September 25, 2018
Over the past decade, I have had the privilege to interview some of the world’s top sleep researchers, sleep doctors and sleep experts on my podcast – including Dr. Michael Breus, Dr. Nick Littlehales, Dr. Joseph Zelk, Dr. Kirk Parsley, and as a result, I have learned a host of practical, scientifically proven tips to enhance a night of sleep, especially when it comes to timing and the nature of your food, supplements and exercise. In this article, you are going to discover some of my biggest takeaways for each.
Should you care to dive into the scientific studies that back up each of these suggestions, I’ll include them all at the end of this article. Admittedly, because I'm currently working on a new book and extremely underwater with writing 3-4 hours a day, I wasn't able to weave into the body of this article a hyperlink to all the studies I reference, but they are indeed at the end of the article for those of you who are scientifically minded or have way too much time on your hands.
Enjoy, and, as usual, leave your questions, comments and feedback below!
How To Use Food To Enhance Sleep
Let’s begin with food, which is a more fundamental element of sleep than most people realize. The following are the most important six takeaways.
Takeaway #1: Certain Foods Have Been Proven To Enhance Sleep
Upon a review of the available research, it is incredibly clear how profound an influence nutritional manipulation can have on sleep. For example, foods such as fatty, coldwater fish are an excellent source of vitamin D and omega-3, which are important nutrients in regulating serotonin and, therefore, sleep. Both should be prioritized in the diet of anyone who is serious about sleep. Other studies have observed the consumption of fruit with dinner in the promotion of sleep, likely due to the slow energy release from the fructose and the satiating effect of the water and fiber.
Please note that I am a big fan of small dark berries, “ugly” and slightly bitter or sour grapefruits or apples, and wild fruits or non-domesticated fruits, all of which tend to be higher in phytonutrients and fiber compared to being bred for sugar, size or sweetness. In one study, consuming two kiwis one hour before going to sleep for four weeks significantly increased the efficiency of sleep and the total time sleeping. Other fruits such as tart cherries have been shown to improve sleep in multiple studies, most likely due to their ability to increase melatonin.
So if you don’t sleep well or want to improve sleep, it appears that one of the best nighttime meals could include something like a wild-caught salmon filet served with a tart cherry sauce or a few slices of kiwi, along with a side of roasted vegetables for added fiber. Go ahead and add a bit of white rice for a carbohydrate-based boost of serotonin. Finally, another potent sleep snack that you can throw in for dessert for a slow release of energy while you sleep, along with enough minerals to keep your blood pressure and cortisol regulated, is a giant spoonful of coconut oil topped with a dab of almond butter, a pinch of sea salt and a drizzle of raw honey.
Takeaway #2: High-Glycemic Index Carbs Should Be Consumed At Least Four Hours Prior To Bedtime
Consider consuming any high-glycemic index carbohydrates, especially any that spike the blood sugar, at least four hours before bed if you have trouble falling asleep as fast as you would like. This means that if your sleep latency (the time it takes you to fall asleep) is poor, then you should avoid any sweet post-dinner desserts and instead consider shifting your nightly bar of dark chocolate or bowl of coconut ice cream to follow your afternoon workout instead, or to use the coconut oil/almond butter/sea salt/honey dessert above.
Takeaway #3: Dinner Should Be The Lightest Meal Of The Day
As much as it can fly in the face of social norms and a culture primarily structured around massive evening dinners or restaurant excursions, you should not make it a habit to consume an excessively large meal right before bed. At dinner, push yourself away from the table when you are 80% full, and consider a 5- to 15-minute post-dinner stroll to assist digestion and control blood sugar. If you do eat a large meal, take a cold or lukewarm shower to cool the body’s core temperature before bed, so you eliminate the risk of pesky “meat sweats” and enhance deep sleep percentage.
Takeaway #4: Eat Enough Protein (Especially If You’re Dieting)
Adequate protein intake can significantly help with sleep, especially if you are dieting and at an energy deficit. You should aim to consume at least 0.55g/lb of body weight and, if you have sleep issues, preferably higher – close to 0.7-0.8g/lb. So a healthy 160lb man who wants to sleep more would ideally eat around 112g of protein per day, and a healthy 110lb woman would need to eat around 77g per day. This means that if you are doing any form of cyclic calorie restriction, you should increase the percentage of your total protein intake on the lower calorie days. This doesn’t all need to be consumed at dinner: you can spread out your protein intake over the whole day. For a low-calorie option, I am a huge fan of essential amino acids (EAA’s) for this and have found that many people on a calorie restricted diet respond quite well to 10-20.
Takeaway #5: Eat More Carbs
Based on research, a high-carbohydrate diet may shorten wake times. Yep, you read right. If you wake up frequently during the night, you may simply be one of those folks who are so active that you need more carbohydrates to ensure you don’t have a middle of the night hypoglycemic episodes or a low release of melatonin due to low serotonin availability. On particularly active days, I personally do a nightly carbohydrate refeed of 100 to 200g of slow-release carbohydrates such as legumes, amaranth, quinoa, millet, and even sweet potato. Many people – often folks who are just a touch too orthorexic about their diets – worry about whether this will “take them out of ketosis”. The answer is a resounding “yes”, but keep in mind the following:
- Based on my own blood and breath ketone testing and that of my clients, in a fat-adapted human, you’re back in ketosis by the morning;
- Unless you’re attempting to manage a disease such as epilepsy or multiple sclerosis with a ketogenic diet, regular, solid, well-rested nights of sleep trump being in constant 24-7 state of ketosis.
Takeaway #6: Limit Saturated Fats With Dinner
For optimum sleep, not only should dinner be your most carbohydrate-rich meal of the day, but it should also, based on sleep research, be only low to moderate in saturated fat intake. If you have difficulty sleeping because you feel like you have a food brick in your stomach or because your liver and gallbladder are overloaded with processing fats, then it’s not a good idea to overdo the marbled meat fat, butter and drizzled coconut oil or MCT oil with dinner. This is especially true if you’re using my tablespoonful of coconut oil trick for a slow bleed of energy during sleep – that amount would be close to the maximum amount of saturated fat you’d want to consume in the evening if you’re already consuming meat or fish with some kind of oil (most of which contain at least trace amounts of saturated fats) at dinner.
How To Use Supplements To Enhance Sleep
Let’s next tackle supplements for sleep. Although there are hundreds of sleep supplements on the market, certain compounds have been studied and proven to drastically improve most sleep indicators, such a sleep latency, wake times or deep sleep percentages. For example, serotonin and melatonin are the two primary molecules responsible for sleep regulation. Given that a diverse array of nutrients can have a direct or indirect influence on the synthesis of melatonin and serotonin, nutritional supplementation that target these hormones and neurotransmitters can have impressive effects on the quantity and quality of sleep. Supplements that research has proven to assist with sleep, and supplements that you can experiment with solo or in combination with other supplements, include the following:
Supplement #1: Tryptophan
This amino acid crosses the blood-brain barrier and is transformed into a precursor of serotonin: 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT). One of the functions of 5-HT is to cause lethargy and drowsiness since it acts as a precursor to melatonin in your pineal gland. The intake of proteins rich in tryptophan (such as the α-lactalbumin present in whey protein) increases tryptophan by up to 130%, which significantly increases the levels of serotonin in the brain. Carbohydrates also increase the plasma concentration of tryptophan, which is another good reason to save the majority of your carbohydrate intake for dinner, as I recommended earlier. In most cases, if you’re consuming anything close to the protein recommendations I gave earlier, and including carbohydrates with dinner, supplementation is likely unnecessary. But if that’s not the case, for a sleep-inducing dose of tryptophan, research suggests that 1g is sufficient to improve both the quantity and the quality of sleep.
Supplement #2: B-complex vitamins
Niacin (vitamin B3) can be produced endogenously from tryptophan. A sufficient amount of this vitamin means a smaller amount of tryptophan will be relegated towards forming niacin, resulting in a greater amount of tryptophan available to synthesize serotonin. Folate and pyridoxine (vitamin B6) also play a crucial role in the conversion of tryptophan into serotonin. Cobalamin (vitamin B12) contributes to the synthesis of melatonin, and is especially important for vegetarians since this vitamin is primarily found in animal-based food sources. Most good multivitamins contain a complex of B vitamins. I prefer the Thorne multivitamin, which includes a PM dose that contains both the B-complex and a variety of other relaxing and cortisol-reducing compounds.
Supplement #3: Magnesium
The mineral magnesium is important for the enzyme N-acetyltransferase to convert 5-HT into N-Acetyl-5-Hydroxytryptamine, which is then transformed into N-Acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine. Why is this important? Another word for N-Acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine is – you guessed it – melatonin. The most absorbable forms of magnesium are magnesium citrate, glycinate taurate and aspartate, although magnesium that is bound to Krebs cycle chelates (malate, succinate, fumarate) is also good. Avoid magnesium carbonate, sulfate, gluconate and oxide because they are poorly absorbed (but are the cheapest, most common forms found in supplements). Effective doses range from 200 to 500mg. As a word of caution, please note that although magnesium can give a one-two whammy of better sleep and a glorious morning bowel movement, too much magnesium (especially anything above about 600mg) can potentially result in loose stools and disaster pants – or, in this case, blankets.
Supplement #4: Zinc
Various studies have shown a relationship between zinc and melatonin. Specifically, zinc deficiencies have been shown to reduce levels of melatonin. Perhaps this is why so many athletes, a population that often happens to be zinc deficient, swear by the 1-2-3 compound found in many supplements called ZMA – zinc monomethionine aspartate, magnesium aspartate and vitamin B6. As for me, since I tend to get my magnesium and vitamin B6 from other sources, I turn to a source of zinc that is ten times higher in zinc that even the mighty shellfish: black ant extract.
Supplement #5: Melatonin
As you have already discovered, melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland (provided you aren’t exposed to too much artificial light at night, which suppresses this mechanism) that produces, especially with higher dose supplementation, a quite noticeable sedating or hypnotic effect. In doses of up to 60+mg, it is often used as an alternative to sleep disorder treatments or, in my case, as a potent full-body “reset” for jet lag (warning: this dosage is not for the faint of heart and should only be used the first night after crossing multiple time zones, such as overseas travel). In most studies, effective doses of melatonin are far below this, and fall between a microdose of 0.3mg up to a higher dose of 12mg. The possible side effects of heavy, chronic use of melatonin include headaches, nausea, drowsiness during the day and even nightmares. A more natural way to increase melatonin and avoid morning drowsiness is the manipulation of tryptophan levels via some of the other methods listed above or by microdosing with melatonin at a relatively small intake of around 0.3mg per night.
Supplement #6: L-Theanine
L-theanine is an amino acid most commonly found in green tea leaves. It can cause a significant reduction in stress and increase in relaxation without causing drowsiness – most notably when combined with a source of caffeine that would normally disrupt sleep, such as an afternoon cup of coffee. It has been shown to induce a state of mental relaxation without loss of alertness through a direct influence on the central nervous system, and crosses the blood-brain barrier in about 30 minutes. At that point, it reduces sympathetic nervous system activity, improves post-stress relaxation, attenuates increases in cortisol levels, reduces anxiety and mitigates high blood pressure in response to stress. It can also counteract the reduction of slow sleep waves induced by caffeine. I recommend starting with a dose of 100-200mg.
Supplement #7: Vitamin D
Vitamin D deficiency is quite common among people complaining of nonspecific musculoskeletal pain, hormone deficiencies and chronic pain. But chronically low vitamin D levels are also related to symptoms of poor sleep and may also be a cofactor for the development of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and OSA-associated cardiovascular disease. Risk factors for chronically low vitamin D include dark skin tone, obesity, limited natural sunlight exposure, pregnancy, chronic anticonvulsant use, chronic steroid use, intestinal malabsorption syndromes and, in my own personal case, a genetic inability to properly produce vitamin D from sunlight exposure. Typical vitamin D dosages range from 2000 to 4000IU per day. Doses should always be accompanied by 100 to 150mcg of vitamin K2 to limit any risk of high blood calcium due to excessive vitamin D intake. I prefer the Thorne liquid Vitamin D/K blend for a quick and easy source in the correct ratios.
How To Use Exercise To Enhance Sleep
Finally, when it comes to exercise, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the duration of sleep and the time it takes to fall asleep have both been shown to improve in active, exercising populations, as long as the following basic, research-proven rules are followed:
Rule #1: Perform Light Aerobic Exercise Early In The Morning
Exercise has the ability to induce circadian phase-shifting effects that are perhaps as potent as bright light, so include some form of exercise prior to breakfast – preferably something easy, aerobic, and relatively short (20 to 45 minutes) so that you don’t amplify the already naturally high cortisol that occurs in the morning, so that you don’t spike your appetite so much that you’re face-feeding the rest of the morning, and so that you leave glycogen gas in the tank for a harder workout later in the day. Research suggests that 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at 65% of heart rate attained at VO2 peak performed in the morning before breakfast seems to be highly beneficial for enhancing sleep later in the evening. The easiest way to achieve this is with a brisk 30-minute sunshine walk each morning before breakfast. So walk to work and eat breakfast there, or walk the dog, or walk the kids to school. You get the idea. I’m also a huge fan of the easy morning relaxing swim in somewhat cold water, a 30-minute yoga session (preferably in the sauna),
Rule #2: Make Up For Any Early-Morning Hard Training
For the reasons stated above, training hard in the early morning hours can be detrimental, so if you must perform a difficult or intense morning workout, employ strategic napping during the day (such as a 20-minute post-lunch siesta) and be even more cognizant of correct sleep hygiene practices at night, such as low artificial light exposure, a cool room, silence and low amounts of work and stress.
Rule #3: When Possible, Save Hard Workouts For The Afternoon
Longer afternoon exercise sessions (up to two and a half hours long) between 2:00 to 6:00 pm at 50% to 80% VO2max have been proven in research to drastically improve sleep, so in an ideal scenario, you should save any hard, high-volume workouts for the afternoon or early evening. The most positive effects occur when hard exercise takes place 3 to 8 hours before bedtime, so try to wrap up your session by 7:30 if you want to go to bed at, say, 10:30. In fact, 30 minutes of high-intensity exercise at 85% to 90% of maximum heart rate to exhaustion performed three to four hours before bedtime can result in better sleep, increased sleep efficiency and reduced sleep latency.
Rule #4: Combat Sleep Restriction With Aerobic Exercise
Long sessions of aerobic exercise have been shown to partially alleviate sleepiness during periods of sleep restriction, as have short, more intense bouts (about 10 minutes) of exercise timed every two hours over a sleep-deprived day. In other words, if you are sleep-deprived, perform one “long and slow” session (such as a nature hike) or several “short and fast” sessions (such as a quick series of kettlebell complexes or a few rounds on an Air Assault bike).
Rule #5: Calm Your Nervous System Following Exercise
As well as increasing body temperature, which has a direct inverse relationship with sleep, exercise is accompanied by an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity, characterized by a rise in excitatory catecholamine levels that can last for hours after exercise. Perhaps this is why a bout of deep, relaxing breathwork or a lukewarm or cold shower following an afternoon or evening exercise session can also enhance sleep. For the ultimate treat, I’m a fan of a warm magnesium salts bath, and even go as far as to drag a near-infrared light panel called a JOOVV into my bathroom when I have the time and luxury for such a bath so that I can enhance the effects of the magnesium minerals on my mitochondria (say that last part ten times fast!).
Ultimately, I experience the best sleep and the most normal and rhythmic circadian cycle when I perform 20 to 30 minutes of easy morning exercise in as much natural light as possible in a fasted state prior to breakfast, and then perform a hard 30- to 60-minute workout later in the day, such as the late afternoon, early evening or any other time at least three hours before bedtime, always followed by a quick cold shower or if time permits (which is rare, but happens about once a week), a magnesium bath with near infrared. In my experience, this is an incredibly effective, research-backed, one-two exercise combo for enhancing sleep, with a little biohacked invention from yours truly thrown into the mix.
Do you have questions, thoughts or feedback for me about any of these sleep tips? Leave your comments below and I will reply!
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