Why is sleep important?
Sleep is a fundamental time for physiological function and healing. It is the only time the body has to repair and reset. During the day the body is too preoccupied on digestion, brain function and muscular movement to prioritise repair and protect mechanisms that are essential to stay healthy. When asleep these adaptations can take place. Sleep is necessary to improve mental function, alertness, memory, hormonal regulation, muscular strength and even adaptation to training. All this is why good quality sleep is key to sustainable health and performance (physical and mental).
In order to get the most from our sleep periods, we should aim to get around 7-8 hours per night. Athletes, however, are usually poor sleepers due to early training sessions or too much exercise that reduces sleep quality. This makes nap time just as important as a training session, especially if sleep has been compromised in one way or another. The perfect nap time is around 30 minutes, as the body does not go into a deep sleep that may leave you feeling lathargic for the rest of the day.
Here are my top tips to help improve your sleep quality and duration:
Top 10 ways to optimise sleep naturally:
1. Don't go to bed hungry
Going to bed hungry is not only unsettling because of the sound your stomach makes or hunger pains but your body is consequently metabolically and mentally active. Caloric restriction has shown to cause sleep disruptions and a reduction in deep sleep. This alertness keeps your mind active making it difficult to fall asleep.
2. Drink tart cherry juice
Tart cherry juice (TCJ) has shown to improve sleep due to increased exogenous melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that the body produces in respone to darkness to initiate sleep. As an exogenous source, TJC aids in preparing the body to sleep naturally, which is especially useful when melatonin production is disrupted or low.
3. Eat protein rich in tryptophan
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that aids in improving sleep via its serotonin and melatonin pathway. Serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, that is derived from tryptophan and is a precursor of melatonin. Therefore, tryptophan essentially helps produce melatonin. Foods rich in tryptophan include poultry, eggs, dairy, red meat, beans, nuts & seeds.
4. Have a small high GI carb snack
In order for tryptophan to work its magic, it is needed in combination with a small high glycemic index (GI) carbohydrate snack. Carbohydrates help tryptophan pass through the blood brain barrier by triggering insulin.
5. Drink herbal tea before bed
Lavender and valerian herbs are well known for their relaxaton and anti-anxiety effects. Having a herbal tea as a pre-bed drink with a good book is a great relaxation combo for a good night´s sleep.
6. Include magnesium-rich foods in your diet
Magnesium is an essential mineral for creating calm and quiet. It plays a key role in the nervous system that can relieve anxiety and restless muscles.
7. Avoid caffeinated drinks
Caffeine can be a huge influence on your sleep without knowing it. Caffeine enhances feelings of anxiety, excitement or stress, which can leave you on a cognitive high. By not drinking caffeine after 4pm, you are allowing your body time to wind down at the end of the day instead of creating excitory feelings that delay fatigue and sleepiness.
8. Avoid white light
As mentioned above, melatonin is produced in response to darkness. White light from electronics blunt the production of melatonin, therefore, prolonging the onset of sleep. Switch your phone to a warm light setting at night to help avoid this. Candles and warm dim lights also help create a relaxing stress-free environment to prepare your body for bed.
9. Replace social media for a book
Social media before bed can create feeling of anxiety, jealousy or excitement, all of which keep the mind active and unsettled. A good book is calming and helps the mind wind down helping to initiate sleep.
10. Avoid over heating at night
When a room is too hot or the body´s core temperature rises from being overdressed, we lose moisture in our throats and mouth making it an uncomfortable sleeping environment. Airways become narrow making it difficult to breathe. Make sure to sleep in clothes that suit the room temperature. Try not to sleep with the heater on, as this will dry out the air.
Halson SL. Sleep in elite athletes and nutritional interventions to enhance sleep. Sports Med 44 Suppl 1: S13-23, 2014.