If your clients or patients have complained about not getting enough sleep, know they’re not alone. It’s estimated that about 68% of Americans struggle with obtaining quality sleep at least once per week, and about 1 in 3 American adults don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis.
What’s causing this? And why does it matter so much? In this blog, you’ll learn how to educate your clients about the basic recommendations for sleep, the negative consequences of not getting enough, practices to help improve sleep hygiene, and the best foods and supplements you can recommend to help support better sleep.
Why Is Sleep Important?
Sleep is a crucial component of health, and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night, though some people require more. In addition, this guideline refers to high-quality sleep, not sleep that’s frequently interrupted or leaves the individual still feeling exhausted the next day. Inadequate sleep has been shown to negatively impact attention span, reaction time, learning ability, alertness, mood, hand-eye coordination, and even short-term memory. Being overly tired is thought to be a cause of many accidents, car crashes, and more.
If you need more proof that sleep is important for the people you work with (and yourself), prolonged sleep deprivation also has been linked to the following:
- increased risk of developing chronic diseases;
- higher stress levels;
- more inflammation in the body;
- worsened memory;
- higher blood pressure and blood sugar;
- weight gain; and
- hormone imbalances.
It’s probably safe to say that sleep can be associated with just about every aspect of health, and for good reason.
In an effort to combat sleep issues, people understandably have become desperate, often turning to medications and even high-tech devices to help improve sleep. While these may help, they may not address the underlying cause of why the individual is having difficulty sleeping. In addition, they may be costly, inconvenient, and unsustainable, and have negative side effects.
Some of the reasons for poor sleep largely are out of someone’s control, such as having a baby or small child, pets, living in a noisy neighborhood, and having odd work hours. The good news is that much still is in your clients’ control, including the foods they eat, the supplements they take, and the sleep routine they follow. Yes, food can be used as medicine for sleep, too.
Yet before we learn how food can help, we must discuss the importance of practicing good sleep hygiene. This is a set of behaviors that can help prepare the body for better sleep and includes practices such as the following:
- going to bed around the same time each night and rising around the same time in the morning;
- turning off electronic devices at least one hour before bed;
- avoiding stimulating or stressful activities at least one hour before bed;
- keeping the bedroom cool, quiet, and dark (wearing an eye mask may help);
- not engaging in non–sleep-related tasks in bed;
- limiting caffeine intake and avoiding caffeine after about noon;
- limiting alcohol intake; and
- getting enough exercise, yet not too close to bedtime.
Educating and encouraging clients and patients about practicing at least a few of these habits can significantly help improve sleep quality and duration.
In addition to helping clients practice the sleep hygiene habits outlined above, there’s growing research to support the role of nutrients in promoting better sleep. Many supplements outlined below also may be of benefit.
• Tryptophan is an amino acid that plays a role in encouraging healthy sleep. In the body, it can be converted into a molecule called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which is used to make serotonin and melatonin—other chemicals required for good sleep. Tryptophan often is associated with feeling sleepy after eating a lot of turkey on Thanksgiving, but it’s found in many other foods as well (primarily high protein food). Good food sources include salmon, soy products, eggs, turkey, chicken, seeds, warm milk, and nuts. Encourage clients to try to include more of these foods with dinner to naturally help boost tryptophan levels.
• Valerian root is one of the most commonly used herbal supplements for sleep, and for good reason. Clients can take valerian in capsule, tea, powder, and tincture form, and taking between 300 and 900 mg of valerian root may help with falling asleep faster and getting better-quality sleep.
• Melatonin is probably the most well-known natural remedy for sleep issues. What most people don’t realize, though, is that melatonin can be consumed through food as well as supplements. Good food sources include eggs, fish, whole wheat products, barley, oats, tart cherries, grapes, pistachios, soy, beans, tomatoes, and peppers.
• Chamomile has been used for centuries to help fight insomnia. Ask clients to try drinking chamomile tea about an hour or so before bed to allow enough time to use the restroom before going to sleep.
• Magnesium is involved in more than 300 bodily functions, including the ability to sleep well. It’s estimated that as many as one-half of Americans are deficient in magnesium, and increasing intake may help improve much more than just sleep. Supplementing with magnesium in addition to increasing intake from food can work wonders on health and sleep. Good food sources include nuts, spinach, tofu, avocados, seeds, dark chocolate, and bananas. Recommend clients snack on some almonds before bed or enjoy a banana topped with almond butter as a bedtime snack.
• Lavender has a soothing fragrance that’s believed to encourage sleep and a feeling of calmness (it also can be used to treat anxiety). Studies have shown that lavender acts as a mild sedative and can be used to treat mild sleep disturbances. Tell clients to try diffusing lavender essential oil in the bedroom, rubbing it on the skin, soaking in bath water infused with lavender, and/or drinking lavender tea.
• GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain that’s been shown to support sleep. Helping the body produce more GABA, therefore, can help improve sleep quality. Clients can try taking a GABA supplement in the evening, as well as increasing their intake of food sources of this neurotransmitter. Good food sources include: Whole grains (such as oats, wheat, and barley), buckwheat, tomatoes, broccoli, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes.
• 5-HTP is an amino acid that helps produce serotonin and melatonin. Research has shown that combining 5-HTP with GABA can help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep as well as increase sleep duration.
• L-Theanine is another amino acid positively associated with better sleep. Studies also support the use of GABA plus L-theanine for improving sleep quality.
RDs are uniquely qualified to help educate and empower the people they work with to improve both the quality and duration of sleep. Encourage clients and patients to take a good look at their current diet and lifestyle and ask themselves where they can make one or two changes to help promote better sleep. Emphasize that they don’t have to implement everything in this article, but that making even slight changes can make a big impact. The sooner they can make adjustments, the sooner they can start reaping the rewards of better sleep.
— Joanna Foley, RD, CLT, has been practicing as a dietitian for more than five years and is the owner of a private nutrition counseling practice at www.joannafoleynutrition.com. Joanna believes that food really is the best medicine and that we all have the power within us to create the healthiest versions of ourselves. Joanna also is passionate about helping others transform their relationship with food and create positive eating environments.