“Hey, You Awake?” Nutrients You Need To Sleep Better On The Trail (And Aid Recovery Too)
Words & Photos by Hillary Pride, RDN, LD, NASM-CPT
Ah, sleep. That glorious treat at the end of a long, grueling day that, for some of us, is as hard to come by as an affordable house in the 2021 housing market. Ok, personal story out of it.
Aside from dreams of hot showers and memory foam mattresses, when we sleep, our bodies go into recovery mode, enlisting hormones that encourage growth and repair of stressed tissues from activities like really, really long hikes. Lack of quality sleep interferes with this repair and recovery process, putting us at a greater risk of injury and chronic drowsiness that can make hitting mileage goals the stuff that dreams are made of.
What’s more, poor sleep disrupts the balance of hormones that stimulate feelings of hunger and fullness. Not getting enough shut-eye boosts ghrelin, a hormone involved in making us hungry, and stifles poor ol’ leptin, a hormone responsible for signaling feelings of fullness. This imbalance can make differentiating between true hunger and sleeplessness a real drag. It can start to mess with not only fueling strategies, but mood, food supply, hiking plans, and maybe even the vibe with your hiking fam.
While popping a p.m. sleep med may help get you through some nights, consider taking a closer look at what’s in your pack and what you might want to add to snack on to help boost a little shut-eye. These following nutrients can be found in food and deserve a seat in your stuff sack.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps our bodies produce melatonin and serotonin, two hormones vital for sound sleep. Adequate tryptophan may also play a positive role in improving mood. Win, win! We can’t produce essential amino acids on our own and therefore need to find tryptophan in food.
Because tryptophan is an amino acid (amino acids are the building blocks of proteins), you will find it in varying levels in foods containing protein.
Find tryptophan in animal-based proteins like chicken, turkey, salmon, beef, and milk. Plant-based tryptophan sources include oats, chia seeds, black beans, and whole-wheat pasta.
Similar to tryptophan, vitamin B6 aids in the production of sleep-critical hormones serotonin and melatonin. Low levels of B6 have been associated with mood disturbances that can have a negative impact on sleep quality and quantity. Just don’t tip the scale too far in the other direction as very high levels of B6 intake has been linked with troubled sleep like exacerbated insomnia.
Some of the richest sources of B6 include beef liver and other organ meats, but you can also find B6 in backpacker-friendly foods like pouch tuna and salmon, oats, bananas, fortified dry cereals, and potatoes.
This mineral is involved in hundreds of metabolic functions. Especially important to endurance athletes (that’s you, hiker!) are its roles in regulating muscle contraction and relaxation, facilitating energy production from food, and bringing on restful sleep by activating neurotransmitters responsible for calming the nervous system. Once magnesium has your nervous system tucked in and ready for bed, studies suggest it may also aid in helping you stay asleep and experience quality sleep as well.
Magnesium deficiencies aren’t common for a “normal adult,” but most “normal adults” aren’t putting themselves through the rigors of something like a thru-hike. Suppose a hiker has a high sweat rate or is hiking in very warm or humid climates. In that case, this puts them at a greater risk of losing more magnesium through perspiration in quantities large enough to warrant being aware of intake through foods and drinks. If not replaced, this can lead to slight deficiencies that hurt hiker performance, muscle recovery and sleep, with the lack of sleep continuing a vicious cycle of poor recovery.
You can find magnesium in pumpkin seeds, peanuts, whole grains, tomato paste, fortified cereals, and some popular hydration tablets and mixes.
Magnesium is an easy and accessible supplement, often sold as a powder form to add to water. But exercise caution here as supplementing with high doses can induce gastrointestinal cramping and diarrhea if you’re not used to it. So much for a good night’s sleep.
This well-known hormone plays a role in regulating our sleep and wake cycles. It is found naturally in the body, but if levels dip below normal, some may find that increasing their intake through food or supplements can help them fall asleep faster and stay asleep.
Melatonin can be found in eggs, fish, nuts (especially pistachios), tart cherries, mushrooms, and grains like oats and barley. In addition to its sleep-inducing properties, it also exhibits antioxidant activity and may play a role in supporting a healthy immune system too.
Most of the nutrients discussed are fairly easy to obtain through a quality diet. However, when diets lack total calories, it can be challenging to consume these nutrients in quantities necessary for good sleep and the repair and recovery process that we’re hoping to encourage.
In addition to irritability, constant hunger, and low energy levels, under-fueling can make falling asleep challenging and negatively impact overall sleep quality. There’s not much worse than feeling completely wiped out all day and then lying awake all night frustrated that you’re unable to finally pass out. Pack enough calories to fill the tank.
Eating a backpacking diet that provides enough calories with a variety of nutrients and options can help you sleep soundly on the trail and support rest and recovery, keeping you a happier, healthier hiker. Sweet dreams!
Hillary Pride is a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer with a passion for helping her community with doable strategies for fueling active lifestyles. A native Mainer, Hillary enjoys exploring the varied terrain of her home state from the mountains to the coast. Whether hiking, surfing or sailing, one thing is for sure; she will definitely be snacking (and might be planning the snacks before planning the trip). Follow Hillary’s adventures in and out of the kitchen @eatswithpride