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  • Dorota Lockyer

The Dairy Way to Better Sleep

Updated: Jan 26

It's that time of year when we're snug in the warmth of our homes, watching the snow drift to the ground and blanket the world in white. We start a fire in our stoves or turn up the heater, make a hot drink, and dream a little about spring and summer.


And, we probably think about sleep a little more, too, as the sun sets at 5pm and the night seems just that much longer. In this article, we're going to tackle sleep -- specifically, what we can do to improve our sleep, and how dairy plays a role in getting that quality sleep that we need.


Why is sleep so important, anyway?

Getting good quality sleep is important for good health, brain performance, and mood.


While we sleep, our brain performs many important functions. For example, "sleep plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake" ("Brain Basics: Understanding Sleep"). Not getting enough sleep -- which is generally seen as less than 7 hours of sleep per night -- raises our risk of getting many diseases and disorders, such as dementia, heart disease, stroke, and obesity.


Basically, if we aren't getting enough sleep, our bodies simply cannot function well. (For our cows, too!)


Problems with getting to sleep

Unfortunately, many don't get enough sleep. There are many things that can disrupt our sleep or prevent us from going to sleep. Some of the top culprits are:

  1. Staying up too late and exposing ourselves to a lot of screen time before bed. More often than not, I have a peek at my Instagram before going to bed, and that one minute that I intended to spend becomes 15 minutes or more. What's worse, the exposure to the blue light emitted from my cell phone "disrupts our natural sleep cycles" ("Blue Light: What it is and How it Affects Sleep"). When we're exposed to blue light during the day, it is actually good for us: it helps us perform better and increases our alertness by decreasing melatonin, the hormone our bodies produce to make us feel drowsy. This is normal, because we normally get exposed to blue light from the sun. But as the sun sets, our bodies need melatonin to help us fall asleep; it is here that exposure to blue light can trick our brains into thinking that it's still daytime and not release melatonin. (The solution? Not exposing ourselves to blue light at least an hour before bed can make a huge difference. It's also possible to buy melatonin in stores as supplements, or eat foods high in melatonin, to make up for a deficiency in the hormone.)

  2. Consuming certain foods or drinks (such as alcohol and caffeine). Even small amounts of alcohol, while it might help us fall asleep quickly, actually causes fragmented sleep, which overall reduces the quality of the sleep we get. Caffeine increases brain activity by stimulating the central nervous system -- a good thing if you're trying to stay alert during the day, but not so good when you want to go to sleep. Spicy foods, too, can cause acid reflux and heartburn in some people, making it harder to fall asleep.

  3. Not managing stress effectively. Have you ever woken up at 4 or 5am in the morning and were not able to fall back asleep? That's often caused by a spike in cortisol levels. Cortisol is our bodies' primary stress hormone -- driving our flight or flight response to stressors that we face -- and also regulates blood pressure, balances blood sugar, influences inflammation, regulates energy levels, and helps control the sleep-wake cycle ("The Effects of Cortisol on Your Sleep"). When we experience prolonged or higher levels of stress, our bodies produce more cortisol, which impacts sleep. It then creates a vicious cycle, as not getting enough quality sleep makes our bodies produce even more cortisol, causing our sleep to worsen more.

  4. Not getting enough exercise. After a long day of working in an office, with very little physical exercise, it's easy to tire out our minds and think we feel tired, while our bodies have been resting all day. Today, experts believe in a bidirectional relationship between sleep and exercise: "optimizing your exercise routine can potentially help you sleep better, and getting an adequate amount of sleep may promote healthier physical activity levels during the day" ("How Can Exercise Affect Sleep?"). In fact, getting moderate to vigorous exercise during the day has been shown to help with falling asleep faster, plus to decrease the amount of time lying awake in bed.

Other times, our sleep can be caused by other health complications, such as sleep apnea, or external factors, such as a newborn child waking us up at night.


The bottom line is, however, that sleep is incredibly important to maintaining good health, and many things -- both in our control and not -- can hinder the quality and amount of our sleep.


What can help us sleep better?

There are several things we can do to get that quality sleep that we need. It can start with addressing any underlying health issues (if there are any), avoiding things that are known to prevent sleep (such as blue light) and then turning to foods and practices that help our bodies fall -- and stay -- asleep.


One such way is to consume more tryptophan -- an amino acid found in protein that impacts mood, sleep and behaviour. Specifically, "tryptophan can be converted into a molecule called 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which is used to make serotonin and melatonin" ("How Tryptophan Boosts Your Sleep Quality and Mood"). Serotonin helps boost our mood; low levels of serotonin can cause anxiety and depression. And once serotonin is created in the body, it can be converted to melatonin, the hormone which helps regulate our sleep cycles.


Tryptophan isn't difficult to find, either. It can be found in several foods: poultry (turkey + chicken), seafood (shrimp + crab), dairy, whole grains (oatmeal, quinoa, bran), eggs (especially egg whites), nuts and seeds (pistachios, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds), tart cherry juice and kiwi.


Dairy not only has tryptophan, but other nutrients that aid in sleep: calcium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B6. This can be in milk or fermented milk such as yogurt.


Warm Milk

Drinking warm milk has been reported to help with falling asleep. In fact, a study "of people over 65, those who drank more milk and engaged in physical activity reported falling asleep more easily than those who did not" ("Does Warm Milk Help You Sleep"). Another study showed that those staying in a hospital's heart unit who drank warm milk with honey for three nights reported improvements in their sleep.


If you'd prefer something more than just warmed milk, there are recipes that add other ingredients to make the warmed milk taste better and up the nutritional value.


One easy and well-known recipe is moon milk. To make moon milk, you warm up a cup of whole milk in a pot on the stove over low heat. Once it's warmed up a bit, whisk in 1/2 tsp each of cinnamon and ground turmeric (an anti-inflammatory), 1/4 tsp of ashwagandha powder (an adaptogen that helps our bodies deal with stress), 2 pinches of ground cardamon, and a pinch each of nutmeg (a natural sleep aid) and ground ginger (optional), then season with pepper. (The pepper helps the body digest and get the most from the turmeric.) Add a teaspoon of coconut oil, and reduce heat to low, and warm it for another 5-10 minutes. Then, take it off the heat and add a teaspoon of honey, pour it into a mug and enjoy.


This combination of warm milk, spices and herbs contribute to the body being able to relax.


The quality of the milk you choose is also important for your body, too. Our milk, available from our milk dispenser on our farm in Duncan, BC, comes from our heritage herd of Guernsey cows, which are grass-fed and certified organic. Our Guernseys' milk is also A2A2, which is easier to digest for humans (comparable to sheep or goat milk) compared to the A1 beta-casein which is typically found in conventional dairy. We low-temperature pasteurize our milk, and do not homogenize it, so the cream rises to the top.


(A commonly-asked question we get is: how much cream do you get from the milk? The butterfat content of our milk fluctuates throughout the year, with the highest percentage occurring during the winter months. At time of writing, our butterfat percentage is 5.1%. From that, a litre of milk should give you about 1/4 cup of cream. A gallon jar with a wide mouth would provide more and would be easier to scoop out. The key, though, is to let the milk settle for a few days in your refrigerator. From there, the cream can be churned into butter or used in other ways.)


If you have a favourite way of making warm milk with some other spices or ingredients, let us know in the comments!



Yogurt


In addition to yogurt being a dairy product containing tryptophan (containing about 133 milligrams of tryptophan per a 100 g serving), it has important probiotics that help with the gut-brain connection by balancing the microbiome. It's also easier to digest than milk for those who have a sensitivity to lactose because probiotics help with digestion.


It has also been hypothesized that "the presence of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in fermented dairy" ("Milk and Sleep") is a reason for yogurt being able to help with sleep. The possible reason for this is that "GABA acts as a chemical messenger that inhibits neuronal activity in the brain, regulates heart rate and helps promote sleep". Some herbs, such as ashwagandha, help the body relax because of their interaction with GABA.


Yogurt is also high in protein, which has been linked to better sleep quality; plus calcium, vitamins D & B12, phosphorous, zinc, and selenium, all of which are linked to sleep. During the winter in North America, it is common to see vitamin D deficiency, especially in the elderly or people who spend a lot of time indoors.


It's also important to be smart in choosing your yogurt, as not all yogurts are the same. Many yogurts in the store have fillers or additives, or are simply too high in "junk" sugar. It's better to choose a plain yogurt (unless you know that there are no artificial flavours that feed the bad bacteria in your gut), or yogurt sweetened with fruit or honey. The natural sugar in honey, interestingly, "raises insulin and allows tryptophan to enter your brain better and make more serotonin" ("11 Foods That Help You Sleep All Night Long"). Of course, if you have diabetes or an underlying condition where you should avoid sugar, than sticking with plain yogurt is your best option!


Combining your yogurt with carbohydrates such as granola can help your body absorb the tryptophan. The carbs clear our bodies of amino acids, which help the tryptophan reach our brains quicker and more efficiently. (See this blog post for our favourite granola recipe!) You could also -- though being mindful of sugar content -- add slices of banana on top of your yogurt bowl, or add a handful of fresh blueberries, a drizzle of raw honey, hemp seeds, or a teaspoon of almond butter. You can be as creative as you want: just omit anything with caffeine, which also counteracts tryptophan.


The best time to eat yogurt for sleep is around dinnertime, not right before bed, as it could cause stomach discomfort or keep you from falling asleep. However, yogurt isn't sleep inducing to the point that it would make us fall asleep during the day, so it's a treat that we can enjoy throughout the day.


tl;dr

Sleep is very important if we want to take good care of our bodies. There are many things that can hinder the amount and quality of sleep we get every night. The good news is that there are many things we can do to help ourselves get that quality sleep!


Dairy -- especially local, organic dairy from grass-fed cows -- is one thing we can consume to help with getting to sleep. This can be in yogurt and milk, and also butter and cheese. There are certain compounds in those foods, such as tryptophan, which have been linked with good sleep.


In this article, we hope you've gained some knowledge to take away and get those quality Zzzz's!


Have you found that dairy products have helped you with sleep? Is there a favourite way that you like to consume your milk or yogurt? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. :)


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