Sleep Problems Easy to Fix with Food?
By Joan Kent, PhD
Do you ever have trouble falling asleep at night?
One simple solution is to eat a small portion of carbohydrate, preferably starch, about an hour or so before bed. Starch examples include quinoa, potato, rice, sweet potato, squash, oats, even pasta.
What Do Starches Do?
Starches stimulate insulin. Insulin then allows a specific amino acid (tryptophan) to reach the brain. When tryptophan reaches the brain, it's used to make serotonin.
Serotonin relaxes us and allows us to fall asleep. It's also converted to melatonin, which some people call the "sleep hormone." Melatonin has an anti-inflammatory action, and that's one reason sleep is so good for us.
What If It Doesn't Work?
If you try starch and still can't fall asleep, try adding a small portion of turkey, which contains a relatively high amount of tryptophan. Eating starch together with turkey will have the same effect that you may have experienced after a Thanksgiving dinner – feeling sleepy after the meal.
Turkey is usually blamed for that sleepiness, but the tryptophan wouldn't reach the brain readily if we didn't eat starch with it. Several larger and more plentiful amino acids compete with tryptophan for entry to the brain. In effect, they prevent tryptophan from reaching the brain.
Those competing amino acids are used to form 2 other brain chemicals that make us feel awake and alert – dopamine and norepinephrine.
How Can Carbs Help?
When starches promote insulin release, the insulin transports amino acids throughout the body. That allows them to be used for various amino acid functions: formation of antibodies, hormones, receptor sites, enzymes, and much more.
At that point, tryptophan – smaller in size and less plentiful – can reach the brain. The brain can then convert it to serotonin.
Why Starches? Why Not Sugar?
Some people tend to crave sugar before bed, but eating sugar then can backfire for a couple of reasons.
Sugar triggers the release of endorphins (beta-endorphin) and dopamine. As mentioned above, dopamine is a brain alertness chemical. It could wake us up, rather than allowing us to fall asleep. Some people are more sensitive to the dopamine effect of sugar and might find themselves "wired" after eating sugar.
Starches, in contrast, tend to produce relaxation without that wired feeling.
Another Problem with Sugar
Another way sugar can backfire has to do with blood glucose. This could wake us up in the middle of the night.
Sugar tends to trigger high insulin secretion. That effect is much more pronounced in some people than in others. (Those people are called "carbohydrate sensitive", but don't let the name confuse you. We're still talking about sugar before bed, rather than starch.)
In someone who is sensitive to sugar in this way, the extra insulin might cause glucose levels to drop very low. It might seem as if the low glucose would make someone so tired that they'd stay asleep all night and even having trouble waking in the morning.
Instead, the sharp glucose drop tends to cause us to wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty going back asleep, even if we feel tired.
So, again, starch seems to be a better solution.
• Eat protein throughout the day.
• Eat less protein with your dinner.
• Have a small portion of starch about an hour or so before bedtime.
• Add a little turkey if it doesn't work.
• Avoid late-night sugar.
Avoiding sugar may be easier said than done. I help people get away from sugar so they can sleep well, transform their health, feel better, stop mood swings, and restore normal eating. Access your free copy of "3 Biggest Mistakes People Make When Trying to Quit Sugar" when you visit www.LastResortNutrition.com .