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Chasing Away Insomnia With a Bowl of Oatmeal

Carbohydrates before bedtime will boost your serotonin.

Mike, the guy behind the desk at the gym, was yawning so much he could barely say good morning. “Late night?” I asked him. “No,” he yawned in reply. “I haven’t been sleeping well for days.”

“How long have you been on the high-protein diet?” I asked, knowing nothing about what he had been eating, but guessing he had fallen prey to the fitness hype about the benefits of avoiding carbohydrates.

I was right. Mike’s sleep problems started two weeks earlier because he had cut all starches and sugars from his diet. Now his sleep was like a yo-yo: asleep/awake/asleep/awake all night long.

“I go to sleep at midnight, and I wake up at 2 or 2:30. I then fall back asleep, and I’m up again in another hour. My mind is racing, and I feel agitated and simply can’t relax,” he told me.

If Mike had searched the Internet during those wakeful early morning hours, he would have read countless anecdotes from others describing similar sleepless nights. Whether the problem was failing to fall asleep easily, or get through the night without multiple awakenings, all the insomniacs had one thing in common: they were on high-protein, low-, or no-carbohydrate diets.

This is not to say that there are not many other causes of sleep disturbances from taking too long to fall asleep, trouble staying asleep, or waking up too early. Anxiety, age, sleep apnea (which awakens the sleeper many times during the night), drug side effects, some degenerative diseases, and even shift work are but a few of the obstacles preventing this most natural and wanted behavior. But if someone stops sleeping normally at the same time as he or she stops eating carbohydrates, it does not take a sleep disorder expert to figure out why…too little serotonin is the cause.

Serotonin, the multi-functional brain neurotransmitter, normally soothes your brain into a calm and tranquil state so sleep comes easily. If you awaken, serotonin prevents the anxiety demons from leaping out and filling your brain with worries that prevent you from falling back asleep.

To some extent what we eat influences whether or not our brain is able to make serotonin. More than 30 years ago, research at MIT uncovered the connection between the consumption of any carbohydrate (except fructose) and serotonin synthesis. The release of insulin after carbohydrate is digested indirectly helps an amino acid, tryptophan, get into the brain. Once there, tryptophan is converted through a biochemical process into serotonin. However, when more than small amounts of protein are eaten along with the carbohydrate, this process is blocked.

Serotonin synthesis was never in peril until recently. For most of our history, carbohydrates have been a staple of our diets, and being told to avoid them would have been as unimaginable as being told to walk on our fingers. Alas, the self-appointed nutrition gurus who are convincing us that the eating of carbohydrates will destroy our bodies, or at the very least, turn us into a human version of Humpty Dumpty, don’t understand that we have to eat carbohydrates if we are going to make serotonin.

When you are awake at 2 a.m. searching the Internet for help with your insomnia, you will come across bland assurances that eating protein will give you the tryptophan you need to make serotonin. To borrow a phrase from the Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess,”… It ain’t necessarily so.”

Here are the facts: Eating protein prevents tryptophan from getting into the brain. Eating turkey does not increase the tryptophan in your brain (you are sleepy after the Thanksgiving Day dinner because of the fat you have just eaten). The research evidence conclusively shows that tryptophan is blocked from entering your brain after you eat protein.

So as you lie awake in your dark bedroom wondering whether you will fall asleep before the alarm goes off, contemplate your problem: sleep or a high-protein diet?

But good grief, you will say. If I eat carbohydrates, like the man in that Kafka novel, The Metamorphosis, I will wake up with my body horribly altered? (Kafka’s hero became an insect.) Pounds will attach themselves to my body as I sleep, and I will need a tarpaulin to cover my now-massive body!

Well, yes you might, if you eat croissants, doughnuts, mega-muffins, scones, French fries, potato chips, tortilla chips, baked potatoes leaking butter, and crackers covered with 80 percent fat cheese. Oh, and of course, weight gain is to be expected from consuming too much chocolate, ice cream, cookies, cake, and piecrust. These foods are not just carbohydrates but full of fat, too. And since fat contains more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates, if you eat copious quantities of any high-fat foods, you will gain weight.

But you can get a decent night’s sleep, and leave the tarpaulin outside, if you eat very low-fat or fat-free carbohydrates like 3/4 of a cup of plain Cheerios or Rice Chex, a small bowl of oatmeal, toast with strawberry jam (the sucrose supercedes the trace amount of fructose), or a graham cracker square. Don’t wait until the middle of the night before consuming the carbohydrate. Instead, eat a small, 120-calorie carbohydrate snack twice a day, before or several hours after you eat protein. This will help increase serotonin synthesis before you go to bed. If you have been on a low or no-carbohydrate diet for several weeks, it may take some time to restore your serotonin levels. So don’t worry if you still wake up during the night for a few more days. Eat another small snack. You will be back to sleep in about 20 minutes.

Try this. You have nothing to lose but your insomnia.

More from Judith J. Wurtman Ph.D.
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