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Nutritional timing and choice for a good night's sleep
In this time of the pandemic increased stress levels are interfering with the quality of our sleep. Poor sleep often leads to a poor day, and we enter a cycle of stress which is hard to break.
A good diet can go a long way to restoring better sleep and breaking the COVID stress cycle.
A good sleep requires a healthy supply of melatonin.
We can take melatonin supplements, or add it naturally through food. The amino acid tryptophan is a dietary essential amino acid needed for human nutrition, for general growth and development, and for creating serotonin.
Once serotonin has been produced from tryptophan in gut, it can be converted into melatonin.
Tryptophan was the first amino acid to be recognised as being essential for the normal growth of young animals - Wilcock and Hopkins (1906).
Research shows that increasing tryptophan in the blood directly increases both serotonin and melatonin.
Research has also shown that when you follow a low-tryptophan diet, brain serotonin levels drop. It is known that tryptophan depletion is seen in those with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
What does "good sleep" mean?
There are several important dimensions that, taken in total, add up to a good night's sleep.
An inadequate supply of melatonin adversely affects all those characteristics of good sleep.
That's because melatonin dysfunction is related to deviations in the amplitudes and timing of our circadian rhythm. Older people suffer from less melatonin, which results in less deep sleep, and different timing of sleep onset and wakefulness.
In fact, in older people, all of those "good sleep factors" above are disturbed, often because of a lack of melatonin. They also experience more anxiety and depression related to serotonin and melatonin dysfunction.
A natural approach to increasing your serotonin levels - and subsequently your melatonin levels - is to eat foods that contain tryptophan.
Not just the right food, but also the right timing
In addition to just eating food containing tryptophan, we have to consider nutrition timing.
Tryptophan is released by our gut upon digestion of food and the conversion through to serotonin is relatively fast. Once dietary-derived serotonin hits our bloodstream it has a half-life of about 45 minutes. That is, 45 minutes after entering our bloodstream half of the quantity of serotonin has transformed into some other biochemical.
This means one of the main benefits of dietary-derived melatonin is in helping us fall asleep efficiently - by timing a tryptophan load to peak around bedtime.
Some experts dismiss the role of dietary-derived melatonin in supporting chronic melatonin dysfunction. That's technically correct. But boosting low levels of melatonin at any time boosts our immune system and brain health because it is a powerful antioxidant.
Here is a tip. Foods that contain tryptophan are most effective if eaten alongside carbohydrates. The majority of serotonin in our body is made from tryptophan in the gut, while the brain is where a further small amount is made. Serotonin needs carbohydrates to be able to reach the brain where the pineal gland uses the serotonin to produce melatonin.
Foods, including salmon, eggs, spinach, and seeds are among those that help boost serotonin and melatonin naturally via their tryptophan content.
Tryptophan is present in most protein-based foods or dietary proteins. It is particularly plentiful in chocolate, oats, dried dates, milk, yogurt, red meat, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, buckwheat, spirulina, and peanuts.
High tryptophan foods also include nuts, tofu, cheese, beans, lentils, and eggs. White beans and Roman beans are good sources. Pumpkin and squash seeds are great sources, and pistachios lead cashews and almonds.
Eggs and cheese
The protein in eggs can significantly boost your blood plasma levels of tryptophan, according to recent research. Don't leave out the yolks as they are extremely rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and other nutrients that are major contributors to the antioxidant health benefits of eggs.
Cheese is a great source of tryptophan. Combining cheddar cheese with eggs and milk makes for a tasty tryptophan-rich serve. Reduced-fat mozzarella has the highest amount of tryptophan.
Soy products are rich sources of tryptophan. You can substitute tofu for pretty much any protein, in pretty much any recipe, making it an excellent source of tryptophan for vegetarians and vegans. Seeds do not contain as much tryptophan as oily fish, poultry, or eggs. However, they are also a good source of tryptophan and protein for vegetarians and vegans.
Eating two portions of oily fish per week should provide enough tryptophan for most people. Oily fish is also a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for health. These fatty acids can help support strong bones, healthy skin, and eye function. Salmon is also a source of vitamin D , which is essential for strong bones and teeth, and healthy muscles.
Turkey, if you wish
Contrary to the popular belief that cooked turkey contains an abundance of tryptophan (with this being used as an explanation for sleepiness following consumption of the meat), the tryptophan content in turkey is typical of poultry.
Having warm milk at bedtime can be a comforting way to unwind the day. Yet, consuming milk as such is unlikely to induce sleep according to dairynutrition.ca "as the amount of tryptophan present in milk is too small". Whether the amount present in milk is sufficient to have an effect is unclear.
The recommended daily intake for tryptophan is 4mg per kilogram of body weight or 1.8mg per pound. So a person weighing 70kg (~154 pounds) should consume around 280mg of tryptophan per day.
You can use a nutrient ranking tool to see a list of foods high in tryptophan, such as this amino acid calculator to see the total amino acids in any meal.
Timing - digestion
Eating a balanced group of tryptophan-rich foods through the day is helpful for your overall health because that stimulates the general metabolic benefits resulting from serotonin and melatonin.
To get the best result in sending you to sleep you need to time the peak of melatonin to occur when you go to bed. That's a bit of an art as everyone's digestive system is different.
However here are some generic digestion times:
Therefore, to accelerate your metabolic capability to fall asleep, time your meal of your preferred tryptophan-rich foods in accordance with the above list of digestion times.
You want the serotonin-rich blood to be at a peak at near bedtime. The serontomin will be transported to your brain where melatonin will be produced. If you are out in your timing by more than 45 minutes then the peak will have passed. This is an inexact science, you need to experiment and see what works best for you.
Here are some examples:
Trial and error works best
With experimentation, you'll find the rhythm which works best for you.
If this type of timing does not suit your lifestyle then do this: a sip - 30ml - of tart cherry juice at breakfast, and another close to bedtime. This method has been adopted by elite soccer players to help the quality of their sleep. Tart cherry juice is rich in tryptophan.
Adjusting your diet to help you sleep better will work for most healthy people. But, it is a matter of experimenting.
Good luck. May it help you sleep better during these times.
If you are on medication, check with your doctor
Do not take L-tryptophan if you are taking medications for depression without checking with your doctor. Tryptophan increases serotonin. Some medications for depression also increase the brain chemical serotonin. Taking tryptophan along with these medications for depression might increase serotonin too much and cause serious side effects including heart problems, shivering, and anxiety (webmd.com).
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