Lifestyle

Why Your Diet Could Be Affecting Your Sleep

grated beetroot

As we lie awake at night with a million thoughts running round in our heads, it’s easy to blame our busy minds for stopping us sleeping. On the surface that might be the case, but of course many things influence how we sleep from the natural such as daylight – to what time we switched off our screens that evening. In truth, there is still much mystery surrounding the science of good sleep and the brain, but one of the most interesting areas of research at the moment is how the gut biome (the vast community of bacteria, fungi and yeasts which populate our digestive tract) could be a big influencer on quality and quantity of shut eye.

We already know that the gut biome affects the hormones which control our appetite, and now a recent study by scientists at University of Colorado suggests that prebiotics (a particular type of fibre which encourages the growth of good bacteria in the gut) can promote Non Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep, which is restful and restorative as well as helping to increase Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep after being exposed to a stressor. While the researchers say more studies are needed, this seems to indicate that regular intake of prebiotics could be helpful in supporting sleep patterns after periods of stress.

Gut biome aside, most of us are aware that what we eat affects how we sleep through experience – think of that old saying about cheese and nightmares. There’s some truth in that since heavy, fatty foods are more difficult for the body to process, therefore eating them late at night is not a good idea. Makes sense when we consider that good sleep relies on the release of a complex cascade of chemicals and hormones, and that eating well and allowing the body to absorb proper nutrients provides the brain with what it needs for this to happen.

Various studies suggest eating at a time when we’d naturally be sleeping could have adverse effects on weight and metabolic health and it’s all inter-connected via our circadian rhythm.  Our circadian rhythms are what keep our body clock running on time, which in turn keeps all of our bodily functions running on schedule — such as falling asleep at night, waking up in the morning, feeling hungry when we need energy and metabolising the food we eat. What, when and how we eat can help regulate this roughly 24-hour cycle our body follows each day.

Looking at things from a wider perspective often brings us back to ancient holistic wisdom. For example, in the yogic system of Ayurveda it’s believed that digestive fire – known as Agni – is at its most powerful when the sun is highest in the sky, therefore the best time to eat your biggest meal is around midday. And yet how many of us eat our main meal in the evening? This was always my habit – after all, going out for dinner is one of the most enjoyable ways we socialise these days. But, coming in late at night from eating a large meal would inevitably keep me awake, and even if I hadn’t drunk anything, I’d feel like I had a hangover next morning.

Having swapped timings in favour of main meal at lunch or more often brunch, I’ve found eating light in the evening to be a catalyst for better digestion and sleep. That’s not to say I never go out for a big dinner in the evening – it’s just I make it the exception rather than the rule. As always, it comes down to balance, and here are some suggestions for subtly adjusting eating habits in favour of good sleep.

  • Introduce prebiotic foods into your diet. These include lentils, chickpeas and hummus, butter beans, globe artichoke, leeks – all of which are a source of the particular type of fibre which encourages the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
  • Re-think meal timings considering dim light melatonin onset (DLMO) which is when the body winds down in preparation for sleep and starts producing the sleep hormone melatonin. For most of us, our DLMO usually begins around 8pm so it would be good to time eating before then. Or, allow two hours between eating and bedtime to allow time to unwind and digest.
  • Ayurvedic thinking suggests warm, liquid foods are the most easily digested in the evening. So for example, lentil dahl, which tastes great when made with leek; root vegetable soups or stews including lentils or chick peas; sweet basmati rice pudding made with dairy or non dairy milk with cardamom, grated ginger and dates.
  • Keep in mind it’s not great to go to bed hungry, considering that our bodies use energy at night when it goes into repair mode. Rather than reaching for typical midnight snacks (crisps, chocolate etc) try hot milk. At one of the best retreats I’ve stayed in in India they brought a pre-bed small cup of locally sourced organic milk, heated with a little saffron. To my surprise, it was the most satiating, satisfying sleep-inducing thing – not to mention delicious.

Coffee Culture

Coffee Machine Making Coffee

From memory, there are approximately six independent coffee shops within the first block of my local High Street – usually packed with neighborhood hipsters hot-desking on their laptops. Good job I’m a coffee fan – although I’ve had some caffeine driven highs and health lows along the way. At worst, I was relying on it as a prop to energise me through a busy lifestyle with lots of deadlines. But not even nauseating caffeine withdrawal headaches, or the jittery, edgy feeling of having had one cup too many could change the way I felt about a good cuppa when I was in the throes of my habit. Read More…

An Ayurvedic Guide To Spring

herbs closeup

Lighter mornings and evenings; the popping up of crocuses and daffodils; the budding of trees –  all the newness and lush growth surrounding us in nature signifies it’s the perfect time to give ourselves a kick-start. However, coming out of winter into spring can feel quite harsh, there’s a sense that we should be bounding with energy, yet we’re not quite in full swing. This is very natural – all holistic health systems recognise the need to support the body during seasonal transition.

In Ayurveda (the Indian ‘science of life’), it’s recognised that our inner systems are affected by our outer environment and the cold, damp air of early spring increases our susceptibility to catarrh, mucus, sniffles and colds as well as allergic rhinitis, hay fever and asthma when trees and flowers begin to release their pollen. This is seen as kapha imbalance – kapha being one of the system’s three doshas; sets of qualities relating to constitution which need to be in balance for good health. Kapha tendencies also include lethargy, water retention and weight gain which makes sense of the sluggishness we often feel after months of hibernating from the cold and dark. We might feel melancholic too, and coming into the brightness of spring light can literally and metaphorically leave us blinking. The good news is the Ayurvedic approach is to adjust our eating, exercise and body care routines subtly so we gently shake off the vestiges of winter and emerge into the longer days slowly and gradually. Read More…

Good Vibrations: The Power Of Sound Baths

chinese bells

Gong baths, crystal bowl meditation and chanting sessions are shaking off their rainbows and kaftans image and are now firmly on the schedule of London’s best yoga and meditation centres.Recently, the uber luxe Edition Hotel played host to a month of sound healing evenings where the hipster wellness crowd lay supported by Tempur pillows, wrapped in soft woollen blankets with silk masks covering their eyes as good vibrations from singing crystal bowls washed over them. So what’s drawing the in-crowd and how does sound help us relax our body and mind?

We instinctively know sound in all its forms has the power to transport us – we often automatically use it to self-medicate on many levels. Think of a mother’s voice soothing an upset child; singing in unison in a choir, at a festival or concert; the hypnotic rhythm of Tibetan monks chanting. Because sound is vibration, it’s not just heard through our ears, our whole body is affected. And we know this has tangible effects on stress levels. For example, a recent study showed that playing music to breast cancer patients could help them manage pre-operative anxiety when going through surgery, and another showed that stress hormones including cortisol are reduced in audiences at a live concert, producing relaxation effects. Read More…

The Basics of Meditation

grass

Teaching at a busy meditation school in the heart of London’s Soho, the stresses of modern city living couldn’t be more apparent – the sash windows of the Georgian building offer little protection against the constant buzz of traffic and the clinking of glasses and jollities from local bars and restaurants echoing down the street. Once inside though, the studio is peaceful and cosy – and as we sit in silence, these sounds eventually fade to a distant hum, becoming a comforting reminder that we can always find stillness even in the cacophony of a fast-paced life.

Each day, people of all ages and all walks of life come searching for peace of mind – my last course included a 17 year old student and a 60 something American in charge of 300 men working at a major car factory. Most arrive wanting to ‘stop the thoughts’ – something I know I certainly yearned for when I was first drawn to meditating. The truth is the thoughts don’t ever stop coming, we learn how to manage them, to be more discerning with them. It is a process through which the mind begins to settle so we’re able to re-connect with our own inner silence, eventually allowing us to remain calm despite all the busyness around us.

Read More…

Embracing January

catherine-turner-jan-18

Once all the partying of Christmas and New Year is over it’s so easy to go into a slump or into guilt mode and start on a rigid regime whether that involves dieting, exercising or making resolutions. Going from one extreme to another seems to be a natural response to make up for excess but inevitably it’s not quite as simple as that. Changes in habit take a while to stick, as do the results to show. And at a time when the weather is cold and the days short, embarking on anything punishing will take an iron will to stick to, most probably ending in us giving up before February arrives. So this year why not try a gentler approach – go with the flow a bit more, allow the fun and festivities fade gradually and adjust naturally to the coming months. If nothing else, being kinder to ourselves is a good place to begin to radiate kindness to others. Start by getting rid of negative thoughts and forget the usual New Year ‘to dos’ – here’s a January plan to enhance your mind and body in a positive way. Read More…