Ellen Vora, M.D., is a holistic psychiatrist practicing with Frank Lipman, M.D., at the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in NYC. This week, we're sharing Dr. Vora's expertise in a new series on natural techniques for better sleep. To learn more, check out her mindbodygreen course, The Doctor's Guide to Falling Asleep Naturally + Getting the Best Rest of Your Life.
Does what we eat really affect our sleep? Short answer: yes. Just as a triple-shot Frappuccino at 9 p.m. would be destructive for your sleep, there are also foods that can help support a good night's rest.
Here are five great ones I recommend to patients:
1. Fermented foods
What the heck do fermented foods have to do with sleep? Fermented foods promote a healthy gut, and a healthy gut is a prerequisite for our bodies to feel at ease. In fact, there's a direct line of communication between our gut and our brain, called the vagus nerve. When the brain is relaxed, it gives the gut permission to devote energy toward digestion. Conversely, if we're running from a tiger and in a panic, it tells the gut, Hold off on that for now; we have other things to worry about.
Meanwhile, the vagus nerve also carries information from the gut to the brain. If the gut is inflamed (maybe you've eating something you don't tolerate, or the gut ecosystem has gotten out of balance after a course of antibiotics), then the vagus nerve tells the brain: feel uneasy. This can make us feel anxious or depressed during the day and sleepless at night. Perhaps it's designed to motivate us to change our behavior. Ate pizza → felt uneasy → maybe I shouldn't eat pizza. Unfortunately, pizza hits our brains like a drug, so as with any other drug, cravings can trump our awareness that something is making us sick.
Examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, apple cider vinegar, beet kvass, miso paste, lactofermented pickles, yogurt, and kefir (if you tolerate dairy).
2. Starchy tubers
To improve your gut flora, you need the one-two punch of fermented foods plus starchy tubers. Tubers are the food that healthy bacteria like to eat, so when we eat them, we help those bacteria survive in our guts.
Examples of starchy tubers: sweet potatoes, white potatoes, potato starch, plantains, taro, and yucca
3. Tart cherries
I put frozen organic cherries in my smoothie every morning. Cherries are a good source of B vitamins and magnesium, and they even contain melatonin (the hormone that makes us sleepy at night). Research suggests that the melatonin in cherries is bioavailable and acts as useful melatonin in the body.
4. Almond butter
Almond butter is a superb snack to have right before bed. It has a high fat and protein content, so it's slow to digest and will be absorbed into your bloodstream gradually overnight, giving you a safety net of blood sugar. Steady blood sugar supports deep, consolidated sleep by preventing blood sugar dips, which can wake your body up. Almonds also contain magnesium and tryptophan to promote sleep.
If you can spring for it, sprouted organic almond butter is the most nutritious choice.
5. Coconut oil
I prescribe coconut oil to my patients as if it were medication. Coconut oil is anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial, and it contains medium-chain triglycerides, which support cognition and stable mood. I especially like it for sleep because it's a clean, easy fuel source. Like almond butter, it can keep your blood sugar steady overnight.
I have my patients keep a jar of coconut oil and a spoon next to their bed. I recommend a spoonful before bed and spoonful when they wake up in the middle of the night.