by Michele Carelse on June 13th, 2011 at 7:00 am
“Do we actually need sleep?” Although we can ‘train’ our bodies to go without sleep for periods of time, sleep is vital for well-being and health. Some people claim to need no sleep at all, but even in these cases, people tend to take short naps throughout the day. Although we may not be aware of it, most of us are sleep-deprived! So what is the answer?
With ever-increasing daily tasks and workloads, there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in a day to get everything done. The result is often extended periods of being awake, with decreased time asleep. Sleep helps the body to relieve stress, to grow, and also to balance our bodily chemicals.
Without sleep, the mechanics of our body suffer. A lack of sleep may affect your immune system (causing you to become ill more often), your mood (irritability, anger, fear, impatience, panic attacks, anxiety and depression), your weight (weight gain as your appetite increases through hormonal changes), your skin (it hampers the opportunity for it be restored and renewed) as well as your mental and physical performance (feel less alert and be unable to concentrate).
We can identify two main types of insomnia:
- Sleep-onset insomnia (problems falling asleep, also called initial insomnia)
- Sleep-maintenance insomnia (waking during the night and early in the morning)
Many people have a combination of these two types of insomnia. Insomnia may also be chronic (nearly every night) or intermittent (occasional insomnia). So the fact remains that we need sleep.
The sleep process explained
But what actually happens in the brain to put us to sleep? There is a chain of events that takes place in the brain and which regulates our sleep patterns…
The amino acid L-tryptophan (found naturally in certain foods) is used to manufacture serotonin. Serotonin, in turn, is transformed into a sleep hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone manufactured in the body in small amounts (this may sound familiar, as it is often prescribed for jet-lag or sleep deprivation). Melatonin is secreted from the pineal gland in the center of our brain. It is released when our eyes begin to register that the sun is beginning to set and darkness begins to fall and is what makes you go to sleep and is also used in our body to regulate our sleep-wake cycles. This also explains why people who work night shift and sleep during the day may need to sleep in a blackened room – the brain needs the signal of darkness to “switch on” the release of melatonin from the pineal gland.
So – to start off the process in the brain, we need the amino acid L-tryptophan. Some foods contain tryptophan that the body then uses to make serotonin to slow down nerve activity so your brain isn’t so ‘busy’. Eating foods that contain tryptophan will help to make you sleepy. Eating carbohydrates with tryptophan-containing foods makes this calming amino acid more available to the brain. Eating a high-protein meal without accompanying carbohydrates may keep you awake, since protein-rich foods also contain the amino acid, tyrosine, which perks up the brain.
The best bedtime snack is one that has both complex carbohydrates and protein, and perhaps some calcium. Calcium helps the brain use the tryptophan to manufacture melatonin. This explains why dairy products, which contain both tryptophan and calcium, are one of the top sleep-inducing foods! The ‘old wives’ knew what they were talking about when they recommended a glass of warm milk before bedtime!
Best bedtime snacks
Foods that are high in carbohydrates and calcium, and medium-to-low in protein also make ideal sleep-inducing bedtime snacks. You may wish to try the following:
- Apple pie and ice cream
- Whole-grain cereal with milk
- Hazelnuts and tofu
- Oatmeal and raisin cookies, and a glass of milk
- Peanut butter sandwich
- Ground sesame seeds
Try to keep in mind that it takes around one hour for the tryptophan in the foods to reach the brain, so don’t wait until right before bedtime to have your snack! Lighter meals are more likely to give you a restful night’s sleep. Eat your evening meal early and remember the sleep wisdom: “Don’t dine after nine.”
SerenitePlus™ Promotes sustained peaceful, restful nights and healthy sleep patterns