Chris Kresser and Paul Jaminet
recently posted some sleeping tips. A lot of other great bloggers write about sleep too, like Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, and Stephan Guyenet. I think sleep is really important, and I've had a lot of sleeping problems in the past, some of which I still occasionally struggle with, so I'm going to follow suit and post the things that have helped me most.
Over a number of years, I've found that many things impact my ability to sleep, but from among these I can distill a handful of things I've found most critical:
A cool, dark room.
Light and phsyical activity upon waking.
Lots of carbs, calories, and fat.
Sufficient B6-rich foods.
I need to have close to total darkness in the room when I fall asleep, and a sleep mask helps to prevent any residual light from reaching my eyes. A sleep mask does almost nothing if there's lots of light in the room, as light on the skin seems to have a lesser effect than light on the eyes, but a nevertheless very meaningful impact.
As my sleep has improved over the last two years, I've become less sensitive to light, perhaps because better sleep itself has begun normalizing my metabolic disturbances. But by “less sensitive” I mean that I can tolerate residual light sneaking in around the edges of curtains. I don't mean I can tolerate no curtains or a light being on in the hallway, either of which would keep me up all night. I hope in the future my light tolerance continues to improve, as it makes no sense to me that humans are not designed to be able to tolerate at least the equivalent of moonlight and starlight.
In addition to being dark, the room also has to be cool. I need a fan if the temperature gets much higher than 65F, and below 60F is ideal.
I have also found that waking up at a regular time and immediately exposing myself to lots of light and getting some modest activity helps a lot. I believe this is probably because light and physical activity turn down melatonin synthesis. By turning down melatonin effectively in the day time, melatonin will be able to carry out its functions most effectively at night.
Taking a brisk ten minute walk in the sunlight upon waking would probably do the trick, but if that's not practical I find that turning on all the lights in the house and doing some stretching or light calisthenics works quite well.
What I eat has a huge impact on my ability to fall asleep.
Chiefly among all food-related factors, I need enough calories. If I go to bed hungry, I will not fall asleep. If I go to bed slightly hungry I will probably enter some sort of limbo between sleeping and being awake for a couple hours, then suddenly wake up realizing I'm not even sure if I slept. At that point, I'll have to eat something to fall asleep again.
I used to have a problem where I would have to eat immediately before bed to fall asleep even if I was not hungry, and would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and have to eat again to fall back to sleep. I read in Mastering Leptin many years ago that this is a sign of leptin resistance. I eased into the recommendations of eating two to three meals per day without snacking, exercising after fasting for at least three hours, and never eating within three hours of going to bed, and I've never had that problem since. Regardless of whether the biochemistry is right, the recommendations worked.
Still, I do need to eat a large enough dinner some three hours before bed time, so that I do not feel hungry.
It's not just how much I eat that matters, though. It's also the quality of the food. In particular, I find that getting enough fat and carbohydrate, and getting enough vitamin B6, which is easiest to get from animal foods, are most important.
Few things give me insomnia more reliably than a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet.
In the case of fat, I think it's just a matter of satiety. I can get full from a meal based just on meat or just on starch or just on fibrous veggies, but I won't stay full for long. Back in my soy and canola oil days, these fats helped, but not that much. Nowadays I use coconut oil, and it also helps, but doesn't always quite do the trick. Long-chain monounsaturated and saturated fats from butter, lard, tallow, olive oil, palm oil, or macadamia nut oil, on the other hand, can keep me full for at least five to six hours.
When I was working on my review of Dr. Joel Fuhrman's book, Eat to Live, I went on his diet. You can read my review here, although I didn't talk about my experience in the review. The diet allows no added oils and requires the consumption of a massive amount of vegetables. I spent hours and hours eating every day, and I even cheated a little by adding tiny amounts of butter to my lentil soup, but I still felt so hungry every night that I couldn't fall asleep.
I also find I'm likely to have difficulty sleeping when I eat out for dinner. Most restaurants just don't provide enough fat in their meals. The exception is if I can order a very absorbant starch like potatoes and ask for extra butter, though this usually requires saying “No, that's not really what I meant by extra butter. Could I please have some more?” If my food has a sauce with a lot of cream or I have a dessert with lots of butterfat, it might do the trick. I think the solution, however, is to keep tub of fat and starch or something really creamy in the fridge to quickly top off any residual hunger I might have when I get home without the need to cook anything.
In addition to getting enough fat, I also need to get enough carbohydrate.
In order to make serotonin and melatonin, the amino acid tryptophan needs to enter the pineal gland or cross the blood brain barrier. Certain amino aicds such as valine, leucine, isoleucine, phenylalanine and tyrosine compete with tryptophan for entry into these regions. Eating protein tends to decrease the ratio of tryptophan to these other amino acids in the blood, and thus decrease its availability for serotonin and melatonin synthesis (1).
However, eating gelatinous animal products such as skin and bones would not have this effect because gelatin (collagen) is not rich in these competing amino acids.
Carbohydrate stimulates insulin, which drives these other amino acids into cells and thus has the opposite effect, making tryptophan more available (2). High-glycemic carbs are more effective than low-glycemic carbs (3), which is consistent with a recent study that found that high-glycemic Jasmine rice reduced the time needed to fall asleep in healthy volunteers relative to lower-glycemic Mahatma rice (4).
Thus, if you are eating low-carb or zero-carb and find that your mood and sleep is fine, your diet is probably working just fine for you, but if you are eating such a diet and find yourself having mood problems or unable to fall asleep, you may need more carbohydrate.
Vitamin B6 is also needed for melatonin synthesis, and as I pointed out in my article “Vegetarianism and Nutrient Deficiencies” it is much easier to get from animal products than plant products.
Plant products tend to not only be lower, but they contain much of their B6 bound to sugars, which makes its bioavailability very poor. Bananas stand out as a good plant source of B6 because they contain a lot of it — they are more than fifty percent richer than roasted duck, for example — and because they contain a very low proportion of their B6 in the sugar-bound form. Cooking also decreases the bioavailability of B6 — 25-30 percent in most animal foods and about 40 percent in soy beans, for example — and bananas are easy to eat raw.
I do find that when I eat fewer animal foods I do need to be more careful I'm getting all my nutrients, or else I start to become more vulnerable to sleeping problems again.
Of course, everybody is different, and the most important factors for me might be different than the most important factors for anyone else, but if you think you might relate to any of these you might want to tweak a few things and see what happens.