It is no myth that sleeping patterns change with age. What can we do about it? Join us in conversation with registered dietitian Ashley Koff who has some great tips to share. Enjoy the show!
My guest today is nutrition expert and registered dietitian Ashley Koff. Ashley has written a couple of books on dietary topics and has a great program called Road Trip to Better Health. Welcome to the show, Ashley. It’s great to have you here.
Thanks for having me.
The Sixty and Me community consists of fabulous older women who are struggling to stay healthy in their 60s. They are also trying to deal with an issue that always bothers us as we get older – sleep.
We have a difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep. Then there are those moments where you wake up at three and nothing helps to get you back to dreamland. Can you give us some suggestions, from a nutrition perspective, on how to get control of our sleep?
Absolutely. I’m happy to do that. Also, one thing that you shared with me is that Sixty and Me promotes yoga and breathing exercises, and these are two of the best things that we can do to improve our sleep. They help with turning off our internal stimuli that keep us away from sleep.
From a nutrition standpoint, magnesium is the most important nutrient when it comes to sleep. It is critical on that front because it actually turns off our fight or flight response in all of our cells. I personally take magnesium in a hot powder tea before I go to bed, and sip on it.
It’s interesting though that we were raised on sayings like, “Drink warm milk before bed,” when actually, warm milk is going to provide us with calcium which is a muscle contractor. Calcium is a stress inducer, so drinking milk before bed is going to keep us awake.
You want to make sure you are getting in enough magnesium throughout the day, not just at bed time. If your body is well saturated in magnesium that will help you to turn off that stress response when you do climb into bed.
One of my favorite tricks to boost my magnesium intake is to treat myself to a great dark chocolate option, maybe with peanut butter or almond butter, around three or four o’clock in the afternoon. Dark chocolate is a really rich source of magnesium and we should use that to our advantage.
So it’s okay to have chocolate for breakfast.
Here in Switzerland chocolate is a way of life, obviously. It’s the biggest and most delicious industry. If you go to a café for a cup of tea or coffee, they always give you a little bit of chocolate. It’s a lovely tradition.
So, magnesium is necessary to make us relax from stress. What about melatonin? Everyone says that it is the most important substance for sleep.
Well, since we’re talking about nutrition and how it can help us to better our sleep, those extras, like melatonin, are less relevant here.
But there’s a nutrient that is really important for women as we start to approach perimenopause and then into menopause. Our hormone imbalance in that period affects how we sleep, so this nutrient, gamma-linoleic omega-6 fatty acid can help our body relax into sleep.
It’s called GLA for short, and so I refer to it as ‘the glamor fatty acid’ because it’s also the one that helps our hair, skin and nails look healthy. The gamma-linoleic fatty acid helps with intimate dryness that is associated with menopause, which is why many women are prescribed to take it in some form.
It could be taken as an evening primrose oil or borage oil, or as medication. Even though I’m not anywhere near menopause, I’ve decided to add GLA to my diet. I’m a huge fan of getting in hempseeds and hempseed oil.
Hempseeds and hempseed oil are an extremely rich source of gamma-linoleic fatty acid, and so is wild salmon. You would benefit your health greatly if you can get this fatty acid into your body because the GLA actually helps promote healthy inflammatory response.
A lot of the things that keep us awake have to do with our body being irritated or overwhelmed due to low-grade chronic inflammation which leads to a number of other issues as well. So, I’m a huge fan of the hormonal health that we can get from the gamma-linoleic fatty acid.
What do you do with hemp oil? Would you just drink it or use it as olive oil?
Some people do take it by itself, but I prefer to put it on my salad or drizzle it over a potato. I actually make hempseed pesto and it is one of my favorite things. I use it with veggies or put it inside those little red skin potatoes.
The third nutrition advice is probably one we have heard before, but I feel the need to restate it. A lot of people are trying to eat ‘perfectly’ at lunch time and as a result they will only have maybe a chicken or fish salad, no croutons. They are really watching their carbohydrates.
However, what comes to happen is that by about the middle of the day or into the early evening, they feel famished because they skipped on that carbohydrate – be it chick peas, beans or bread – that would’ve helped their body to have energy until dinner time.
Then in the evening we are back loading, and often, we actually look for those carbohydrates. But having those carbohydrates in the evening promotes wakefulness.
So my health tip about carbohydrates, which hits on all three points – weight loss, belly fat and better sleeping – is to only lower your carbohydrate intake at dinner time.
Thinking in that direction then, maybe we can do spaghetti squash instead of noodles for dinner. Or maybe have berries instead of melon. Learn what are the carbohydrates, and have less of them in the evening, because they push your energy higher at that point.
So this suggestion has to do with watching your carbohydrates.
Yes, and consuming them in the early periods of the day, spaced apart in appropriate quantities. I think that will help you sleep better.
Okay, so far you mentioned chocolate for magnesium intake, hemp oil for GLA, and having berries or some low carbohydrates in the evening. What’s the fourth power food?
Fats are really important, in particular plant fats. In this group I would throw in olives, avocados, nuts and seeds. I mentioned hemp as a fat source, but nuts and seeds are very helpful for us in terms of getting in those essential minerals that help the body to relax and sleep better.
This is a great list, but I guess I can’t have cheese and crackers before I go to bed anymore.
Actually, it has to do with the notion of having it right before you are going to bed. It really does depend on your metabolism, but the idea of having anything right before you go to bed means that you give your body work just as it’s trying to relax into sleep.
The analogy that I like to give people is this: You get off work at 5pm, but at 4:57 your boss comes into your office and dumps a whole bunch of work. You’re not going to appreciate that. So, you’ll either try to race to get it done, or you might stay late.
That second option is what is happening to us when we decide to have something before bed. I think you will feel much better if you have a more substantial meal around four or five, then have the cheese and crackers around seven-thirty or eight – if you’re going to bed after ten-thirty.
What would you suggest when people wake up in the middle of the night? is there anything you might want to do or drink? Maybe try meditation or something else?
I think it depends on the state of your body because sometimes it can be due to our hormones cycling through our bodies.
I’m a huge fan of the breath work that is 4-7-9. You breathe in through your nose for the count of four, then you hold it in through seven and finally you exhale it out of your mouth for nine. I ask people to do that 10 times in a row as it turns the body’s fight or flight response off and helps you relax.
There is no reason whatsoever for any food to go in you at three o’clock in the morning – unless you are waking up and starting your day. If you want to go back to sleep, the worst thing you can do is eat something when you wake up in the middle of the night.
Our sleep cycle is super sensitive. It takes two days to shift it off, so don’t get into this behavior pattern. I’m not a sleep technique expert, but some things that I have been taught are to get up, walk around then come back to bed. You can also do the breathing exercise.
Another thing I consider important is making sure that there isn’t a light or a sound that you aren’t even aware of that is triggering you to wake up. It might be the person next to you who is snoring or has shifted their position.
If you find yourself waking up to go to the bathroom, it’s helpful to have a muted night light on so that you don’t have to turn on a bright light that will interrupt your sleep for a longer period.
The final piece of advice is, do not go near your phone if you wake up in the middle of the night. Phones, tablets and other electronic devices give off a very focused blue light that wakes our brain at a really deep level. It’s going to be hard to go back to sleep after that.
You can put your phone by your bed though, to look at it when you get up.
Actually, I keep mine in another room. I went back to an old-school alarm clock because that doesn’t interrupt sleep. As we age, we have to be really conscious of all the things that are getting introduced into our lives to enable us to have a higher workload.
I don’t think that’s a benefit I want to explore while in bed, so there is nothing positive about keeping my phone next to my bed.
I love your advice, Ashley. It’s going to help a lot of women; I really do appreciate your insight. Thank you and take care.
Do you have problems falling or staying asleep through the night? What power foods do you take and how do you incorporate them into your diet to help you sleep better? Please share any recommendations and tips you may have in the comments below.
Tags How to Sleep Better