Ah sleep, what a flighty mistress you are….There is nothing better than that moment you fall into bed, your head hits the pillow and you are whisked away into a perfectly serene slumber. Truly and utterly divine.
But hold on a moment. How often does that happen?
Dysfunctional sleep patterns are possibly the most common problem I come across with people. To the point that some don’t even consider 4 hours of disjointed rest per night out of the norm. Struggling through the day in a coffee-fuelled haze? Nothing new here.
To try and unpick why someone may not be sleeping well without speaking to them personally would be like trying to measure that piece of string everyone always talks about. In a hailstorm. Whilst doing a handstand.
However, there are quite a few things we can all look to do to help us rest better. And as we all know, we cannot hope to live as our best selves if we are tired (I know I definitely can’t). Anything extra to keep us in the Duracell bunny bracket is always going to be a winner in my book!
1. Keep stress in check
How many of us run through the day multitasking like crazy? Well yes, that may be the majority of us. But it doesn’t mean that’s necessarily a good thing!
High levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol that we produce in huge quantities in our endlessly busy modern style of life will disrupt our sleep by affecting when we feel wakeful and when we should feel sleepy. Cortisol, in particular, should peak in the morning and gradually decrease towards the evening when it is overtaken by melatonin – cue bedtime.
However, if we’re racing around all the time that doesn’t happen and then we find ourselves getting a second wind at 9pm and dragging our foreheads along the floor first thing in the morning.
My top tips for this would be to massively increase your intake of vitamin C – fresh parsley, raw peppers, broccoli, citrus, berries, cherries and papaya. This marvellous vitamin helps us to get rid of excess cortisol through the liver. Oh and have a high protein breakfast, giving your body food for fuel rather than running on empty or having a coffee. Eating food before coffee stops that stress response from being sparked (plus breakfast tastes good!).
2. Avoid caffeine when you’re tired
The saviour of many… or not!
Leading on from the point above, caffeine can be hugely disruptive when it comes to our stress hormones as the reason it gives you a buzz is because it makes you produce adrenaline. So yep if you’re knackered, you might feel you need a morning coffee to get going but it’s like flogging a dead horse – the more you do it, the worse you’ll feel.
Opt for a protein-rich breakfast instead (eggs & avocado, roasted veg with chickpeas & feta or salmon stir fry leftovers from dinner the night before, whatever you fancy!). This gives your body some actual firepower and will last for much longer than a caffeinated buzz.
If you still want something with a kick, making the swap to a green tea or matcha in the morning will give you that but in a less adrenally stressful way plus they come rich with the amino acid L-theanine. L-theanine calms the ‘wired but tired’ feeling many experience (which is why you will also find it in Motion’s evening Nootropic Unplug).
3. Get your breakfast right
Another one that is so easy to fall down on when we’re tired as we naturally crave quick-release energy. Hi, sugary treats!
And this is another key point for a good brekkie (sorry if I’m becoming repetitive, just eat breakfast OK?!). The first thing we have in the morning will dictate our blood sugar fluctuations for the rest of the day and into the night. If we opt for something rich in simple sugars like white bread products, fruit, cereal, a sugary smoothie or juice, then our blood glucose will peak.
This will trigger the release of insulin from our pancreas and then crash back down which is why we feel hungry again mid-morning and probably in need of something sweet or caffeinated in the afternoon. This can also be one of the contributing factors if someone is waking during the night as their body is still going on that rollercoaster ride – they literally wake in need of energy to stay asleep.
4. Make sure you are producing enough melatonin
Right. Let’s talk brain chemistry. I previously mentioned the interplay between cortisol and melatonin in terms of stress. Yes: bringing down cortisol levels is super important to improve sleep quality. But then we also want to upregulate our production of melatonin too.
How to naturally increase melatonin production
The way we do this is by looking at the precursors (building blocks) of melatonin. These are the amino acid tryptophan and the neurotransmitter serotonin. Tryptophan we gain from our diet in protein-rich foods (chicken, turkey, fish and beef particularly) as well as oats, dates, cacao, fish, chickpeas, sesame and pumpkin seeds. Go to town on these and you’ll be giving yourself a leg up in increasing those levels.
The tricky thing is tryptophan is a bit of a tough kid in the playground. In order to get into the brain, it has to use a transporter which it shares with a number of other amino acids that you will also find in those protein-rich foods… problem. But hold on, there’s one food that can give you so much pure tryptophan that it outcompetes all those others for the transporter, semi-flooding your brain with it and that is… Organic Whey Protein!
Yep, whey is super special. Struggling with sleep? Feeling a little on the low mood side of things?
Start including some more whey protein into your diet to boost those brain levels. If you’re not a dairy fan or eliminate it from your diet, don’t despair. All of those other more plant-based foods will still give you a hefty boost, including Motion’s Peanut Butter Vegan Protein blend.
5. Eat foods rich in zinc, magnesium and Vitamin B6
Now that’s all well and good, but no conversion to melatonin will happen efficiently by itself. We also want some cofactors to help things along. The melatonin pathway, in particular, loves magnesium, zinc, vitamin B6 so make sure you’re also including plenty of the following tasty things too:
MAGNESIUM: Found in green-leafy vegetables, quinoa, almonds, cashews, black beans, organic peanuts and Unplug
ZINC: Oysters, grass-fed lamb & beef, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, cacao, cashews, live yoghurt, kefir, mushrooms, green leafy vegetables and Unplug
VITAMIN B6: Whole grains, jumbo oats, pork, poultry, beans, eggs, green leafy vegetables, edamame beans
6. Use herbs in your diet
Herbs and adaptogens are the mainstays of traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. They have been used for thousands of years.
There are several benefits of including these into your routine.
Herbs are fabulously effective both in the short term, quelling feelings of anxiety, making you feel more balanced and inducing a sleepy state (depending on what you pick). But they also go further and will have cumulative effects in the long term: encouraging an overall feeling of calm, dampening chronic stress and improving the functioning of all the body systems.
When it comes to sleep support my top picks would be:
- The medicinal mushroom Reishi,
- Tulsi (also known as holy basil)
Herbal tinctures, supplements, teas and powders are all widely available. Just make sure to pick an organic product and always start low and slow. Plants are super powerful and I would always advise beginning gently and dosing up rather than diving in at the deep end.
7. Exercise (but don’t overdo it)
Not as simple as it sounds!
Yes, it’s important that we move each day. And it is entirely possible that if you are leading a more sedentary style of life that you aren’t actually expending enough energy to send you off to sleep at night.
If you’re mainly based at a desk, try to add some more steps to your journey to/from work and go for regular whips around the office. Not only will it benefit your sleep, overall health and wellbeing but the freshly oxygenated blood will increase your productivity too!
Don’t overdo cardio if you want to sleep well.
For those already adding exercise into their daily routine, the style and timing are more what I would be looking at. Too many cardio workouts will be kicking off those adrenals again. If you’re struggling with sleep then I would strongly suggest scrapping cardio or at least keeping them below 30 minutes and at a maximum of 2 sessions a week. Also, make sure they aren’t in the evening as you really don’t want to be whacking up those stress hormones later in the day.
Need more movement? Your more calming practises – yoga, pilates, swimming, meditation and mindfulness all act to lessen those cortisol and adrenaline levels.
Plus they actually cause physical rewiring of the brain: improving cognitive function, memory retention and helping you to feel calmer, less anxious and guess what… help you sleep better!
8. Bonus tip: Make this ‘Sleep Soundly’ Smoothie
Ingredients (per person):
- 1 large handful spinach
- 30g Motion Nutrition Organic Whey (I’ve used the Creamy Cacao here but you could use any of the blends, peanuts are also a natural tryptophan source so you’ll still get some if you use the organic Peanut Butter blend too!)
- 1 tablespoon jumbo oats
- 1 date
- 1 tablespoon tahini or pumpkin seed butter
- ½ heaped teaspoon Ceylon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon reishi powder
- 1-1.5 cups oat milk (super lovely if used warm!)
Add everything to a high-speed blender and whizz until divinely smooth and silky!