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Eat in Order to Sleep

( [email protected] ) Mar 21, 2006 02:31 PM EST

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Do you remember the last time when you ate a large turkey dinner with mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, yams, vegetables, gravy and dessert? How did you feel afterwards? Were you so full so that you could hardly move? Could you keep your eyes open or did you just want to fall asleep? Well, as many of you know, turkey contains a compound called tryptophan that is known to have strong sleep-inducing effects. However, contrary to popular belief, eating lots of turkey alone will not cause this after-dinner drowsiness, nor will it help you get a good night’s sleep. Foods have an amazing impact on the body. Depending on the types of foods we eat and the time we take to eat them, these foods can affect our ability to sleep. Read on to see what really triggers that drowsiness after eating a big turkey feast.

Sleepy Foods

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid. It is essential amino acid because our body cannot make it and therefore we must get it from our food. Sources of tryptophan are found in almost all protein foods such as dairy, soy/tofu, meat, fish, chicken, turkey, eggs, peanuts, seafood, chocolate, beans, sesame seeds as well as in bananas and whole grains such as oats and rice.

Tryptophan gets absorbed in the body by the intestinal cells and gets metabolized to form important substances that have many functions. Some of the absorbed tryptophan will be converted to 5 Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) and with the help of nutrients such as vitamin B3, vitamin B6 and magnesium, it can create serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin and melatonin are necessary chemicals made in the brain that serve many functions, but also play a big role in sleep. Melatonin is responsible for the sleep/wake cycle of our body whereas serotonin is important in initiating sleep. Studies showed that giving high doses of tryptophan resulted in a large increase in blood melatonin concentration. Other studies showed that serotonin reduced anxiety and brought about sleep and 5-HTP, serotonin’s precursor, was found to aid sleep disturbances. More specifically, 5-HTP is more effective in individuals who have difficulty falling asleep versus those who wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep.

In order to improve sleep, logically this means we now have a few options: eat more foods containing tryptophan, take a melatonin supplement (TrueZZZ), or take a 5-HTP supplement. As of yet, there is no such thing as a serotonin pill as the body must make serotonin.

Eating lots of foods rich in tryptophan may not be the best approach for a better night sleep because even if you were to eat a lot of turkey, only 3% of a dosage of tryptophan is likely to be converted to serotonin in the brain. Tryptophan is effective only if it is taken on its own as a free amino acid. Protein meals include tryptophan along with other amino acids. The variety of amino acids will compete for absorption and uptake into brain cells. Based on this result, if you suffer from severe insomnia, I would suggest taking a melatonin or 5-HTP supplement rather than trying to get it from your diet.

So, how is it that we get so tired after eating a turkey feast? It is a combination of the large quantities of carbohydrates and amino acids that puts us to sleep. A high carbohydrate meal stimulates the release of insulin, which helps remove some of the amino acids into muscle cells. These amino acids normally compete with tryptophan. This results in an increase in the relative concentration of tryptophan in the blood allowing more of it to enter the brain and make the sleep-inducing chemicals. Eating a high protein meal without accompanying carbohydrates not only leads to minimal serotonin production, but can also keep you awake, since protein-rich foods also contain the amino acid, tyrosine, which can perk up the brain. Also, the fat in the turkey meal and overeating can slow down the digestive system, requiring larger blood flow to the digestive tract which then decreases blood flow to other areas such as the brain, making you feel lethargic.

‘No’ Sleepy Foods

The brain is extremely dependent on glucose for energy. If at night, the glucose in our blood drops (a condition called hypoglycemia), the low amounts of blood glucose keep our body awake as they stimulates the release of hormones to help increase the blood glucose levels back to normal. These hormones include epinephrine, glucagons, cortisol and growth hormones, all of which commonly stimulate activity within the body. Symptoms of this include shaky hands, irritability and light-headedness. Eating a small amount of food, regardless of the type of food, an hour before you go to sleep, may help individuals who have this problem.

Some Smart Bedtime Snacks

Foods that are high in carbohydrates and calcium, and medium-to-low in protein are ideal sleep-inducing bedtime snacks. Ideally, it is not recommended to eat during the last few hours before bed. But, for the people who suffer from insomnia due to hypoglycemia, a small bedtime snack may be beneficial. If so, it is best to not eat too much (you don’t want to sleep with a full and uncomfortable stomach) and eat at least one hour prior bed to allow the tryptophan to get to the brain. Some examples include:

• whole-grain cereal with soy milk

• few nuts and plain yogurt

• tofu and steamed vegetables

• oatmeal and raisin cookies with a glass of soy milk

• peanut/almond butter and toast

• hummus with rice crackers/carrot sticks

• rye crackers with tuna

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