Like 50 million to 70 million other Americans, I battle with insomnia. My love for food inspired me to start there in search of relief. Here’s what I found.
A shopping list for the sleep-deprived
Almonds: Rich in magnesium, a mineral needed for quality sleep. A recent study published in the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine found that low magnesium levels make sleep more difficult.
Carbohydrates: A bowl of your favorite cereal with milk combines carbohydrates and dairy. Along with corn chips, pretzels and rice (especially jasmine rice), cereal has a high glycemic index, which causes a natural spike in blood sugar and insulin levels, shortening the time it takes to fall asleep. Normally we want steady levels to avoid mood swings and insulin resistance. But if you’re in need of sleep, the increase in blood sugar and insulin aids tryptophan in entering your brain and bringing on the sleep.
Chamomile tea: Steeped five minutes with a teaspoon of honey, this increases the glycemic index while acting like a mild sedative to aid relaxation.
Elk: Contains nearly twice as much tryptophan as turkey!
Honey: Raises insulin and allows tryptophan to enter the brain more easily. A spoonful before bed, whether by itself or mixed into chamomile tea or yogurt, could give you a more restful sleep.
Hummus: Chickpeas are a good source of tryptophan.
Kale and other leafy veggies: Loaded with calcium, these help the brain use tryptophan to manufacture melatonin. If you’re anti-kale, spinach and mustard greens are good options.
Lettuce: A Guatemalan friend swears that drinking boiled water in which three pieces of lettuce have been soaked for 15 minutes before bedtime will put you out. Lettuce contains lactucarium, the milky fluid secreted at the base of a lettuce leaf, which has been reported to cause a mild sensation of euphoria.
Passion-fruit tea: Contains a harmala alkaloid found in high levels in the passion flower. This is a naturally occurring beta-carboline alkaloid that quiets the nervous system. Drinking a cup one hour before bedtime will help induce a sounder sleep.
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Root vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnips, daikon and red radishes, jicama, turnips and gourds are rooted in the soil and therefore reputedly ground us. When we are stressed, root veggies are the things to eat; in winter, they give us warmth and balance. Their magnesium helps relax the nervous system, which reduces stress hormones and helps the body rest; try eating them with leafy greens for additional magnesium. Potassium, which lowers blood pressure and calms the body, is found in high levels in root veggies, as is vitamin C, which does not deplete when cooked. And root veggies are complex carbohydrates, which produce serotonin (without causing a sugar rush) and lower stress. They can therefore help you sleep soundly without waking up.
Shrimp and lobster: Crustaceans contain a lot of tryptophan, which the body converts to serotonin and melatonin.
Walnuts: A good source of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that can enhance sleep by helping to produce the hormones that set our sleep-wake cycles — namely serotonin (a hormone in the pineal gland that communicates information between neurons) and melatonin (which controls the body’s circadian rhythm). Walnuts also contain their own source of melatonin.
Warm milk: My grandma used to say warm milk can help you sleep, but so can any dairy product ingested before bedtime, including cheese and yogurt. Calcium helps the brain use the tryptophan found in dairy to manufacture sleep-triggering melatonin. It also plays a role in regulating muscle movements, quieting the muscles.
A meal to excite the tastebuds yet calm the system
Here’s a perfect dinner that’s sure to induce sleep. Any full-bodied Pinot Noir or Cabernet will pair nicely.
For more information on health and sleep, see Ronald Bazar’s new book, “Sleep Secrets: How to Fall Asleep Fast, Beat Fatigue and Insomnia and Get a Great Night’s Sleep.” Also check out Jenny Herman’s website, Healdsburg Nutrition.
8 ounces dry chickpeas, soaked overnight, plus 8 ounces canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 clove of garlic, minced
Big splash of olive oil
Several pinches salt
4 tablespoons cold water
Blend all ingredients in a food processor. Serve with pita chips.
1 handful black kale per diner, washed, stemmed and lightly crunched with salt
1 handful toasted walnuts
Thinly sliced red onion or shallot
4 tablespoons olive oil
Squeeze of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon honey
1. Slice the kale very thin. Place in a bowl with the walnuts and onion or shallot.
2. Whisk together the oil, lemon and honey, add to the salad and toss to coat.
Roasted Elk Tenderloin
2 pounds of elk tenderloin
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Pat tenderloin dry with a paper towel and rub with garlic. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Heat olive oil in an ovenproof skillet. When almost smoking, sear tenderloin on all sides. Drain off the oil and squeeze the juice of the lemon onto the elk.
4. Place pan with elk in the preheated oven. Roast for 10 to 14 minutes until medium-rare, then remove and let rest for 5 minutes. Slice to serve.
Jasmine Rice Pudding
2 cups water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon or orange zest
1 cup jasmine rice
4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 cup raisins
Ground cinnamon and heavy cream for garnish
1. Combine water, butter, salt and zest in a heavy saucepan; bring to a boil.
2. Stir in the rice and return to a boil. Cover and simmer until all water is absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Combine milk, sugar and vanilla bean in another heavy, uncovered saucepan and bring just to a simmer, stirring until most of the milk is absorbed and you have a creamy substance. Pour carefully into the rice and mix to combine.
4. Transfer to a serving bowl, and serve sprinkled with cinnamon and heavy cream poured on top.
Main photo: Kale salad with walnuts for a healthy new year. Credit: Copyright 2015 Andrew Lipton