Sleep difficulties can take several different forms. Let’s look at one.
If you have trouble falling asleep at night, one easy solution is to eat a small portion of carbohydrate, preferably starch, about an hour or so before bed. Starch examples include quinoa, potato, rice, sweet potato, pumpkin, oats, even pasta.
Starches stimulate insulin, and insulin allows a specific amino acid (tryptophan) to reach the brain. When tryptophan reaches the brain, it’s used to make serotonin.
Serotonin relaxes us and allows us to fall asleep. It’s also converted to melatonin, the sleep hormone. Melatonin has the additional benefit of anti-inflammatory action, which is one reason sleep is so good for us.
What If It Doesn’t Work?
If you try starch and still can’t fall asleep, another suggestion is to start your pre-bed food ritual with a little bit of turkey, which contains a relatively high amount of tryptophan. Eating carb together with turkey will have the same effect that you may have experienced after a Thanksgiving dinner – feeling sleepy after the meal.
Although turkey is usually blamed for that sleepiness, the tryptophan wouldn’t reach the brain readily if we didn’t eat carbs with it. Several larger and more abundant amino acids compete with tryptophan for brain entry. In effect, they block tryptophan and prevent it from reaching the brain.
Those competing amino acids are used to form dopamine and norepinephrine, which make us alert.
How Carbs Help
When carbs trigger insulin release, the insulin transports amino acids throughout the body. They can then be used for the various functions that aminos are used for: formation of antibodies, hormones, receptor sites, enzymes, and more.
At that point, tryptophan – smaller in size and less plentiful – can reach the brain. It can then be converted to serotonin.
Why Starches? Why Not Sugar?
Some people tend to crave sugar before bed, but eating it can backfire for a couple of reasons.
Sugar triggers the release of endorphins and dopamine. As mentioned above, dopamine is a brain alertness chemical, so it could wake us up, rather than allowing us to fall asleep. Some people are more sensitive to the dopamine effect of sugar and might find themselves “wired” after eating sugar.
Starches, in contrast, tend to produce relaxation without that wired feeling.
Another Problem With Sugar
Another way sugar can backfire has to do with glucose. This could wake us up in the middle of the night.
Sugar tends to trigger high insulin secretion. That effect is much more pronounced in some people than in others. (Those people are called “carbohydrate sensitive”, but don’t be confused by the name. We’re still talking about sugar before bed, rather than starch.)
In someone who is sensitive to sugar in this way, the extra insulin might cause glucose levels to drop very low. It might seem as if the low glucose would make someone so tired that they’d stay asleep all night and even having trouble waking in the morning.
Instead, the drop in glucose tends to cause us to wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty going back asleep, even if we feel tired.
So starch again seems to be a better solution.
Eat protein throughout the day, and eat less protein with your dinner. Eat a small portion of starch about an hour or so before bedtime. Add turkey if it doesn’t work. Avoid late-night sugar.