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The importance of sleep for a healthy lifestyle - part 2

13 May 2019

By Caroline Holland- Dietitian and Health Coach

The aim of part 1 was to understand sleep and its relationship with our health. If achieving 7-9 hours of sleep seems a distant dream (excuse the pun), why not try the following top tips to make dreams become reality!

Tips for improving sleep


Alcohol interrupts the circadian rhythm, blocks REM cycle and is a ‘diuretic’, leading to frequent toilet trips all of which decrease sleep quality.

  • Avoid alcohol a few hours before bed.
  • Aim to reduce alcohol consumption.
  • The government guidelines recommend limiting to 14 units of alcohol spread over 3 or more days of the week.1


How to create an environment which is conducive to a good night’s sleep.

  • Temperature: 16-18oC is thought to be optimal.2
  • Choose a heavy or light duvet and PJ’s depending on the season.
  • Set heat on a timer or leave a window slightly open.
  • Noise: Try earplugs.
  • Light: Try a sleep mask or darker curtains.
  • Comfort: Invest in a quality mattress and pillows or mattress topper.


Exercise is important for health and well-being. People who exercise regularly report better sleep quality than those who don’t exercise.3

  • Exercise increases heartrate and body temperature which promotes the release of adrenaline and endorphins. This helps to relieve stress and anxiety, keep us alert and productive, making us happier.
  • Try keeping activity to daytime or early evening. The increase in heartrate, body temperature and adrenaline before bed can worsen sleep by disrupting NREM cycle.
  • If exercising close to bed time, try a calming activity such as Yoga.


A healthy balanced diet provides essential nutrients which promote sleep. The following table outlines 3 important nutrients, their role in sleep and dietary sources.4

Amino acid: Tryptophan

Tryptophan is converted into a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin is further converted into the sleep hormone Melatonin.5

Animal sources

  • Turkey, chicken, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt


  • Shrimp, salmon, cod, halibut, tuna


  • Flax seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, peanut almonds, walnuts, kidney beans, lima beans, black bean, split peas, chickpeas, wheat, rice, barley, corn, oats, pineapple, apple, banana, peach, avocado, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, onion

Vitamin: B6

Vitamin B6 aids conversion of tryptophan into melatonin. Deficiency in B6 has been linked with poor sleep and symptoms of depression and mood disorders.6

Animal sources

  • Chicken, lean pork, red meat, eggs, cottage cheese


  • Tuna, salmon, halibut


  • Flax, sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts, soya beans, tempeh, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, brown rice, wheat germ, fortified cereal, oatmeal, banana, watermelon, avocado, prunes, raisins, spinach, carrots, peas, sweet potato

Mineral: Magnesium

Magnesium supports deep, restorative sleep by maintaining levels of GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid), a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep.7 It also acts as a natural relaxant by helping to deactivate adrenaline.

Animal sources

  • Low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt
    (Dark chocolate is also a good source of magnesium)


  • Salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel


  • Almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, pecan nuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseed, soybeans, black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, wheat germ, quinoa, oats, buckwheat, barley, abnana, avocado, figs,

Certain food and drink, when eaten before bed can hinder sleep.

  • Spicy, high fat meals before bed can cause indigestion and acid reflux.
  • Diuretic foods (eg: watermelon, celery) and drinks (eg: dandelion tea, alcohol, coffee) can cause frequent toilet trips which disrupts sleep.
  • Caffeine is a natural stimulant. It takes approximately 6 hours for half the caffeine consumed to be removed from the body. Try avoiding caffeinated products (eg: coffee, chocolate, energy drinks) after midday.

A light snack, rich in sleep promoting nutrients is recommended if hungry before bed.

  • A bowl of low-sugar cereal and milk.
  • Cheese and oatcakes.
  • Peanut butter on wholemeal toast.

Reduce stimuli

Modern technology such as phones, computers and TVs release ‘blue light’ which affects the circadian rhythm by supressing melatonin production.

  • Remove TVs and phones from the bedroom to create a relaxing environment.
  • Limit use of these devices two hours before bed.
  • Reduce blue light by using the ‘blue light filter’ on devices or invest in a pair of ‘blue light’ glasses to wear 2 hours before bedtime.


A bedtime schedule can regulate circadian rhythm promoting a quality sleep.

  • Choose a similar time to go to bed each night and awake each morning.
  • Engage in a relaxing routine to help prepare for sleep.
    • A relaxing bath with Epsom salts (these are rich in magnesium);
    • Lavender scented candles/oils have calming effects;
    • Listen to soothing music or read a book;
    • Meditation supports stress reduction.8 Apps such as ‘Headspace’, ‘Calm’, ‘Buddhify’ can be a useful guide;
    • A warm camomile tea or milky drink.

Shift workers

Irregular schedules, altered lighting and sleeping out of sync with people around interferes with the body’s circadian rhythm.

  • Request a block of shifts to establish some routine.
  • Prepare for a night shift by rising 2 hours later and going to bed 2 hours later. Most people cope with 2-3 hour shifts in their sleep-wake cycle.
  • Eat meals at the same time each day to promote regular body cycles.
  • Napping before a shift can reduce sleepiness at work.
  • Limit stimulants such as caffeine to the first half of a shift to minimise the effect on sleep after work.
  • Seek out bright light during the early part of a night shift to help stay alert.

Stress and anxiety

  • Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction incorporates techniques such as meditation, yoga and mind-body exercises to help people cope with stress. It has been shown to reduce anxiety by 58% and stress by 40%.8
  • Activities such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Deep Breathing can also reduce stress.
  • Keep a journal by the bedside. Documenting thoughts or ‘to-do’ lists helps the mind relax.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is an approved treatment for insomnia. It trains people to use techniques to overcome the worry and negative emotions related to being unable to sleep.9

Last but not least, keep a sleep diary to promote ‘sleep hygiene’ which is basic habits and tips to develop healthy sleep patterns.

  • Reflect on the previous night’s sleep.
  • Sleep apps such as ‘Sleep Cycle’ or ‘Phizz’ or wearing an activity tracker to bed can aid sleep monitoring.
  • Make a note of the conditions going to bed (environment, mood, activities, food or drinks consumed).
  • Write an action plan to overcome anything which hindered sleep.

Sleep tight!

Caroline is a Registered Dietitian with a degree in BSc(Hons) Nutrition and Dietetics and further qualifications in NLP and masters level Behaviour Change Skills. She is currently participating in a Mindfulness course. She has practiced as a Dietitian in both the community and acute services within the NHS and more recently in the private sector as a Roche Diabetes Care Health Coach on the OurPath programme. Caroline is passionate about using her skills in both the prevention of long term health conditions and to improve the health and quality of life of individuals. She enjoys spending time with family and friends, travelling, keeping fit through dancing and running and loves the great outdoors and baking.

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  1. (2019). UK alcohol guidelines : the Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking recommendations. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Jan. 2019].
  2. Kline, C. (2014). The Bidirectional Relationship Between Exercise and Sleep. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 8(6), pp.375-379.
  3. (2019). DIETARY SUPPLEMENT FACT SHEETS. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Jan. 2019].
  4. Slominski, A., Semak, I., Pisarchik, A., Sweatman, T., Szczesniewski, A. and Wortsman, J. (2002). Conversion of L-tryptophan to serotonin and melatonin in human melanoma cells. FEBS Letters, 511(1-3), pp.102-106.
  5. Jenkins, T., Nguyen, J., Polglaze, K. and Bertrand, P. (2016). Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients, 8(1), p.56.
  6. Psychology Today. (2019). What You Need to Know About Magnesium and Your Sleep. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].
  7. (2019). Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction | Be Mindful. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Jan. 2019].
  8. (2019). CBT for Insomnia: Techniques & Case Study - National Sleep Foundation. [online] Available at: [Accessed 8 Jan. 2019].

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