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Feeding your Neurotransmitters for Quality Sleep

Hi everyone, good to be here with you for your next segment of “in good health” with Hello Palate. This segment was produced in partnership with LA Dance Project. This segment is about feeding your neurotransmitters with good food for good sleep.

Our sleep can be one of the first things to suffer during stressful times, which can throw off the balance of many biochemical functions in our bodies. Everything from lucid thinking, too good decision making, to proper digestion, to high performance, is heavily dependent on getting good quality sleep.

Sleep quality is essential for dancers and athletes and yes, all humans.

1. Muscles get a chance to fully repair and recover when you’re sleeping

2. Restoration of your adrenal glands (we can address more on adrenal health in future segments – let me know if you have specific questions)

3. The detoxification of your body by your liver, and the…

4. The rebuilding of your immune system

Have you ever had a bad night’s sleep, only to find yourself craving fatty or sugary foods the next day? Or felt like you needed a nap after a big meal? A bad night’s sleep could cause you to eat more the next day and the type of food you eat could be affecting the quality of your sleep.

After reading the research, bad quality sleep and food intake are closely linked to influencing each other.

A few reasons that can explain this is:

  • Leptin and ghrelin, which are the two key opposing hormones in regulating your appetite, are affected.
  • Emotional stress is greater.
  • More food is needed to compensate for your lack of energy.
  • Your impulsivity is increased.

This particular hormone imbalance can lead to having a diet that’s full of the wrong foods and possibly may throw off your regular meal times. This can then harm your sleep the next night and create a vicious cycle of poor sleep quality leading to health conditions.

There is plenty of information out there for bedtime recommendations and rituals such as turning off blue light from computers to reducing the temperature in bedrooms to using essential oils or practicing meditation.

The question is can we use a particular biochemical quirk to feed our neurotransmitters with foods to stop the vicious circle of poor sleep and poor food choices?

Feeding your Neurotransmitters

You can think of your neurotransmitters as biochemical messengers that carry signals from one brain cell to another.  The better you feed these messengers, the more efficiently they deliver the goods.  Some neurotransmitters are neurons that perk up the brain we can call them alert foods. Other types of neurotransmitters have a calming or sedative effect. We can call them to snooze foods.

Snooze foods are protein foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan that tends to sedate the brain, and protein foods containing the amino acid tyrosine wake up the brain, the alert foods.   

You can take advantage of this biochemical quirk by choosing proper ratios of protein to carbohydrate-rich meals depending on whether you want to perk up or slow down your brain.

For dinner and bed-time snacks eat a meal high in complex carbs with a small amount of protein that contains enough tryptophan to relax the brain.  This ratio of carbs to protein will have a calming effect.  Rich dietary sources of tryptophan are eggs, good quality dairy like kefir, sunflower seeds, and poultry to name a few items. Eating a lot of carbohydrates along with tryptophan-containing foods increases their sedative effect.  The carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin, which sends the amino acids that compete with tryptophan into the muscle tissue.  This allows more tryptophan to get into the brain. Serotonin production goes up and sluggishness follows.

Passengers on a Bus

Another thought is to think of these AA’s tryptophan and tyrosine as passengers on a bus.  Who gets off the bus and enters the brain cells will depend on these quirky ratios of carbs to proteins.  It is the insulin production from complex carbs that allows AA tryptophan to get off the bus giving us that calming effect to get ready to sleep.  Higher protein-rich meals with fewer carbs, allow the brain revving AA tyrosine to get off the bus meaning it allows us to enter our brain cells. Therefore,  for students and working adults high protein, medium carb meals are best for breakfast or lunch. This will give your brain a boost of energy and alertness for your day.

For this segment, the focus is on food to enjoy better sleep quality.

Meals containing such as kale; turkey; fish, especially salmon, halibut, spinach; legumes; oats; almonds; and sesame seeds are examples of food high in tryptophan-containing proteins and complex carbohydrates that will relax, or even sedate the brain. 


Hello Palate Roasted Sweet Potato with Sauteed Chickpea and Kale

Hello Palate Roasted Sweet Potato Tahini Dressing

Kale, White Bean & Sweet Potato Korma(via This vegan korma recipe contains kale which is full of tryptophan and sweet potatoes which are good for sleep (but you should pass on the red chili flakes or you could find yourself waking up in the night!).

Hello Palate Smoked Salmon Red Boat Jasmine Rice Bites. Salmon contains tryptophan and jasmine rice has been proven to shorten the amount of time it takes to get to sleep so coupling these two together in a meal is likely to give you a good night’s sleep.

Additional Ideas

Scrambled eggs and feta

Hummus with grilled veggies and pita bread

Light meals of Seafood like a fillet of fish with veggies

Chickpea pasta with sautéed veggies 

Poultry vegetable stir fry

Sesame seed crusted salmon with kale salad

Rice and lentils with tahini dressing

A snack bowl of cottage cheese and pitted cherries with sliced almonds

Bedtime snack of homemade oats with cherries, with mixed nuts of walnuts and almonds.

Food Choices for Good Sleep

  • Foods containing melatonin – This is the chemical that helps to control our circadian rhythm (natural body clock), and it can also help to aid sleep. Cherries contain melatonin and one study found that drinking tart cherry juice can reduce the severity of insomnia. Walnuts also contain melatonin and chickpeas are rich in vitamin B6 which is needed to make the chemical.
  • Eating 1–2 medium kiwis before bed may help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Summary: Kiwis are rich in serotonin and antioxidants, both of which may improve sleep quality when eaten before bed.
  • Jasmine rice is also a carbohydrate good for sleep as one study found that when participants had jasmine rice four hours before they went to bed, it shortened the amount of time that it took them to go sleep.
  • Foods containing magnesium – avocado are good for sleep as they contain magnesium and potassium, both of which are natural muscle relaxants. Whole grains and almonds also contain magnesium, which is another reason that they are a good choice of food before going to bed. One study found a connection between magnesium deficiency and waking up throughout the night so it is important that you have some in your diet.
  • Herbal tea, particularly chamomile and lemon balm can also help you to sleep as it has a mild sedative effect. Herbal teas do not contain any caffeine, unlike regular tea which would keep you awake. 

If you have trouble falling asleep it is best to avoid food that spike blood sugar, at least four hours before bed.  Depending on how long it takes you to fall asleep, and it is usually troublesome for you than avoiding any post-dinner sweets, instead consider those treats of dark chocolate or a  bowl of coconut ice cream after your afternoon workout instead.

Anything you eat that is all carb especially one high in junk sugars will miss out on the sleep-inducing effects of tryptophan.

Remember if falling asleep is an issue for you heed the wisdom “don’t dine after nine”.

Don’t Worry be Sleepy

Stress releases a hormone called cortisol which depletes the brain of tryptophan. This is another reason stress keeps you awake.


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