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Sleep in a Time of Crisis – Can Functional Foods be the Answer?

Sleep in a Time of Crisis – Can Functional Foods be the Answer?

  • Millions of Americans suffered from insomnia before COVID-19, and now people with no history of sleep difficulties are struggling to fall asleep.
  • Sleep is critical for our mental health, immune system, brain function, and mood.
  • Sleep experts recommend easy changes in our bedtime habits, such as not bringing our laptop to bed to work, so we can fall asleep faster.
  • Functional foods with ingredients such as turmeric and cardamom help the body relax naturally, fight inflammation, and promote better sleep.

Am I the only one who can’t sleep?

Not at all! Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 60 million Americans were affected by sleep disorders each year. Sometimes the problem goes away on its own, and sometimes it turns into a chronic issue. Sleep disorders can manifest as struggling to fall asleep, waking up after a few hours and not being able to sleep again, or waking up frequently during the night, leaving us feeling tired and groggy the next day.

With 90% of people worried about the economy, heightened anxiety around personal finances and our careers, the 24/7 news cycle, and ever-changing guidelines around the pandemic, it is not hard to understand why more of us than ever are suffering from lack of sleep.

I know I’m tired, but I can still function…

Getting enough quality sleep is about more than just not feeling tired. Gayle Green, author of Insomniac describes sleep as “the fuel of life.” It is a form of daily nourishment and restoration that we cannot function without. We may be able to still slog through the day on little sleep, but at what cost?

When we sleep, there are several important things happening in our bodies that we simply cannot live without. Sleep improves our physical health by allowing our bodies to relax and make repairs to several important systems. While we sleep, tissue growth and repair occurs, blood pressure drops, blood supply to muscles increases, and important hormones, such as growth hormone essential for muscle development, are released.

Sleep is also critical to brain function. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, sleep deprivation reduces our ability to learn and interferes with our memory processes. When we do not get enough sleep, our focus and attention drift because over-worked neurons cannot function properly. Everyone knows how difficult it is to get through a day on little sleep, but the studies tell us it is more than an inconvenience – it is an impairment to our brain function and performance at work and school.

Not getting enough sleep also affects our mood and mental health. We have all felt cranky, irritable, and stressed after a morning of tossing and turning, but lack of sleep can also increase depression symptoms and worsen anxiety or other mental health conditions.

Finally, sleep is essential to a healthy immune system. Sleep loss contributes to acute stress and can delay healing after surgery, make us more susceptible to disease and illness, and aggravates conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Studies show that sleep depravation reduces production of cytokines, protective proteins released by our immune system to fight inflammation and infection. Infection-fighting antibodies and cells are also reduced when we do not get enough sleep. Long term, sleep loss increases our risk of cardiovascular disease and depression.

What REALLY helps us sleep better?

Experts say there is a definite link between our sleep habits and the foods we consume, our nighttime routine, and stress and anxiety. Here are a few of the most frequently cited tips for better sleep:

  • Prioritize sleep. Believe it or not, most of us do not make getting enough sleep important. The first step to feeling more rested every day is to actually make it a goal.
  • Use the last hour before bedtime wisely. Limiting screen time, not checking emails, and winding down with meditation or reading a book can help us relax so that we can fall asleep more easily when we finally turn off the lights.
  • Take control of stress and anxiety. Whether we need to add daily exercise, pick up a new hobby for relaxation, cut back on our busy schedules, or ask for help, reducing overall stress will help us sleep better at night.
  • Look at the foods and beverages we are consuming. Are we drinking coffee and sodas in the afternoon? For some, that can lead to difficulty falling asleep at night. Are we eating foods that promote sleep? There are many ingredients we can add to nighttime snacks or drinks that contribute to relaxation and allow us to fall asleep faster.

What can I eat or drink to sleep better, and what foods should I avoid before bedtime?

First, there are a few things we can eliminate from our diets close to bedtime to achieve better sleep. Avoiding coffee, energy drinks, sodas, excessive alcohol, and processed or fatty foods late in the day helps us fall asleep and can keep us from waking up in the middle of the night.

Second, there are several ingredients that we can add to snacks or beverages to help us relax, reduce inflammation, and sleep better.

  • Turmeric – a natural anti-inflammatory and powerful adaptogen, turmeric has been recommended by dieticians at the Mayo Clinic to combat obesity, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and inflammation. Turmeric contains curcuminoids, anti-inflammatory compounds that are safe and effective with no side effects. Turmeric enhances serotonin and dopamine, decreasing stress and anxiety, so adding it in milk before bed is a great way to calm our minds and bodies to prepare for sleep.
  • Cinnamon – another natural anti-inflammatory, cinnamon helps lower blood sugar, reduce oral bacteria, bad (LDL) cholesterol, and is anti-bacterial and anti-fungal. Cinnamon can lower anxiety to help us relax and fall asleep faster. Cinnamon also aids in digestion which is important because heavy or fatty meals can contribute to sleep issues. Cinnamon can be added to warm milk with turmeric for a relaxing nighttime treat.
  • Cardamom – packed with antioxidants, cardamom aids digestion, lowers blood pressure, fights oral bacteria, and increases circulation. It increases airflow to the lungs and in one study increased oxygen uptake in exercising adults. Cardamom also lowers anxiety, making it another effective ingredient in our nighttime beverage for promoting sleep.
  • Ginger – one of the best ingredients you can add to your diet to improve digestion, ginger relieves nausea, lowers blood sugar, and reduces LDL cholesterol. Numerous studies suggest ginger can also improve memory and protect against age-related decline in brain function. A powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, ginger reduces muscle pain and soreness and can easily be added to a nighttime drink or tea.
  • Lion’s mane mushrooms – don’t worry – we do not need to make a big serving of mushrooms before bedtime! Just a small amount of lion’s mane mushroom extract can be added to a warm beverage to reduce anxiety and depression and repair nerve cells while we sleep. It has been proven to increase memory and cognitive function while reducing our risk of dementia. Lion’s mane lowers blood sugar and increases metabolism, making it a great addition to a nighttime beverage.
  • Reishi mushroom – just like lion’s mane, reishi mushroom extract can be added to a warm beverage before bed to help us fall asleep. Reishi reduces fatigue, depression, and anxiety. It has been proven to increase white blood cells and improve quality of life for cancer patients and those that suffer from chronic aches and pains.

All of these beneficial ingredients can blend into an easily digestible nighttime beverage to promote relaxation, reduce inflammation, and help us fall asleep and feel more rested.

Sleep must be a priority, even in difficult times.  

Remember that sleep is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity. Getting enough sleep may be a challenge right now, but by creating a healthier bedtime routine and adding ingredients that promote relaxation to our nighttime beverages, we can fall asleep faster and reduce the mental fog and exhaustion that come from not getting enough rest.

During a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to put off taking care of our health. While we cannot control everything that is happening around us, we can take small steps to make sleep a priority in our pursuit of a better quality of life.

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