What is your most favorite workout recovery strategy?
Infra red sauna?
Although these are all good ways to recover, serious athletes rate sleep as their number one recovery strategy. The big question for all of us is how to get enough?
When you account for the anxieties of daily life, the pain associated with brutal workouts, and the demands on your time, it’s no surprise that more than 50 percent of athletes report trouble sleeping (1). In fact, anyone living a high-performance lifestyle in our modern society is at risk of poor sleep.
This is a problem because sleep is prime time for your body to repair and rejuvenate itself. It’s when processes such as protein synthesis, tissue repair, and hormone release occur. The immune system revs up during sleep and it is vital for allowing your brain to process all the memories acquired during the day. Sleep also allows your body to “sweep up” and dispose of waste products and inflammation, basically, giving you a fresh start each new day.
Imagine what could happen if you are skimping on sleep! Not only will your mood be down, but you may be more prone to injury. Reaction time and mental quickness suffer and your tolerance for pain decreases. Over time, lack of sleep increases your risk of chronic disease.
Nutrition is one intervention that can ease stress and set you up for a good night’s sleep. A recent review covers evidence-based foods and nutrition strategies for better sleep (1). Because everyone is different, it’s important to experiment and figure out what works best for you.
#1: Eat Carbs at Night
A well-known trick for improving sleep is to eat high-glycemic carbs at night to improve hormones that help you sleep. Carbs increase the ratio of the amino acid tryptophan to the large neutral amino acids (LNAA), like leucine and isoleucine (2, 3). This allows more tryptophan to enter the brain, increasing serotonin and melatonin, both important regulators of sleep. Melatonin makes you drowsy while serotonin is a feel-good compound that helps you go to sleep.
You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth reiterating here: when choosing high glycemic carbs, pick whole “healthy” options, such as fruit, whole grains, sweet potatoes, or minimally processed treats like chocolate. Avoid the super-refined junk food that may lead to a blood sugar crash and poorer sleep overall (1).
Eat your high-carb meal at least 2 hours before bedtime to maximize the potential impact on sleep. The Tryptophan/LNAA ratio peaks about 2 hours a high-carb meal, with little change in the first 1 to 2 hours.
#2: Take Bedtime Whey Protein with Lactalbumin
Protein is the holy grail for recovery, facilitating muscle repair and supporting the immune system. It can even improve sleep: Whey protein with α-lactalbumin has been shown to improve sleep quantity by 13 percent and sleep quality by 11 percent in men with normal sleep patterns (1).
Lactalbumin has the highest natural level of tryptophan in protein food sources, which as mentioned in number 1, is great for raising serotonin and melatonin for better sleep.
Interestingly, whey with lactalbumin has an anti-stress effect, lowering cortisol in subjects who were highly vulnerable to stress. Supplementation improved mood and reduced feelings of depression (4). A second study found that taking whey with lactalbumin before bed improved sleep and reduced morning sleepiness in subjects who normally had trouble sleeping (5). Performance on cognitive brain tests the morning after taking the supplement also improved.
Take 20 grams of whey with lactalbumin 1 hour before bed to maximize protein synthesis overnight and improve sleep.
#3: Support Melatonin with Food
Several plant-based foods provide melatonin, which has been shown to improve sleep cycles. For example, tart cherry juice consistently increases total sleep time by about 30 minutes with small improvements of sleep efficiency. Tart cherry juice can be particularly useful for athletes because it has antioxidants that lower DOMS muscle soreness and help restore strength. In one study of marathoners, supplementation twice a day improved sleep and lowered levels of muscle pain and inflammation after a race (1).
Kiwi is another antioxidant-rich fruit that provides natural melatonin and folate, which has been shown to improve sleep. Eating kiwi an hour before bedtime improved total sleep time by almost an hour and decreased the time it took to get to sleep by 15 minutes (1).
Incorporate tart cherry juice concentrate into your routine when suffering from impaired sleep by taking 30 ml twice a day—one dose first thing in the morning and the second at dinner. For extra melatonin, try eating 1 to 2 kiwis an hour before bed.
#4: Calm the Brain with Inositol
Known as “nature’s sleeping pill,” inositol is a nutrient that calms the mental chatter that keeps you up at night. It activates the serotonin and orexin pathways in the brain that stop your mind from racing—think of it like sweeping up the floor of your brain to create order.
One recent study found that pregnant women who are at high risk of disturbed sleep took 2 grams of inositol with 200 mcg of folic acid and significantly improved sleep quality and quantity compared to a placebo (6).
Inositol can be paired with GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that is often present in food and can improve sleep quality in people with insomnia. Supplementary GABA doesn’t have the side effects of common pharmaceutical drugs aimed at raising GABA, including benzodiazepines, which cause drowsiness, lethargy, fatigue, impaired motor coordination, and addiction. One study found that taking 100 mg of GABA allowed subjects to enter the restorative stage of deep non-REM sleep sooner than a placebo (1).
Take 2 to 10 grams of powdered inositol in in water about 45 minutes before you want to go to bed.
#5: Use Glycine for Improved Sleep
Glycine is an amino acid that has a calming effect on the brain. It may help you stay asleep by lowering your core body temperature. Research in people with sleep issues shows that taking 3 grams of glycine before bed decreases how long it takes to fall asleep, enhances sleep quality, and lessens daytime sleepiness (1). It has also been shown to improve cognitive performance in adults during sleep restriction. This may be due to glycine’s role in creatine synthesis, a compound that is used by the brain for energy when fatigued or battling a sleep deficit.
This makes glycine a great alternative to sleeping pills for improving sleep quality since it won’t leave you with daytime grogginess the next day. And by increasing brain creatine levels, glycine may be substitute for coffee to improve mental precision without the cortisol spike that comes with caffeine.
Take 3 grams of glycine an hour before bed to improve sleep quality and wake up refreshed and ready to go.
Research into the impact of nutrition on sleep is limited and we know that results vary by the individual. All of the nutrition tips recommended here are low-risk options that have added recovery benefits, making them a great place to start for improving sleep.