HJ: An often overlooked, but extremely important factor in the quality and depth of our sleep, is the health of our digestion and also the types of food we choose to eat in the evening. While we may know better than to consume stimulants like coffee or tea, their are other more subtle foods that can affect our sleep as well, such as garlic, certain spices, overly fatty foods and chocolate, among others. Furthermore, certain lifestyle habits can affect our sleeping patterns as well. Darkness triggers our circadian rhythms which signal our pineal glands to produce melatonin and other sleep inducing hormones and neurotransmitters. If we are watching TV, on the computer or in brightly lit rooms at night, it essentially inhibits our brains from producing these chemicals at optimal levels (or in extreme cases, at all) and can disturb our sleeping patterns. Leftover stress and tension from the day — both physical and mental — can also disturb our sleep.
With a few simple lifestyle modifications, we can easily reverse or overcome any of these impediments to a good nights sleep. This is extremely important because we process many emotional, mental, physical and spiritual issues in our sleep. Our conscious minds, controlled subtly by our beliefs, often refuse to acknowledge certain information or emotions in our waking state, however, in the dream state, we are not as tightly bound by these beliefs and so our mind works to resolve them by creating scenarios in which they can be released and worked through in a healthy and balanced way. Without quality, deep sleep, we do not do this as efficiently (or at all) and the lack of necessary healing can adversely affect our waking, daily life as we are left with the unprocessed mental/emotional/spiritual baggage that should have been worked through in the dream state. If this happens chronically, the results can cause major imbalances in the mind-body-spirit triad. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to nurture and maintain good sleeping habits.
Nighty Night: Attending to Digestion for Better Sleep
By Conni Kunzler | Notes From My Yoga Practice
An ever growing catalog of research shows diminished sleep is associated with poor performance, memory loss, weight gain, more accidents during the day, depression, slower healing, aging skin, and in some cases serious diseases. This is not a happy list.
In Ayurveda, digestion is key to restful and satisfying sleep. While these may seem unrelated, completing physical, mental, and emotional digestion in advance of going to bed can make it easier to fall asleep and facilitate complete rest.
Here’s how the Himalayan Institute’s Carrie Demers, MD, who uses Ayurveda in her medical practice, explains problems with sleep: “At some level—whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional—we haven’t finished extracting what is helpful to us and eliminating what is indigestible.”
In Western culture there is a constant gnawing to consume more, when often what we need is to digest what’s already there. Whatever we take in through our senses—food, experiences, sounds, visual stimuli, information, conversation, and more—requires assimilation. Sifting needed nourishment from what is not serving us is what brings eventual release from “stuck-ness” in the mind and body.
The Roots of Physical, Mental, and Emotional Indigestion
At the physical level, sleep can be hampered when we haven’t fully processed the foods we’ve eaten during the day. Late night eating, unhealthful foods, or weak digestion can result in heartburn, gas, or some other discomfort. While this is going to happen occasionally, a regular practice of too much food or drink, foods that are too spicy, greasy, or rich, especially just before bedtime, can interfere with sleep. Learn more.
Sometimes, we simply have trouble letting go of the day and its tasks. Mental indigestion is when the mind keeps working, unable to shut off the day’s activities, or continues to replay some event that happened during the day. Usually it’s something we can’t settle or let go of to allow for mental satisfaction or release. This circular kind of processing or anxiety may result in trouble getting to sleep and then waking up between 2:00am and 4:00am and finding it hard to fall back to sleep.
Finally, undigested emotions, perhaps grief, anger, or other strong and painful feelings, can pop up just as we get in to bed. These often unpleasant or unresolved emotions may be the residue of events that have occurred some time ago, but continue to keep us awake at night. Loss of a loved one, a relationship, a job, or regrets about something in the past can resurface when we come to rest. These undigested experiences may cause resistance in going to bed, insomnia, or restless and fitful sleep.
Bed Time “Digestive” Practices for Better Sleep
Bring awareness to what is preventing sufficient sleep. Then begin to establish consistent digestion in all areas. Give one or more of these a try. Start with the one that resonates for you.
* Stick to lighter meals in the evening. This includes ending meals 2-3 hours before bedtime. Replace spicy foods or other foods that create discomfort or take a long time to digest with lighter fare. And make sure you are sufficiently hydrated throughout the day.
[HJ Note: The following foods typically disturb sleep and should be avoided later in the day evening: garlic, onions, peppers, spicy foods and spices (cayenne, paprika, etc.), meals with a large amount of carbohydrates, fruits, and sugars.
The following foods help one to sleep more deeply: dairy products — mainly milk or milk products, ghee, butter, whey protein (in small amounts), small amounts of meat, brown rice, grains, honey, most vegetables, and relaxing herbal teas.]
5 BEST FOODS TO PROMOTE SLEEP
1. Cherries — Fresh, dried and tart cherries are one of the only natural food sources of melatonin, the chemical that controls the body’s internal clock to regulate sleep. Researchers who tested tart cherries and found high levels of melatonin recommend eating them an hour before bedtime or before a trip when you want to sleep on the plane.
2. Almonds — A handful of these heart-healthy nuts can send you snoozing because they contain both tryptophan and a nice dose of muscle-relaxing magnesium. They have the added benefit of supplying proteins that can help maintain a stable blood sugar level while sleeping, and help promote sleep by switching you from your alert adrenaline cycle to your rest-and-digest cycle. Try this bedtime snack: Have a tablespoon of almond butter or a 1-ounce portion of almonds to help your body relax.
3. Honey — Drizzle a little in your herbal tea. Lots of sugar is stimulating, but a little glucose tells your brain to turn off orexin, a recently discovered neurotransmitter that’s linked to alertness. Honey can promote relaxation and help ease you to sleep at night. The natural sugar found in honey raises our insulin slightly and allows tryptophan, to enter our brains more easily. Taking a spoonful of honey before bed can help you get restful sleep.
4. Flaxseeds — When life goes awry, and feeling down is keeping you up, try sprinkling 2 tablespoons of these healthy little seeds on your bedtime oatmeal. They’re rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a natural mood lifter. Many people notice that just 1 tablespoon of flaxseed oil 1 hour before bed promotes a deeper sleep. Generally, fatty acids are involved in initiating and maintaining sleep. There are different categories of fatty acids that we need: omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids. All three types of fatty acids play a role in sleep. Flax oil is a rich source of all three of them.
5. Bananas — They’re practically a sleeping pill in a peel. Potassium and magnesium are natural muscle relaxants, and bananas are a good source of both. They also contain the amino acid L-tryptophan, which gets converted to 5-HTP in the brain. The 5-HTP in turn is converted to serotonin (a relaxing neurotransmitter) and melatonin.
5 WORST FOODS TO PROMOTE SLEEP
1. Alcohol — Having a drink (or two) is one way to nod off more quickly, but how restful is an alcohol-induced slumber? While a nightcap may get you to doze off, you’re more likely to wake up during the night and may not feel as rested following your sleep. So although that glass of wine may help you get to sleep faster, the effect of consolidating sleep in the first half of the night is offset by having more disrupted sleep in the second half of the night which creates sleep deprivation in the long-term.
2. Spicy Foods — Research has shown over the years that a spicy meal at night can indeed lead to poor sleep. The most direct study to show this was published in The International Journal of Psychophysiology by a team of Australian researchers. On the nights that included spicy meals, there were marked changes in the subjects’ sleep patterns. They spent less time in both the light phase of sleep known as Stage 2 and the deep, slow-wave Stages 3 and 4. All of which meant that they experienced less sleep over all and took longer to drift off.
3. Fatty Foods — Research shows that people who often eat high-fat foods not only gain weight, they also experience a disruption of their sleep cycles. A heavy meal activates digestion, which can lead to nighttime trips to the bathroom. People who eat a lot of fatty foods may also have more difficulty sleeping. There seems to be a strong connection between the circadian processes, sleep and metabolism relating to the processing of fatty foods such as high-fat dairy, fried foods and fatty meats.
4. Coffee — It’s no surprise that an evening cup of coffee might disrupt your sleep. Even moderate caffeine can cause sleep disturbances. But don’t forget about less obvious caffeine sources, like, cola, tea, and decaffeinated coffee. For better sleep, cut all caffeine from your diet four to six hours before bedtime.
5. Dark Chocolate — Besides caffeine, chocolate also contains theobromine, another stimulant that can increase heart rate and sleeplessness. While dark chocolate is excellent for your health, try to avoid ingesting any chocolate 5 hours or less before bed.
Excerpt from the article on Prevent Disease by Mae Chan
* Avoid mental and physical stimulants. Power down all screens—computer, smart phone, television, etc. Leave difficult discussions or problem solving for the morning when you are fresher. If you worry that you’ll forget something that has to be done or feel overwhelmed, organize tasks for the next day and then be present for sleep. And avoid caffeine and alcohol several hours before bedtime.
* Start the process of getting to bed earlier. While this may not be possible for everyone, the goal is to be more in sync with the Ayurvedic clock to take advantage of natural, healing rhythms. Begin to wind down starting at 6:00pm culminating in bed around 10:00pm, avoiding the “second wind” that can begin around the same time. The time between 10:00pm and 2:00am is when the body does much of its physical digestion and rebuilding of tissue, followed by an active dream period from 2:00am and 6:00am when more mental and emotional thoughts are digested.
* Try a restorative yoga pose. In general, a regular yoga practice or exercise routine is helpful for more restful sleep. And walking or running outside takes advantage of the natural healing powers of the sun. If you’re having trouble settling before bed, try viparita karani (in photo above) or “legs up the wall.” As it is calming to the nervous system and restorative, it will immediately take anxiety down a notch.
* Apply soothing strategies. Massage the soles of the feet with a warm, aromatic essential oil. The bottoms of the feet are connected to all parts of the body so a foot massage is especially calming. A hot bath, with essential oils, such as lavender, can also allow for deep relaxation and “letting go.” Or try a warm, non-caffeinated beverage, like Almond Milk.
* Let go to the lull of your breath. Instead of counting sheep, try a variation on Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing.” It’s an easy way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and tell the body it’s safe to rest. Place your hands on the navel center to feel the expansion in the abdomen and lower ribcage. Slowly begin to extend the exhale until it becomes twice as long as the inhale. This 1:2 breath is especially helpful for insomnia. Then begin the following (from the Himalayan Institute):
* Take 8 breaths lying on your back
* Take 16 breaths lying on your right side
* Take 32 breaths lying on your left side.
Finally, there’s nothing quite like climbing in to a freshly-make bed with clean sheets to make you feel all is right with the world. Yum.
Conni Kunzler is a self-employed public relations consultant and writer based in Arlington, VA who has been practicing yoga and learning from many wonderful teachers, including the guru within—for nearly 17 years. She has taught yoga for the past 8 years, and also holds an Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist certification. She is currently in the pleasant throes of all thing ayurveda and self-care. Visit her blog at notesfromayogapractice.blogspot.com.