The coaches here at Core Advantage have an awkward schedule, with our group athletic development classes running from 4pm to 8pm on weeknights. After the intensity of coaching for 4 hours you can bet we are all super hungry. By the time I get home it is just not practical to prepare a regular meal and sit down to eat, especially because my goal is to be in bed and asleep by 10pm. It is really hard to relax and sleep after a typical healthy dinner, and even harder to fall asleep after a typical unhealthy dinner!
My solution? Fast to prepare, quick to consume, and tasty as hell: porridge.
So most people should already know that porridge makes a pretty awesome breakfast. It is full of slow digesting carbs that give you mountains of energy to power through till lunch time without feeling hungry.
But the thing is, I have been eating porridge for dinner most nights for the better part of a year now, and they help me fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and wake up feeling energised.
I feel like they deserve to be called 'Super Oats', but you should know I don't go in for the whole 'super foods' marketing thing. Maybe I should trade-mark the name now!
Let's take a look at how you can hack your way to better sleep by targeting your bodies natural hormone production techniques.
Melatonin: The sleep hormone
Our bodies are quietly ruled by hormones responding to circadian rhythms which are dictated strongly by our exposure to blue light (sunlight being the main source, and unfortunately the screens of our phones/tv/laptops etc). As the sun goes down your body starts preparing itself for sleep; your core temperature and cortisol levels drop and melatonin production increases.
Melatonin is a hormone made in the brain that has a powerful effect on all mammals, bringing the onset of sleep. It is derived from another hormone, serotonin, which you may have heard of as the 'feel good' hormone. There is literally a link between feeling happy and getting good sleep. To go one step further (stay with me here) serotonin is made from the essential amino acid called tryptophan.
Here is where things get interesting. Most amino acids in our blood stream respond to insulin, which transports them through our body for their work growing and repairing cells. Tryptophan however is different. It is typically found bound to albumin, and so while all the other amino acids are dependant on our insulin response, tryptophan and albumin are free to roam.
So how can we hack this anomaly for our sleeping benefit? Well if you increase your insulin levels it will transport all the other amino acids from your bloodstream, leaving a clear path. Any tryptophan in the digestive system or bloodstream at that moment is able to cross the blood brain barrier into the brain where it can be converted into serotonin, and then ultimately melatonin.
Cortisol: The stress hormone
Ever had one of those mornings where you wake up at 4am and just can't get back to sleep, your mind rushing (and possibly stomach churning with hunger)? The likely culprit is your cortisol levels jumping the gun, and starting the process of getting your primed for the day too early. While melatonin is at its peak in the evening, cortisol is on the opposite schedule, designed to elevate your brain activity and get you ready for the day.
Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone, being set off by things like tigers, starvation, or school exams. While this is helpful in short bursts to make us more alert and focussed (think game time!), chronically high cortisol causes ongoing damage to cells, so having a lot of stress in your life is actually capable of causing physical problems (lowered immune function, visceral fat storage etc).
One way to reduce cortisol is by consuming carbohydrate rich foods. Carbohydrates stimulate insulin release, which is in direct opposition to cortisol secretion. Slow digesting, low G.I. carbs are best, because high G.I. carbs have a nasty side effect of causing a massive spike in blood sugar and insulin and can play havoc with your metabolic health and lead to that 4am crash I mentioned earlier.
Putting it all together
Ok, now it seems fairly obvious. We need to find slow digesting low in G.I. carbs to eat before bed to keep our blood sugar steady and stop the early production of cortisol, and create a healthy insulin response to clear the blood stream of competing amino acids. It should also contain tryptophan to trigger serotonin and melatonin production to help us fall asleep. As a bonus, it should have a bunch of fibre, fats, and protein for even slower digestion to delay that cortisol production even further, and should be easy on the stomach, quick to prepare, and of course taste great!
My recommended recipe
If you don't know how to make porridge, check out the video below. Here are the ingredients and amounts I use:
- 1/2 cup of rolled oats
High in fibre, low G.I., they are slow digesting and filling, and contain tryptophan.
- 1 tbs of ground flaxseed
Omega-3 fats, protein, fibre, and tryptophan - flaxseed is a turbocharger!
- 1/3 cup of frozen blueberries (fresh works too)
Enough sweetness for flavour, but not enough sugar to create an extreme insulin response.
- 1/3 cup of natural or greek unflavoured yoghurt
Protein, calcium, tryptophan, and a great counter-texture and flavour. Just make sure it doesn't have added sugar.
- 1-2 tbs of peanut butter
Nuts are a great source of tryptophan, and peanut butter is cheap, convenient, and probably my favourite food in the world - crunchy is the best! Again avoid varieties with added sugar.
- 1/2 tsp of ground cinnamon
Steadies blood glucose and insulin, slows gastric emptying, and lowers LDL cholesterol. Also tasty.
- 1 tsp of magnesium powder
A great muscle relaxant, used heavily by the nervous system but most people are deficient. I use Musashi Relax powder. Sometimes I add it, sometimes I don't: that's my approach to almost any supplement.
If you struggle getting a meal in after late games, training, or work give this a try. For me it has had an amazing effect on my sleep, but the great thing is it is also a fantastic meal regardless. Durham eats it for breakfast, James has it for second lunch, and it really is fantastic fuel for the days coaching. Everyone should experiment to see what works best for their energy levels, body composition, and satiety.