what to eat and what to avoid

Diet for insomnia: what to eat and what to avoid

Insomnia means: “difficulty falling asleep” or “unrefreshing sleep”; it is a predominantly chronic and very frequent disorder, which in industrial countries reaches an average prevalence of 35% of the general population.

Other more detailed studies have demonstrated a lower prevalence of insomnia, estimated at around 11% of the Spanish population and around 21% of the French and Japanese populations. The duration of insomnia varies from 7 to 14 years, but it seems that most people who suffer from it DO NOT even discuss the topic with their doctor.
Insomnia is characterized by several aspects:

  • Difficulty falling asleep – sleep latency longer than 30 minutes
  • Insufficient nightly sleep duration – total time less than 5.5 or 6 hours
  • Repeated or prolonged nocturnal awakenings and/or early morning awakenings
  • Poor quality sleep

… which have an INEXORABLE impact on the quality of life.

Insomnia can be classified in several ways, but for convenience, a time criterion will be used below:

  • Transient or occasional insomnia; usually caused by anxious emotional stress, transient pathologies, sporadic use of stimulating substances
  • Medium-term insomnia: up to three weeks; often supported by emotional events concerning work, family, an acute illness, the pharmacological suspension of anxiolytics.
  • Long-lasting insomnia: greater than three weeks; caused by a severe stress event or mixed etiology, including: depression, generalized anxiety, chronic pain symptoms, habitual drug intake, chronic alcohol abuse, Parkinson’s, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, restless legs syndrome, pruritus, etc.

The therapy for insomnia should be aimed at extinguishing the etiological agent, however, often the exclusively symptomatic treatment (drugs) is essential to maintain a minimum quality of life. NON-pharmacological treatment includes some behavioral modifications, psychotherapy and autogenic training; among the precautions concerning the lifestyle, diet plays a fundamental role.

Insomnia diet

Diet is an often overlooked component of insomnia treatment; a person with an “orderly” lifestyle, rarely (except for major causes such as anxiety and depression) suffers from sleep disturbances.

Energy breakdown in insomnia

First of all, the diet for the insomniac MUST provide for an energy distribution of the meals suitable for the patient’s needs and lifestyle. Considering that insomnia often manifests itself as a difficulty in falling asleep, frequently worsened by poor digestion, or as a repeated prolongation of nocturnal awakenings sometimes caused by snoring or sleep apnea, it is possible to state that the evening meal significantly affects the etiology of insomnia. Ultimately, it is advisable to divide the daily meals in the most balanced way possible; ie: 15% of energy at breakfast, 5% at mid-morning, 40% at lunch, 5% at mid-afternoon and 35% at dinner.

The evening one represents one of the two main meals of the day but its nutritional importance should NEVER exceed lunch. Digestion is an active process which engages (sometimes decisively) the human organism, it follows that the excessive stress on the digestive system has repercussions on the quality of sleep by increasing the basal metabolic rate, heart rate, systolic pressure, ventilation and diet-induced thermogenesis; for this reason, in addition to preferring a distribution of meals that lightens dinner, it is essential to eat sufficiently digestible products about three hours before sleep (a fairly subjective requirement).

Obviously, on the other hand it would be necessary NOT to make the opposite mistake! FAME induced by hypoglycemia (and not by appetite, mind you) is also a potential cause of insomnia.

Nutrients and insomnia

From a neuro-endocrine point of view, sleep is facilitated by the secretion of two hormones: melatonin and serotonin; on the contrary, it is significantly penalized by: adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine. These chemical mediators are synthesized by the body on the basis of: feedback and reverse feedback, chronobiology and circadian rhythms, and concentration of nutritional substrates. In particular, the sleep hormones (serotonin and melatonin) need a sufficient supply of:

  • Tryptophan: an essential amino acid that acts as a hormonal precursor and is contained in most foods of animal origin; the deficiency, in conditions of nutritional balance, is unlikely, therefore it is NOT a problem
  • Complex carbohydrates: which, through the stimulation of insulin, favor the availability of tryptophan
  • Vitamins B1 and B6: which are involved in hormone synthesis
  • Calcium and magnesium: the lack of which is manifested by sleep disturbances

Furthermore, the diet for insomnia should take into consideration other fundamental biochemical aspects related to the presence of molecules that DISFAVOR the sleep:

Natural remedies

There are also some natural remedies such as the infusion or decoction of medicinal herbs; these are USUALLY harmless practices that perform a more or less favorable function also on the basis of the PSYCHOSOMATIC reaction of the user (placebo effect). The most common are: Melissa, Escolzia, Hawthorn, Chamomile, Melatonin, Linden and Hops.

Note well

The insomnia diet does not represent a real guide to the treatment of the disorder but rather a set of useful indications to prevent its onset.

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