The guide to better sleep

Better sleep may be a simple as eating some kiwi fruit or whey protein before bedtime, according to sleep experts. Mahsa Fratantoni reports.

Trouble sleeping? Forget counting sheep, maintaining good sleep “hygiene” —  consistent bed times, kicking technology out of the bedroom and not drinking alcohol or caffeine at night — is the best way to get good sleep. But if you’ve tried every sleep hack Google suggested and still find it hard to fall asleep, the very latest research on sleep health could solve your snooze issues.   

1. Tryptophan-rich foods for dinner

If you feel alert at bedtime, it might be worth trying foods high in tryptophan for dinner.
A 2015 study found that university students consuming high amounts of dietary tryptophan reported improvements in sleep quality and lower levels of insomnia.

Good sources of tryptophan include yoghurt, milk, pumpkin seeds and cherries or tart cherry juice. One study found that drinking fresh tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks reduced insomnia and the time taken to fall asleep by 17 minutes. Another small study showed cherries increase sleep duration and quality.

So how does tryptophan work? Professor of Sleep Health and Wellbeing at the University of Sydney, Dr Chin Moi Chow, says that although tryptophan doesn’t directly induce sleep, it may help produce melatonin and serotonin, which are essential for inducing and maintaining sleep.

Foods high in serotonin, such as kiwi fruit, can also aid sleep. Researchers found that eating two kiwi fruits one hour before bedtime reduced the time taken to fall asleep by 35% and increased total sleep time by 13% in people with sleeping difficulties.

But research on tryptophan should be taken with a grain of salt: not all studies on dietary tryptophan have shown a link to improved sleep. However, consuming some tryptophan-rich foods is also good for you as part of a balanced diet, so there’s no harm in giving them a try.

2. Emerging evidence for whey protein 

Along with tryptophan, there is also evidence that whey protein — a by-product formed from the process of making milk into cheese, and already used by many fitness enthusiasts — could be beneficial for sleep, says Dr Chow.

Over two nights, her research team supplied study participants with either a milkshake containing 20g of whey protein (containing high levels of the primary protein Alpha-lactalbumin, or A-LAC) or a placebo shake one hour before sleep. They found that total sleep duration increased by 12.8% after having the whey protein drink compared to the placebo.

They also found that sleep efficiency improved with A-LAC. “Sleep efficiency means if you were lying in bed for 10 hours and you were asleep for eight of those hours, your sleep efficiency would be 80%. Participants on A-LAC improved their sleep efficiency by 7% compared to the placebo group,” Dr Chow explains.

A similar study found that an evening intake of A-LAC increased the amount of tryptophan in the body by 130% before bedtime and reduced sleepiness and increased alertness the following morning, especially in poor sleepers. Dr Chow is optimistic about the use of A-LAC as a sleep aid in the future, but cautions that larger scale studies are still needed to confirm the benefits.

3. Blue light will trick you

The blue light emitted from computers, TVs and phones causes sleep problems because it tricks your body into thinking it’s sunlight, which gives off the same short wavelength blue light. According to research from the Sleep Health Foundation, around 44% of Australian adults are using the internet most nights before falling asleep, which is ultimately sabotaging our chances for a good night’s rest.

The bad news for tech addicts is that you’ll probably need to flick this habit to see long-term results. The good news is that you don’t have to go cold turkey and plunge into darkness right away — many phones offer a night mode function, or you can download a filter app to switch to yellow or red light at night, which has a weaker effect on melatonin (just while you deal with your screen addiction, of course!).

Some light bulbs, candles and even campfires give off this dimmer yellow or red light. In fact, a recent study revealed that a single weekend of camping with natural light could shift your body clock by around 69% — proving that the great outdoors is not just good for the soul, but has biological benefits too.

4. Understand the shape of sleep

Worrying about not getting enough sleep or having unrealistic sleep beliefs could be contributing to your sleep problems, according to Prof Dorothy Bruck from Victoria University. Her research has revealed that up to 70% of people mistakenly believe awakenings through the night are a sign of poor sleep. “Most people think that normal healthy sleep is this big U shape, but that’s not the case at all,” she said. “The way sleep moves through the night is more like a rollercoaster, and we go through four or five cycles throughout the night between deep and light sleep. It’s very normal, healthy sleep.”

According to the experts, even healthy sleepers will wake up a few times each night. The difference is these people usually fall back asleep and have no memory of it in the morning. It becomes a problem only when you start to worry about the awakenings or have difficulties getting back to sleep.

Measuring your sleep success

Fitbit Alta HR comes with improved sleep recognition and tracking to let you know not only how your day is going, but how your night went as well. Fitbit’s new sleep features use a scientific approach to show your sleep patterns over time, and provide you with validated, actionable and personal guidance to help you make changes in your daily routine to achieve greater quality sleep — and in turn improve your overall health. The Fitbit Alta HR is available now at fitbit.com, $249.95.

5. Harness the benefits of exercise

Regular exercise can help improve sleep quality reducing anxiety and stress on the mind and body and promoting overall health and wellbeing — regardless of the type and intensity of activity.

However, Dr Chow says there are two sides of the story. If you’ve ever gone for an evening jog and found it hard to fall asleep, you’ll know that exercise doesn’t always help, and it can actually make you feel more awake. “If people work out intensely they become extremely tired and may fall asleep right away. However there are situations where a person, who usually does not do vigorous exercise late at night, can become too alert and this affects their sleep,” she said.

Some studies suggest this lack of sleep post-exercise is related to body temperature. Most experts agree that the room temperature should be around 15-20°C for the best sleep. Vigorous exercise raises your body temperature and it can take five to six hours before it drops, so it’s essential to give yourself enough time to cool off before going to bed.

Other studies suggest it boils down to your genetics — that is, whether you’re a night owl or a morning lark. A recent study examined the effect on sleep of a group of male university soccer players performing either a morning or evening HIIT training session. Not surprisingly, they found that the early birds in the group experienced poorer sleep quality than the night owls when they worked out in the evening. On the other hand, both genetic groups coped well after a morning HIIT session and sleep quality remained unchanged.

Dr Chow says there are many other factors which affect sleep quality after exercise. The general rule of thumb is that as long as you don’t exercise at the expense of sleep you can exercise at any time of the day — just listen to your body.

6. Listen to your gut

Sleep problems and fatigue could be linked to an imbalance in your gut bacteria, according to research that found people with chronic fatigue syndrome had less diverse gut microbiota compared to healthy individuals. While it’s still unknown if the syndrome causes the  imbalance or is the result of it, your gut is for more than digestion.