Saturday, 10 January 2009

High-Carb Feasts Could Help You Sleep

Over Christmas I slept better than I have for months - in several cases sleeping for a full 8 hours. This was followed by at least 30 minutes of blissful dosing, the like of which I have not experienced since I was a bone-idle student with nothing to worry about except which bar I was supposed to attending that night.

I also had more episodes of carb-laden gluttony than for several years. If you are interested in the gory details, I posted about the first one a couple of weeks ago (Paleo Apple Crumble and Gluttony) and alluded to the additional lapses last week (When does Intermittent Fasting become an Eating Disorder.)

Of course it's very hard to separate out the potential factors - unless I had sought out and somehow monitored a parallel universe. Assuming you believe in the theory that there are an infinite number of parallel universes in which all possible scenarios are being played out, there is presumably another one in which parallel Methuselah remained strictly Paleo over the holiday and is not currently lugging round an extra 2% body fat like a flack jacket.
Another potential factor is stress: the festive season saw me take one of the longest complete breaks from what is normally a very busy work life. I typically have a lot of work-related challenges in my head and my brain has the disappointing habit of firing itself up one or two hours before I would like.

One other factor to mention is alcohol. I was drinking a glass or two of wine with these large meals, but not continuing to drink afterwards. This is something I periodically do with normal Paleo meals, some of which were pretty large last year, but the absence of any special sleep experiences at those times probably rules out that angle.
In spite of the potentially confounding factors, I was sufficiently sure that diet had played a role to do some Googling. One of the reasons for my conviction was that the nights where my sleep had been best were those directly following the 4 or 5 large meals - in spite of going to bed with a painfully full stomach, something you would expect to make sleeping harder. The rest of the time I was either fasting of sticking to largely hunter gatherer fayre.

My theory was that the toxins from the food were somehow slowing down my system and making me sluggish. In the morning when my brain kicked the throttle, there was a sputtering sound followed by silence. As I slept on, old Brainy would periodically have another go, only finally achieving success when the normal waking mechanisms on which I so rarely normally call, had overcome the sluggishness.
Tryptophan and Serotonin
Not surprisingly, I found little or no support for such a vague hypothesis - but I did find this article on talking about the use of tryptophan as a sleep aid. Apparently a 2005 study found that tryptophan-containing foods taken before bed with carbohydrates had 'improvements on all measures of sleep'. Tryptophan, it turns out, is used by the body to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter released by the body to make us feel sleepy.

I was unable to track down the study but was happy to take it at face value for the purposes of my investigation. Has anyone else seen it around? Use the comments to let us know if so!

A visit to Wikipedia told me that foods particularly rich in tryptophan are chocolate, oats, bananas, durians, mangoes, dried dates, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, red meat, eggs, fish, poultry, sesame, chickpeas, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, spirulina, and peanuts.

I have highlighted some foods because it immediately struck me that my large meals had very much centred around them. Festive meals usually feature a meat, poultry or fish dish and in our case it was no different; and my Paleo instincts naturally drove me to eat plenty of whichever animal was on offer. Of course I then ignored those instincts at the dessert course, where I consumed copious quantities of things like cheesecake, washed down with custard or cream. As we know, many desserts are egg-based and custard and cream could be considered synonymous with milk for the purposes of this discussion.
Timed Release Sleep Aid
So - my meals were comprised mainly of tryptophan-rich foods and were also high in carbohydrates, such as sugar and flour. If we believe the article then this was the perfect recipe for sleep. Add to that the sheer size of the meals and you have one big timed-release sleep aid - my morning slumbering could in fact have been a result of the continued digestion of the meal.

However, even if I did have access to parallel universes (or a medical trials unit!) for the purposes of researching this issue, I am not sure it would be of much help to know that my hypothesis is right. Much as I enjoy sleeping well and get frustrated by my sleep-hindered gym progress, I cannot see a way to easily adapt my festive behaviour to work in a day-to-day context. I already eat a lot of meat in the evening along with a fair amount of vegetables which are, or course, carbohydrate. So the missing components would seem so be the very ones my hunter gatherer principles would not allow me to regularly consume.

In any case, right now I am still reluctantly eating a slice of bread and tablespoon of wheat germ powder each day as part of my Wheat Experiment, so perhaps I am less receptive than normal to experimentation that would disrupt my preferred diet. Perhaps it is something to think about again in a few months...

See Also:
Paleo Apple Crumble and the Chestnut Tojan Horse - Bending the Rules to Breaking Point
When does Intermittent Fasting become an Eating Disorder?
Doctors and Nutrition Part 2: My Wheat Experiment


Anonymous said...

Hi, I have used 5 HTP in the past, which is tryptophan in capsule form. I found that it gave me very vivid dreams, to the point that I wanted to stop taking it.
'Potatoes Not Prozac' addresses some issues on food and sleep, in the sense of a chemical process in the body. I really like the author's approach and aside from the recommendation to eat potatoes and 'brown' carbohydrates, it's a great book.
I'm enjoying your posts, wish there were more : >

Methuselah said...

Thanks Andrea - I've just read a review of the book you mention. It seems like it's on the right track on the central diet issue but I must admit I am confused by the classification of potatoes as something you would consume to achieve stable blood sugar. Quite appart from my own Paleo beliefs, this just seems to fly in the face of acknowledged fact. That aside, it looks like the stuff on sleep could be quite interesting so I might try to track down a copy.

Thanks for reading - I would like to post more often but this damn job of mine keeps getting in the way!

Blog Widget by LinkWithin