To know what to cook that will induce sleepiness, you first have to know what keeps you awake. The following dos and don’ts should help you not only prepare dinner, but get you ready for a good night’s #sleep.
High-acid fruits and vegetables. Any foods that trigger Gastroesophageal Reflux (GER) or its more severe cousin, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), are a no-no for the insomniac. Through a complex interplay of hormones, items like fresh tomatoes, citrus fruits and high-fiber vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, cause the muscle between the esophagus and the stomach—called the lower esophageal sphincter (LES)—to relax, instead of keep its structure. The result? You not only have to put with the pain of indigestion, but you can also experience a backwash of stomach acid and partially digested #food, known as reflux. Both indigestion and reflux worsen when you lie down, so getting a good night’s sleep is hardly likely.
Heavily spiced fare. Dishes laden with onion, garlic, and/or chili peppers typically activate heartburn. Not only that, but chili peppers in particular can irritate the esophagus, ulcerate the lining of the stomach, and raise the body’s temperature. Therefore, if you’re sensitive to them, items like chili, jerk chicken and curries should be scratched off the dinner list.
High-fat and high-protein foods. Large meals filled with fats cause delayed stomach emptying and decrease the pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter, allowing it to relax. In particular, steak, which takes a long time to digest, can interfere with Circadian rhythms, which the National Sleep Foundation defines as our “natural sleep/wake cycle.” A diet rich in fat and protein has also been linked to #sleep apnea, which causes a person to stop and start breathing periodically throughout the night, and leaves a pervasive feeling of exhaustion in its wake. Add in a serving of deep-fried French fries or a baked potato topped with cheese and sour cream, and you’re practically asking to toss and turn all night long.
But it’s a vicious cycle. Fatigue in turn can lead to interference with your appetite. Leptin and ghrelin, two hormones that help regulate hunger and feelings of satiation, decrease and increase respectively when you’re tired. The body reacts by craving more fat, protein and carbohydrates. If permitted to continue uninterrupted, the cycle of craving and sleep deprivation can steadily interfere not only with your #sleep health but with your mental state, making you sluggish, depressed, and anxious.
Foods high in carbohydrates and sugars. At night, the liver is our watchdog, sending us a steady stream of glucose to get us through what is essentially a fast. But if you stuff yourself full of sugar before sailing off into that dreamless dark, you’re offering your liver more than it can process, and it’s going to dump too much glucose into your bloodstream. First you’ll spike, then you’ll crash. The accompanying symptoms are those unpleasant, sticky night sweats, and you’ll be up – drenched and needing to change your sheets and PJs – within a few hours. There’s also some indication that adults without diabetes who indulge in too much sugar wake up more than those who don’t.
Look for foods with tryptophan. An amino acid, tryptophan is important for the body and brain so that it can make B vitamins and brain chemicals like serotonin. A neurotransmitter that relays signals, serotonin is eventually converted to melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. People with low serotonin levels may wake up more often during the night, while those with high serotonin levels become drowsy during the day. (If you’ve ever had to take a nap after eating a holiday turkey, which contains tryptophan that is then converted to serotonin, then you’ve encountered this conversion phenomenon).
For natural relief, try eating more of the building blocks that make serotonin. In addition to finding tryptophan in turkey, it’s also available in chicken, nuts and seeds, lentils and beans, tofu and soy products, oats, cheese and eggs.
Eat a diet high in trace minerals. You see them on the shelves filled with supplements— Selenium, Vitamin C, AND lycopene. Selenium is a trace mineral the body needs to convert its thyroid hormones properly; too much (hyper) or too little (hypo) interferes with your sleep. Vitamin C, like tryptophan, is another brick in the serotonin-melatonin wall. Lycopene is an antioxidant that prevents cells from malfunctioning, allowing them to receive serotonin and melatonin. But you don’t need to take pills.
Selenium can be found in halibut, cod, tuna, shrimp, barley, turkey and nuts.
Vitamin C is supplied by strawberries, pineapple, papaya, broccoli. bell peppers and kale.
Lycopene is found in grapefruit, tomatoes, watermelon and papaya.
Alone or triple-strength, these minerals are helpful in safeguarding neural pathways and ensuring that the right neurotransmitters are making and sending the correct messages.
And papaya and pineapple have digestive enzymes that help break down protein from a meal that’s too full of it. If you do indulge in a delicious aged ribeye, as many of us do occasionally, have some tropical fruit for dessert. You may notice that you’ll feel less uncomfortably full when bedtime arrives.
Crunch complex carbohydrates. Plain, unsweetened carbs – brown rice, baked potatoes, whole-wheat bread — also assist people in falling asleep. That’s because complex carbohydrates, like turkey, contain tryptophan, which in turn creates serotonin and melatonin. Pair a piece of whole-wheat toast with a tablespoon of natural, low-sugar peanut butter, and you have yourself a bedtime snack to dream on, rather than a midnight snack to wake up to.
The real trick. To balance dishes and meals so that you’re not ingesting too much fiber, which can also keep your body working when it should be resting – and cause gastrointestinal upset as well as interrupt the absorption of sleep-inducing minerals and amino acids – match low-fat proteins with high-tryptophan and high-trace mineral partners. Dishes such as pumpkin seed-coated chicken breast with a creamy Parmesan sun-dried tomato sauce over barley-kale pilaf would be an ideal combination, as would sesame-coated, soy-marinated rare tuna sliced and plated over a grilled and minted watermelon, papaya and grapefruit salad. The best part, of course, is that cooking such a simple meal wouldn’t wear you out. But eating it just might.