A PhD & RD's Nonnegotiables For Stellar Sleep (We Bet They Surprise You!)
In our society, a lack of sleep is typically seen as this badge of honor: You have so much on your plate—professionally, socially, what have you—that who cares if your shut-eye isn't as healthy as it could be? You might even frame sleep as an aspiration: I'll catch more zzz's later in life, many say.
What people often forget is that sleep is an essential daily need, so it shouldn't be an afterthought. "If someone said they haven't consumed water in a few days, you'd be like, 'That's really bad.' The same should be with sleep," says mbg's director of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN, on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
In fact, sleep has ties to immune function, memory, metabolic health1, and more. In other words, prioritizing your sleep is prioritizing your overall health. So, now, let's dive into Ferira's nonnegotiables for helping you reach a high-quality snooze—we bet at least one will surprise you:
Eat sleep-supporting foods.
Ferira is a fan of eating in a sleep-smart way throughout the day—namely, including high-quality sources of protein and colorful, magnesium-rich plant foods. Magnesium is a mineral that's important for lots of functions in the body, including sleep2,* and according to Ferira, it's a major nutrient gap3. "Nuts, seeds, whole grains, leafy greens, legumes—these are magnesium-dense foods that should go into your [grocery] cart." (You can find our full list of magnesium-rich foods here, if you're curious.)
No matter your recipe of choice, Ferira also recommends avoiding anything excessive before hitting the hay: excessively sweet, spicy, or heavy. "Our largest meals should not ever be close to bedtime," she notes. "You might put some wonderfully spicy things in your shopping cart, but don't consume those near bedtime."
Finally, we'd be remiss not to mention the famous tryptophan phenomenon—the essential amino acid that's a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that converts to melatonin in the brain. In terms of eating foods chock-full of the amino acid (like poultry, oats, nuts, and seeds) to help foster sleep? "The science is not super clear on that, but if you are pro-tryptophan, it won't hurt you," Ferira says.
Create a wind-down routine.
According to Ferira, it's high time we prioritize our sleep routines. "I encourage us to think of sleep like we treat it for children," she says. "Kids need routine: brush their teeth, put on the onesie, read the book, and sing the lullaby. Why did we grow out of that? We need the adult equivalent of this routine."
That's not to say you must invest in an adult-size onesie. What Ferira is saying is to create a wind-down routine that prepares you for sleep, whatever that looks like for you as a unique individual. Perhaps it's lighting a candle or taking a long soak in the tub; or maybe it's stretching while listening to some calming music. Maybe it's finding a supplement with a lineup of botanicals and bioactives clinically shown to have a calming effect on the brain.*
"It's really a buffet of options," says Ferira. For her own wind-down routine, she watches relaxing TV shows (minding her blue light exposure, of course), indulges in a mini massage while cleansing her face (hello, personalized beauty routines), and focuses on prayer.
"Prayer is something that has been an important part of my sleep ritual," she notes. It helps her organize what she's grateful for and/or stressed about—she explains that others may find a journaling practice just as helpful, which is totally fine. "For each individual, just tailor it to what you look forward to and what is going to relax you the most," she says.
Try time-restricted eating.
OK, we just discussed the best foods for promoting rest, but Ferira shares an interesting tidbit about the link between time-restricted eating (a type of intermittent fasting) and sleep she read in the journal Endocrine Reviews.
According to the cutting-edge research, consuming meals in consistent daily windows of less than 12 hours is associated with less obesity, better metabolic health, better quality of life, and—here's the kicker!—better sleep. On the flip side, they found that "eating over a longer window and/or frequently changing that window is linked to exactly the opposite," says Ferira.
Now, we know there are many alterations to intermittent fasting: Some may do just fine with an eight-hour eating window, and others may need more flexibility. The research isn't so strict about the exact number, just as long as it's less than 12 hours of eating. They also stress the importance of consistency—that's not to say you must stick to a plan that is unhelpful or unhealthy for you, but try your best to be consistent with the eating window that does work for your body.
There are tons of ways you can help support deep, restful sleep; for Ferira, the three tips above help her reach a successful snooze. The most important tip of all, though, is to prioritize your sleep as the essential daily need that it is.
Enjoy this episode! And don't forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or Amazon Music!
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.