How to get to The Land of Nod

Disrupted, broken and simply not-getting-enough sleep can be debilitating and is linked to a range of health conditions including depression, weight gain and Diabetes Mellitus. Although it might not seem obvious, making dietary changes really can help.

Adrenal Health

Chronic stress impacts sleep as people find it difficult to unwind, often with a pattern of disrupted cortisol release. Lifestyle factors have a role to play here but diet can still support the production of the adrenal hormones.


As already mentioned magnesium has a role in regulating cortisol, it helps cortisol to keep to its regular circadian rhythm so improving sleep. Additionally, it helps with muscle relaxation allowing us to physically unwind and prevent night time cramps. It also supports the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in reducing the activity between brain cells, allowing your brain to unwind as well. Ensure that magnesium plays a regular part in your diet but also consider night time supplementation. Talk to a nutritional therapist for supplementation advice.


Tryptophan is an amino acid crucial for sleep. It’s a precursor in the synthesis of serotonin, which is itself, a precursor in the synthesis of melatonin – our sleep hormone.

Tryptophan is one of the nine amino acids which we can’t manufacture from other amino acids. We also can’t assume that serotonin will have ”first-dibs” on any that we do eat. Therefore, it’s crucial that our daily protein intake is from “complete” quality sources which contain all 9 essential amino acids. Or, that over the course of the day, we make sure we consume all of them from different sources. Most non-vegetable based protein (e.g. meat, egg, dairy) are complete but many vegetable sources are incomplete.

As you can see from this diagram the conversion path from tryptophan to melatonin also relies on the co-factors folate, B6 and Zinc. Ensure that your diet also contains these.


Some foods are a direct source of melatonin and may be worth trying as an evening snack but how concentrated the source is and how readily available to the individual they are is not always clear cut. Most of the literature seems to concentrate on sour cherries so an evening shot of sour cherry juice may help. This may be relevant in light of the next point regarding the effect of high carbohydrate foods on sleep.

Walnuts have also been shown to contain, and raise, levels of melatonin.


Various studies have shown a link between serotonin and insulin. The theory being that (with the exception of tryptophan) insulin drives most amino acids out of the blood stream, leaving tryptophan available for serotonin synthesis. So (as long as diabetes doesn’t figure in your life) a high carbohydrate / low protein snack or meal 4 hours before bed may help.


Avoid alcohol. Small amounts may initially help you to get to sleep but will disrupt later sleep patterns. Once the body has metabolised the alcohol there is believed to be a “rebound effect”. This results from the body’s initial adjustment to the presence of alcohol in trying to maintain a normal sleep pattern. Once alcohol is eliminated however, these adjustments result in sleep disruption. Other pre-existing sleeping difficulties such as sleep apnea and restless legs are also likely to be exacerbated.

In addition, alcohol consumption disrupts insulin secretion, which can lead to low night-time blood sugar and disrupted sleep. If you’ve been drinking during the evening have a small low carbohydrate snack prior to going to bed.


This can remain in your system up to 4 hours after consuming and will make getting to sleep harder.

Herbal Teas

Herbal teas which contain chamomile, valerian, lemon balm or lavender may help. Steep the tea-bag for longer rather than shorter to get the best effect. And, even if they don’t specifically work in this regard they may help simply by replacing tea, coffee, cola or alcohol.

Not all of these dietary changes will work for all people but are simple changes which are worth investigating alongside other lifestyle changes. For advice on magnesium supplementation contact me at

Sleep promoting evening snack suggestions:

Other non-diet Techniques

Fix a bedtime and an awakening time

Avoid staying up too late if you need to get up early. Your body “gets used” to falling asleep at a certain time. Get in the habit of going to bed earlier and eventually your body will adjust. However go to bed only when sleepy. If sleep doesn’t happen get up and move to another room, do something peaceful like reading. Aim to get out of bed the same time each day regardless of how you slept the night before.

Avoid napping during the day

If you nap during the day it will be harder for you to sleep at night. If you do need to nap then try and limit it to 30 – 45 minutes in the early afternoon long before bedtime.

Exercise regularly but not right before bedtime

Regular exercise can help to deepen sleep but strenuous exercise within 2 hours of bedtime can decrease your ability to fall asleep. Use this time for more calming exercises such as pilates or yoga.

Keep the room comfortable

If your bedroom is too cold or too hot it can keep you awake. A cool bedroom is often the most conducive to sleep. Keep the room ventilated, dark and block out all distracting noise.

Reserve the bedroom for sleep

Don’t use the bedroom as an office, workroom or recreation room. Let your body “know” that the bedroom is associated with sleeping.

Practice relaxation techniques before bedtime

Relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, having a warm bath with Epsom salts or magnesium salts, meditation and others may help relieve anxiety and reduce tension.

Don’t take your worries to bed

Leave your worries about your job, school, daily life etc., behind when you go to bed. Some people find it useful to write things down before they go to bed. Practise mindfulness and find techniques which helps you to let go of negative thoughts.

Be wary of screens before bed

The blue light from computer screens and mobile phones can disrupt melatonin production and prevent sleep. This is also true of TVs but less so due to the distance. Blue light filters or glasses can help.

By Saffron Rogerson

20 March 2017