Six superfoods and herbs to help you sleep better

If you’re having trouble unwinding, reach for any one of these sleep recommendations to help you fall into a deep slumber.

Dark chocolate on a cutting board
Next to poor digestion, irregular sleep is my most commonly heard complaint. Just as a cup of coffee too late in the day can keep you up, certain foods are known to relax the nervous system and help you get to sleep. If you’re having trouble unwinding, reach for any one of these six recommendations:

1. Tryptophan: Better than a glass of warm milk
The body uses the amino acid tryptophan to produce serotonin and melatonin, both hormones that are essential for sleep. Serotonin is required to transmit nerve impulses from the brain and regulate mood in general. If you have trouble staying asleep, or wake frequently throughout the night, you’re likely low in these two hormones. The good news is certain seeds have high tryptophan numbers, which will not only help you sleep, but relax you overall.

Bottom line: Reach for 100 grams of sesame seeds to get more than 1000 mg of tryptophan. The same amount of chia seeds have more than 700 grams of tryptophan, while pumpkin seeds have almost 600 mg. Pumpkin seeds also contain zinc, which can assist the brain in converting tryptophan into serotonin. In fact, pumpkin seed powder is the new ‘warm glass of milk’ when it comes to sleep remedies.

For a powerful evening snack mix ¼ cup of pumpkin seeds (or powder) with 1-2 tablespoon chia seeds and ¾ cup of unsweetened Greek yogurt.

2. Grab some walnuts
Like seeds, certain nuts will not only help balance your blood sugar levels but are also high in both melatonin and tryptophan. Raw nuts such as almonds and walnuts are an excellent choice for healthful, filling snacks. Research from the University of Texas Health Science Center found that walnuts are a source of melatonin. Melatonin not only improves our sleep but it also offers antioxidant protection. So walnuts just might be your secret weapon against sleeplessness nights, as well as cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cardiovascular illness.

3. Opt for tart juice
If you’ve seen the rows of tart cherry juice popping up in your local grocery store, there’s a good reason why. In a study published in Natural Medicine Journal participants drank 30 ml of Montmorency cherry juice 30 minutes after waking and 30 minutes before their evening meal, thereby boosting their exogenous melatonin intake by 85 mcg a day. The results showed significant increase in time in bed, total sleep time and sleep efficiency with cherry juice supplementation.

Bottom line: I recommend drinking ½-1 cup an hour before bedtime for best results.

4. Have a square of chocolate a day
Who says we can’t indulge and improve our health at the same time? Chocolate contains tryptophan and the brain chemical phenylethylamine that boost our endorphins to promote feelings of attraction, excitement and love. It’s also one of the richest dietary sources of magnesium, a natural sedative, which can greatly improve sleep.

Bottom line: If you prefer homemade, unsweetened hot chocolate than you’ll be pleased to hear that cocoa powder provides almost 500 mg of magnesium per 100 gram serving. A deficiency of magnesium can result in difficulty sleeping, constipation, muscle tremors or cramps, anxiety, irritability and pain. Other foods rich in magnesium are legumes and seeds, dark leafy green vegetables, wheat bran, almonds, cashews, blackstrap molasses, brewer’s yeast, and whole grains.

5. Opt for protein versus carbs
Carbohydrate-rich snacks like bread, cereal, muffins, cookies or other baked goods prompt a short-term spike in blood sugar, followed by a sugar crash later on. When blood sugar drops, adrenalin, glucagon, cortisol and growth hormone are released to regulate blood glucose levels. These hormones can stimulate the brain, causing you to awaken and possibly stay awake.

Bottom line: Try to avoid eating for at least two hours before going to bed. A high protein snack such as Greek yogurt or a protein smoothie with a few nuts and berries will provide a source of tryptophan while the sugars from the fruit may help it reach your brain and take effect more readily.

6. A soothing cuppa tea
There are a few sleep superstars when it comes to tea: lemon balm, sage, chamomile or valerian are all great options. When it comes to brewing I recommend fresh herbs and a tea infuser for a more potent blend instead of ready-made bags.

Bottom line: Steep for 5-10 minutes and add a dash of milk if desired, sit back and enjoy. Consume 30 minutes-1 hour before desired bedtime.

Natasha Turner, N.D. is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist, and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet and The Supercharged Hormone Diet. Her newest release, The Carb Sensitivity Program, is available across Canada. She is also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here.

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