Sleep, Foods and Melatonin

Marie-Pierre St-Onge is an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She is the director of their Sleep Center of Excellence at Columbia and has spent years studying the relationships between the foods we eat and our sleep satisfaction. She believes eating a diet rich in plants, fibers and unsaturated fat such as nuts, olive oil, fish and avocados promotes sound sleep while a diet high in sugar, saturated fat and processed carbohydrates can be disruptive. She also believes pairing foods rich in tryptophan with complex carbohydrates helps the tryptophan cross the blood brain barrier and stimulate the pineal gland to make and secrete melatonin. She cites the Mediterranean Diet as a perfect balance of tryptophan producing foods and complex carbohydrates to stimulate more satisfying sleep.

When one eats a diet rich in saturated fats, simple carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, bagels and pastries they tend to fall asleep faster but wake up often and don’t always move into those sleep patterns that produce a rested state. She believes this is due to wide fluctuations in blood glucose levels and insulin responses not seen with a diet rich in plants, high fiber, unsaturated fats and complex carbohydrates.

The converse is additionally true so if you are sleep deprived you tend to crave unhealthy diets rich in sugars, unsaturated fats and highly processed foods. In men short sleep promotes an increased appetite and greater activation in the brain reward centers for foods such as pepperoni pizza, doughnuts and candy. When these subjects were fed a healthy diet with carrots, yogurt, oatmeal and fruit and had five nights of excellent sleep their brain reward center reverted to normal response when exposed to junk foods. Sleep deprived women do not develop a need for more food they just produce a lesser amount of a chemical which tells them they are full.

Apparently, tryptophan rich foods eaten without complex carbohydrates do not cross the blood brain barrier to help produce melatonin. What exactly is melatonin and what is its role in this process. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep timing. The pineal gland starts secreting it after dark and it tells your body it’s time for sleep by lowering alertness and reducing your core body temperature. It works together with your body’s natural rhythms to tell you it’s time to go to sleep.

You can purchase melatonin over the counter. Be sure the product you buy is certified by USP labs or a similar service to make sure that what you see on the label is what you are taking when you ingest it. If you are taking it to overcome a circadian rhythm issue such as jetlag Dr. Bhanu Kolla, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology and consultant at the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, suggests using a low dose such as 0.5 mg two to three hours prior to sleep. For people with insomnia, she suggests 5 mg thirty minutes before sleep and suggests additional sleep ritual actions such as:

1. Turn off computers, tablets and electronic devices two hours before bedtime

2. Do not watch the news within two hours of bedtime

3. Avoid alcohol and caffeine at night

4. Cool the room down to 67 degrees Fahrenheit

5. Get as much sunlight as you can during the day to regulate your internal clock

6. Maintain a regular sleep schedule trying to go to bed the same time and perform the same rituals before getting into bed and once you are under the covers.

7 Most sleep experts will tell you that the bedroom is for sleeping and intimacy and nothing else. If despite a healthy diet, a great sleep ritual and use of melatonin you cannot get a restful night’s sleep then it is time to see a physician who specializes in sleep disorders. Experts suggest you give the melatonin, improved diet and sleep rituals two or three weeks to work before seeking additional help.