behaviours, favouring problem-solving and self control. So it’s no surprise that with less than optimal sleep, we suddenly become a lot less tolerant to things that may not usually bother us and our cognitive abilities such as concentration and memory also suffer. 

Sleep disturbances are more than often concurrent with mental health conditions and can commonly precede symptoms of mood imbalances, such as depression and anxiety. In the UK, as many as two thirds (67%) of UK adults suffer from disrupted sleep and nearly a quarter (23%) manage no more than five hours a night, which could be one of the many contributing factors of increasing levels of poor mental health. Approximately 1 in 4 in the UK will experience a mental health problem every year and depression has been labelled as the second leading cause of disability globally. Considering the research showing the importance of sleep for mental health and the parallel rise of insomnia and conditions such as depression and anxiety, targeting optimal sleep with simple strategies may prove to have a significant positive impact on mental wellbeing. 

Improving sleep is in fact the biggest health ambition for a quarter (26%) of UK adults, but half (51%) admit that they don’t take any measures to help them sleep. The following 4 steps are simple and practical dietary and lifestyle strategies to help you optimise your sleep and get you started:

1. Complex Carbohydrates for Dinner

With the ever-rising trend of keto diets it’s no wonder we’re terrified of eating foods that are high in carbohydrates. However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to nutrition. For some who may be undergoing a significant amount of stress and insomnia, having the right type of carbohydrate can actually be beneficial and even therapeutic. Have you ever wondered why you crave carbohydrates or sugar when you’re stressed? This is because stress reduces the amount of available serotonin in the brain and carbohydrates help stimulate serotonin production, helping bring on feelings of calm and helping the body and mind relax. Serotonin is also a precursor to melatonin, the body’s hormone and neurotransmitter that induces sleep. So without enough serotonin, we simply cannot make melatonin, which will ultimately lead to problems getting to sleep. However, it’s important to note that we can’t just eat any type of carbohydrate – choosing complex, fibre-rich sources of carbohydrate foods, which provide a sustainable source of energy for the body and prevent blood sugar crashes, can help prepare the body for a better night’s sleep. 

Foods such as sweet potatoes, parsnips, beets, pumpkin, butternut squash, as well as wholegrains like brown rice and oats and pulses like chickpeas and butter beans, are all fantastic sources of slow-releasing carbohydrates. Think about including these in your evening meal along with a protein-rich food to give the brain a little serotonin boost, which will help to relax the body and optimise melatonin levels for a more restful night’s sleep. 


2. Avoid the Night-Cap 

It’s called a night-cap, but it really does little else than fool the body into slumber that is in fact very short-lived. In sleep scientist Matthew Walker’s book ‘Why we sleep’, he says how drinking is more like anesthesia than real sleep, essentially sedating the body. Whilst alcohol may get you off to sleep quicker, it actually prevents the body from entering REM sleep, a phase of deep sleep where we typically dream. This is because when the body is metabolising alcohol, the chemical by-product of this process called aldehyde is created, which is essentially what blocks REM sleep. REM sleep is important for helping to solidify memories in the brain, as well as helping the brain to make connections and identify patterns, thus helping us learn.  

So try to avoid the temptation of a night-cap or the glass of wine to help ease off the stress of the day. Instead, think about what you could have as a replacement. Perhaps a favourite warm drink or even a hot bath with some essential oils to help you relax. 


3. Try a Guided Meditation 

Even just 10-15 mins of bringing awareness to the body and the breath can help to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system, which is what helps to inhibit the stress response. When we are stressed and anxious, our body responds by creating hormones and stimulating neurotransmitters that help mobilise the body for managing life-threatening situations. Overtime, this can weaken our ability to switch off and recalibrate, which can have a negative impact on sleep. In a study where 32 patients with severe chronic insomnia engaged in meditation every evening over the course of 8 weeks, their Insomnia Severity Index (ISI) scores greatly improved (from 20.9 to 10.4). In addition, 21 out of 32 had either stopped the usage of sedative or hypnotic agents to induce sleep or greatly reduced the intake of them. This is just one study of many that have demonstrated positive effects of using different meditation tools to help support sleep. 

There are many apps and online videos to help get you started. For example, Calm and Headspace are just two fantastic apps with guided meditations specifically suited to help encourage restful sleep. Try setting aside just 10 mins before bed to help get into a regular routine. 

4. Avoid Spicy and Acidic Foods at Night

Spicy and acidic foods can, for many, lead to acid-reflux or heartburn. This may be because they have compounds like capsaicin that relax the sphincter (which separates the stomach and the oesophagus), leading to stomach acid trickling into the throat when lying down. If you find you’re susceptible to heartburn, you may want to consider avoiding these foods at night. You might also want to rule out other causes of acid reflux such as food intolerances, which can be tested via various private companies such as York Test and Biolab, if you’re based in the UK.

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