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What can I eat to sleep better and heal from insomnia? That is a question I get fairly often, probably in the hopes that I will give a list of a handful of foods to eat to start sleeping well again. I wish it were that simple!

On one hand, you may think that what you eat doesn’t make much of a difference… Or if you think it does, perhaps not necessarily for sleep.

What we eat really does affect our sleep

In reality, every substance that we ingest creates a physiological reaction in our bodies. We are either feeding and supporting healthy functions or we are increasing inflammation and creating imbalances in the body. There are no neutral reactions; everything affects our body whether we feel it or not; just like a domino reaction.

Let’s explore what to eat to sleep better, from 6 different points of view:

  1. Food sensitivities affecting sleep and what to eat
  2. Blood sugar imbalances affecting sleep and what to eat
  3. Cortisol issues affecting sleep and what to eat
  4. Liver function affecting sleep and what to eat 
  5. Serotonin production to improve sleep and what to eat
  6. Genetic variants affecting sleep and what to eat

In this first part of this article, I’m covering the first three issues. 

1. Addressing food sensitivities and digestion health to help you sleep better

One of the main reasons why people can’t settle down and sleep peacefully at night is because they are unknowingly eating inflammatory foods that increase their cortisol production. 

Food allergies are more obvious and usually discovered at the doctor’s office. But with food sensitivities, the effects are less acute, more moderate, and not as obvious to the untrained eye. In fact, some food sensitivities may cause symptoms up to 72 hours after being ingested. No wonder we are so confused sometimes about whether food has anything to do with the fact that we are unwell. 

Symptoms of possible food sensitivities 

What may be some of the symptoms that can give you a hint that you should look into food sensitivities? Here are some possible symptoms: 

  • feeling wired at night
  • restless sleep
  • nightmares 
  • acid reflux
  • feeling bloated and/or gassy
  • inconsistent bowel movements with constipation, loose stools, or diarrhea 
  • various degrees of abdominal discomfort or pain
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • skin problems 
  • nasal congestion 

One of the best (and cheapest) ways to assess whether you react to foods that people commonly find to be sensitive is to eliminate these foods from your diet for four weeks. This is what we call The Elimination Diet.

Foods to be eliminated for four weeks

The foods being eliminated for these few weeks are the following:

  • gluten
  • dairy 
  • eggs
  • corn
  • soy
  • sugar
  • caffeine
  • alcohol 

I know, I know; all the good stuff. Or as some of my patients say (thankfully not that many), what is left to eat then?

There is so much left to eat. The purpose of this elimination diet is to identify foods that may be troublesome. The second benefit is being encouraged to widen the pool of foods you eat. 

The increased variety of foods usually includes more fruits and veggies and fewer processed foods. That in itself will help you sleep better, since you are likely eating a more nutritious diet. 

After four weeks, the foods are going to be reintroduced every three days and then you can observe for upsetting symptoms. It is best to keep a sleep log throughout this elimination diet and as you are reintroducing the foods. Though you may get other symptoms too that point towards a sensitivity, such as bloating, abdominal pain or cramps, constipation or loose stools, runny nose, postnasal drip, headaches, and more. 

Working with a practitioner will give you the best results throughout this diet and when reintroducing the foods. This is just an intro so you understand what it entails in general. Also, some people require blood testing in order to take a better look at additional possible food sensitivities, besides the foods eliminated already. 

What do I eat to sleep better then?

  • Identify which foods you may be reacting to and eat foods that are anti-inflammatory.
  • Fill half of your plate with veggies; throughout the day, aim to eat two cups of green leafy vegetables and two cups of colorful veggies.
  • Eat fresh fruit, two cups per day, ideally in between meals (certainly not at the end of the meal or it will not digest properly – or if you choose to include it in a meal, cook the fruit).
  • Rotate foods and attempt to not eat the same foods every day; that is one of the ways people develop food sensitivities. Plus, eating the same thing won’t give you enough variety for proper nutrient intake. 

2. Looking into blood sugar imbalances to help you sleep better

Another important reason for sleep issues as it relates to what we eat is blood sugar imbalances. We don’t really think about this as a possible cause for insomnia, but I see it in my practice all the time. 

What is interesting is that the large majority of these people don’t (yet) have diabetes but are either prediabetic or a step before that. What that means is that when they check their insulin, fasting glucose, and/or HbA1c, these markers may still be normal. Yet, when we look at their symptoms, their cravings, and waking patterns, we see that they are heading towards what we call insulin resistance. 

Symptoms of low blood sugar 

Low blood sugar or hypoglycemia is what usually causes insomnia. The brain needs a steady amount of energy at night and if the blood sugar falls too low, it will jerk you out of sleep. You may or may not feel hungry, but you will feel wide awake, feeling sort of agitated, and in some instances, some people even wake up with palpitations.

Here are some symptoms that you may experience with low blood sugar:

  • insomnia
  • nightmares
  • sleepwalking
  • confusion
  • irritability 
  • hunger
  • food cravings
  • and more!

What is worse is that not sleeping tends to cause high blood sugar. Not being asleep at night is stressful to the body, and more cortisol is produced in an attempt to raise blood sugar to deal with the “danger” at hand. It creates this yo-yo effect for blood sugar (too high and too low), which is not conducive to good sleep at all. 

DIY for measuring your blood glucose 

What to do then to check for blood sugar imbalances? You can ask your doctor to check your insulin, fasting glucose, and HBA1c (your average blood sugar over the previous 3 months). 

You can also use this DIY idea. Go to any pharmacy and get a blood glucose monitor. Test your blood sugar in the morning, before eating, within 30 minutes of waking up; it should be between 70 and 90. Test your blood sugar 2 hours after breakfast and 2 hours after dinner; it should be under 120. You can do this a couple of times a week. If the numbers are lower or higher, work with a practitioner to do further tests and help you balance those levels. 

What do I eat to sleep better then?

First and foremost, eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods. The next step that will speed up the healing process is to look at foods through the glycemic index and load lenses. In order to assess which foods are best to consume, we have to understand what the glycemic index and the glycemic load are:

  • Glycemic index: This is a relative measuring on how quickly a food will increase your blood sugar when eating. The glycemic index scale goes from 0 to 100, with foods with a glycemic index under 55 being low, 55 to 69 being medium, and 70 and above being high. 
  • Glycemic load: This is a measure that will tell us how high a portion of a certain food will elevate the blood sugar. The glycemic load is calculated by taking the glycemic index (in percentage) and multiplying it by the net grams of carbohydrates in a portion of a meal. This accounts for the portion size you eat, therefore it is a more rounded and complete way of assessing the impact on your blood sugar. Low glycemic load foods are 0 to 10, medium glycemic load foods are 11 to 19, and high glycemic load foods are 20 and over. 
  • It is important to consider both, since some foods have a high glycemic index, but a low glycemic load; for example, watermelon has a high glycemic load (as high as a doughnut) but a much lower glycemic load than a doughnut. Watermelon has a low glycemic load of 8, versus 17 (medium, trending high) for a doughnut. Another example would be for half a cup of boiled carrots—the glycemic index is a whopping 94, but the glycemic load is 3.9 (which means small amounts of carrots are acceptable, while high amounts can cause a blood sugar spike).

Look up lists of foods that cover both the glycemic load and index and then look at your diet. Avoiding carbs altogether is not going to serve you well either. In general, build a diet comprised of unprocessed foods, with half of the plate filled with veggies, a healthy source of protein and fats, with a small amount of whole grains. Eat three times a day and, if needed, have a light snack every two to three hours as well. 

My friends, the starchy veggies 

A small amount of starchy vegetables (25% of your plate) can provide a wonderful source of carbs that give you great energy and help you feel full and satisfied. Examples of starchy vegetables that I often include in my diet are sweet potatoes, plantains, squash, beans, and corn. 

3. Encouraging a healthy cortisol production to help you sleep better 

Cortisol imbalances are strongly interlinked with sleep problems, especially insomnia. One of the main reasons why cortisol is imbalanced and contributing to insomnia is stress. Stress can come from many different sources; it is not just emotional stress as we traditionally think of. 

Some surprising sources of stress (and some not)

So what are some of the sources of stress that could contribute to unhealthy cortisol levels? Here is a list:

  • Emotional stressors due to unfulfilled relationships, financial struggles, feelings of not feeling adequate (in various areas of our lives).
  • Trauma, emotional or physical. 
  • Mental stressors due to a constant pressure to perform at work.
  • Diet stressors, either due to a poor diet that lacks necessary nutrients and that includes inflammatory foods, or because of food allergies and sensitivities that we are not aware of.
  • Blood sugar imbalances—one of cortisol’s main jobs is to raise blood sugar in moments of need, e.g. stress. If there is some sort of danger, the body is smartly designed to prepare to fight or run. Chronic stress, though, will eventually wear down your body and lead to imbalanced blood sugar and cortisol levels. 
  • Environmental stressors that come from products we use in our homes (examples are scented candles, toxic cleaning products, pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals from food or dental work, etc.).
  • Chronic infections that are not so acute to make us very ill over the short term, but create damage to our tired immune system and increase cortisol levels due to its chronicity; such infections that I often see in my private practice are H-pylori infection (a bacteria in the stomach), reactivated Epstein Barr virus (EBV), mold toxicity, candida overgrowth, parasites, overgrowth of bacteria in the colon, and overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine (SIBO).

Healthy cortisol production so you can sleep better

I keep talking about cortisol being imbalanced, but what does it mean to have healthy cortisol levels? Cortisol is produced by our adrenal glands in response to stress. It does so within about 10 minutes of said stressor. In some situations, 10 minutes is a long, long time, so the body has a different mechanism to help you deal with the immediate danger—it produces adrenaline, within milliseconds of a problem. Kinda like when you are about to get into a car accident and you feel a strong sensation in your chest and gut, that is your adrenaline. 

However, cortisol is not only produced in response to stressors. Cortisol is produced throughout the day to make us feel awake, motivated, and able to have a thriving life. In a healthy individual, the cortisol has 50% spike from the base level within 30 minutes of waking up. If that process happens properly, you will feel refreshed and rejuvenated and you won’t have a need for coffee to get going. 

As the day goes on, the cortisol starts declining, with a small dip after lunch time (along with a small amount of melatonin being produced). See, we are made for siestas! Then the cortisol increases ever so slightly to give us a push for the afternoon and then it declines further in the evening and especially at night. 

This nice system becomes faulty with chronic stressors. The morning spike may not be there, to really wake us up. We sleep in, or start consuming larger amounts of caffeine, then we are wide awake in the evening, when the adrenals may be secreting too much cortisol. Then you have more anxiety and it makes it even harder to fall asleep. And so a negative loop develops. 

What do I eat to sleep better and balance cortisol levels?

Before exploring what to eat, it’s important to know how you can test your cortisol levels. A holistic medical practitioner can run a 4- or 5-point cortisol saliva test (in the morning, a couple of times during the day, in the evening, and a possible additional one at night). 

The more conventional cortisol blood tests are not as valuable to detect this kind of imbalance since it’s done only once in the morning and for some people the anxiety around needles may falsely elevate the cortisol levels. 

Just like you have noticed so far in this article, it is not so much about eating a particular food as it is about the quality of the foods and the timing of the eating. In the case of cortisol, here is what to remember:

  • Eat within one hour of waking up to encourage a healthy cortisol awakening response in the morning; eat a complete meal, with protein. I mention this since in our society we are used to the mostly carbs breakfast.
  • Eat three times per day; until you sleep well and resolve the unhealthy cortisol levels, I generally advise against intermittent fasting. I do, however, recommend restricting the eating within an 11- or 12-hour window (except in certain cases when additional snacking can temporarily improve the insomnia).
  • Eat nourishing and lightly cooked foods; raw foods can be too rough on the digestion. 
  • If choosing to drink a smoothie in the morning, refrain from eating frozen fruit, also add warming spices such as cinnamon or ginger; add Ashwagandha powder, a powerful adaptogenic herb to help support adrenal health. 
  • Follow the general steps from the blood sugar diet; if blood sugar is imbalanced, the cortisol will be also, to a certain degree. 
  • Avoid processed foods; build your meal out of veggies, healthy fats, and protein sources and a small amount of grains.

To learn more and find other foods that could help you sleep better, explore “What to Eat to Sleep Better and Heal Insomnia Part 2.” 

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