In the first part of this article, we explored foods to eat to help you sleep better as they relate to possible food sensitivities, blood sugar imbalances, and cortisol issues.
The second part of this article looks at foods rich in tryptophan (and therefore serotonin), your liver function as it relates to sleep and the foods to help heal, and an example on how genetics can play a role in why different people may react differently to various types of foods.
1. Supporting liver health to help you sleep better
Another cause of insomnia that can be solved with eating better is waking up in the middle of the night due to an overburdened liver. You may or may not have laboratory findings that show a sluggish liver function (such as elevated liver enzymes).
However, you may notice that you are more affected by alcohol than you used to be, or caffeine makes you really wired. You may also notice more trouble with your menstrual cycles and especially sleeping worse before you menstruate.
Building resilience to sleep better
As we age, our bodies don’t work quite as efficiently as they were when we were 20 years old. This doesn’t mean that we have to accept it and think that just because we are older, it’s normal to feel unwell. It just means that we have to start being more mindful of our choices and likely be more careful than we were at 20 years old.
If you find yourself being more sensitive to alcohol and caffeine, take a break for four weeks. Then reintroduce them gradually and notice how you feel. It may be that your body can only take 1/2 cup of coffee (and before 8am) in order not to feel wired at night. That is actually how my body works these days, as opposed to when I was 25 years old and could drink a full cup of coffee at 10pm to study for an exam and then fall right asleep.
With alcohol, I find that most people intuitively know exactly which type of alcohol and how much affects their sleep. Some people are too addicted to their daily dose so they have a hard time even admitting it’s adding to their insomnia issue. I recommend drinking alcoholic drinks only three days per week, and taking a break for four days. It gives the liver a break to perform and prioritize other necessary functions in the body.
What causes a sluggish liver function
I have talked here about alcohol and caffeine, but the reason why the liver function is overwhelmed is much more complex. Here are some key points to consider:
- The liver will always prioritize toxins; that may be environmental toxins (in water, foods, cosmetics, etc.), alcohol, drugs, and so on.
- It also metabolizes your hormones; that’s why minimizing toxins is so important so your liver can process your hormones properly and not become a second priority.
- It purifies the blood coming from the gut, so whatever you ingest that may be toxic will have to be filtered through the liver.
- It converts sugar and stores it to be available for energy use later; we refer to this as the glycogen stores.
- High stress will also affect the function of the liver.
The best ways to help your liver are to keep alcohol consumption low (or eliminate it for a while) and minimize the amount of medications you are taking whenever possible. It is also helpful to decrease exposure to chemicals in your home and environment and eat an organic diet that encourages your natural detoxification.
What do I eat to sleep better and improve my liver functions?
- Start with the standard elimination diet to eliminate gluten-containing foods, dairy, eggs, corn, soy, alcohol, sugar, and caffeine for 2 months (this diet is usually done for 3, 4 weeks, but when detox is the purpose, I choose a longer-term approach to give the body a real break).
- Replace these foods with a diet high in vegetables and fruit every day: 2 cups of green leafy vegetables, 2 cups of diversely colored non-starchy vegetables, and 2 cups of fruit. These fresh fruits and vegetables will give you ample nutrients in their whole form to provide you with all that is needed to detox.
- Colorful fruits and vegetables provide wonderful phytonutrients that are highly anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory; eat the rainbow every day.
- The liver has two detoxification phases: the first phase benefits from cruciferous veggies such as brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and collard greens, and the second phase benefits from sulfur foods that come from cruciferous veggies but also onions and garlic.
- Starchy vegetables can also be used to help detox; they are wonderful because they offer quick energy, however they are best eaten in a complete meal (or snack) that includes protein and fat.
- Include fresh herbs such as cilantro, turmeric, and parsley to increase the glutathione production (glutathione is a powerful antioxidant produced in the liver).
- Replace your coffee with green tea, as it has less caffeine and offers antioxidants to support the liver function.
- Drinks herbal teas such as dandelion, holy basil, and milk thistle.
2. Increasing serotonin through diet to help you sleep better
You may have heard this before: eat foods rich in tryptophan in order to sleep better. The first food that you may think of is turkey; who can forget the groggy Thanksgiving afternoons? 🙂
Turkey and the tryptophan myth
The idea behind this is that tryptophan makes serotonin, which in turn makes melatonin. Both the serotonin and the melatonin are crucial for good sleep. So then it makes sense to find foods that are rich in tryptophan to get better sleep. However, things are not that simple.
We do indeed need to get tryptophan from our diet, but foods such as turkey are not the best sources. Tryptophan is found in foods that are high in protein such as animal protein. Since those foods are high in other amino acids besides tryptophan, tryptophan is not as readily absorbable (there is an amino acid absorption competition, and tryptophan doesn’t seem to ever win). High-quality carbohydrate foods that contain tryptophan will deliver more of it.
What tryptophan rich foods can you eat to sleep better?
If turkey and other animal proteins don’t deliver the most absorbable form of tryptophan, what other foods do? Here is a list to pick from:
- Garbanzo beans; I soak my garbanzo beans for at least 8 hours overnight and then make them into soup or hummus.
- Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and almonds; I also tend to soak seeds and nuts for a couple of hours, or overnight in the fridge. Add them to your soup or meal, or make them into a raw sweet ball with dates or other dried fruit.
- Leafy greens, turnip and beet greens specifically, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, asparagus, broccoli, peas.
3. How genetic variants can dictate which foods are better to eat to sleep better
The world of genetics is complex and much research is on the way to fully understand how genes affect our health. Epigenetics looks at how nutrition affects the expression of the genes and how it may affect our health.
How the MAO-A gene affects which foods to eat to sleep better
I choose this gene because it beautifully shows how someone may do well with having carbs at night, while another person does a lot better with a higher protein meal. That is why I refrain from making any strong statements about what to eat for dinner as people are made differently.
The MAO-A (monoamine oxidase) is an enzyme in the brain that breaks down noradrenaline, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine.
In general, we have two types of people. There are the people that have a slower activity of these enzymes, hence they keep noradrenaline, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine longer in the brain. The second type process these neurotransmitters faster out of their bodies. None of this is inherently good or bad, it just will affect people differently.
Both people may have insomnia
People who have this gene with either faster or slower activity have trouble sleeping. (There are also people who have neither, sort of in the middle.) People with a slower activity (hence more of those neurotransmitters in the brain) will have a hard time calming down and falling asleep.
The people who clear these neurotransmitters too fast will go to sleep just fine, but may have trouble maintaining sleep. This is because we don’t want too high of an amount or too low in order to be as healthy as possible.
What do I eat to sleep better and improve how these genes express?
So most people ask, am I doomed because of the genes I have inherited? Of course not. Knowledge is power, though. If you really listen to your body, you don’t need a genetic test to tell you what to eat in this case. You know that you do better with a high-protein dinner, or the other way around, lower protein and higher carbs.
If you have a slow MAO-A (wild type or most common in humans, -/-, or shown in green in genetic reports), hence you clear neurotransmitters slower out of your brain. Eat foods higher in animal protein and fewer carbs. As you have learned in the previous section, this will provide fewer circulating neurotransmitters so you can fall asleep easier.
What foods do I eat to sleep better?
If you have a fast MAO-A (shown as +/+, or shown in red in genetic reports) eat foods rich in absorbable tryptophan. Such foods are as garbanzo beans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, leafy greens (turnip and beet greens specifically), mushrooms, bamboo shoots, asparagus, broccoli, and peas.
A final note on tryptophan: in order for it to convert to serotonin, you have to have enough beneficial bacteria in your gut. Read this article to learn more about probiotic and prebiotic foods.
How about the other stress hormones?
We covered the MAO-A gene as it relates tryptophan and serotonin. But how about the other neurotransmitters such as noradrenaline and adrenaline?
If you have slow MAO-A, since these stress neurotransmitters will clear slower out of your brain, take a longer time to wind down. Start a gradually mindful wind-down process at 7pm, instead of just one hour before sleep. You will notice a difference in your ability to fall asleep.
Now you may understand why I can’t give you a list of foods to sleep better. But I hope these articles offered you a better idea on how to improve your diet and improve your sleep in the long term.
If you haven’t read the first part of this article, click here. For a few additional ideas on what to eat to sleep better and heal your insomnia, see one of my older articles called “Can’t Sleep? It could be your diet.”.