Sunday, June 12, 2011

Eat a bowl of sleep

Today Friday June 10, 2011, Page T23, Wine & Dine
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Trevor Baker,, 04:46 AM Jun 10, 2011

PHOTO: Saffron is the sleeping pill ... if you put saffron on your tongue it will fall asleep - Maria Jose San Roman
Copyright © MediaCorp Press Ltd

PHOTO: Trevor Baker

A top chef has come up with a 'sleep menu' - food to help you nod off. But does it work?

Most people, if asked which foodstuffs will help you sleep, would probably put their money on roast turkey, followed by Christmas pudding, washed down with copious amounts of wine and port. So it's disconcerting when the first course arrives at Monastrell restaurant in Alicante, southern Spain.

PHOTO: Maria Jose San Roman

I am here because its celebrated chef, Maria Jose San Roman (once summoned to the White House to consult on paella making), claims she knows of a secret ingredient that during the Roman empire was prized for its soporific qualities, and has built a "sleep menu" around it.

PHOTO: Chef, Maria Jose San Roman

But the starter, at least, doesn't say snooze to me. It's a plate of grilled octopus, gorgeously aromatic and peppery, chopped into discs. However, according to Elisabeth Weichselbaum of the British Nutrition Foundation, like milk (the classic bedtime drink), seafood contains tryptophan, "an amino acid that increases our serotonin. Serotonin is a natural sedative and it makes us sleepy."

Weichselbaum points out, though, that it's even more important to avoid overloading your digestive system if you want a good night's sleep. This is certainly the common-sense line that San Roman seems to be following. The second course is a light and delicate pumpkin "lasagne" doused in a sage and chicken broth.

Next, the main course of turbot with lemon calamari is just as simple and fresh. In fact it's all lovely but I'm still not convinced that any of this is actually going to help me sleep tonight.

Some sleep experts are doubtful about the concept of eating yourself sleepy. Professor Kevin Morgan of Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre is suspicious even of the claim that milk helps insomniacs. "Back in the late 1970s," he said, "Horlicks commissioned some trials and they did seem to show that milky drinks promoted sleep ... (but) they'd tended to recruit people who like having a milky drink before they go to bed.

"People who don't generally drink these drinks, don't benefit from doing so," he said. "The secret is regularity and ritual."

Morgan said that while there's plenty of evidence that some substances prevent us from sleeping (fatty foods, excessive alcohol, coffee), there's very little that actually encourages sleep. After my meal though - which is topped off with a lemon sponge and an extraordinary olive oil sorbet that tastes just like ice-cream - San Roman revealed that the secret ingredient was in the lasagne. It's the highly expensive spice saffron (which is essential for paella).

PHOTO: Saffron is the sleeping pill ... if you put saffron on your tongue it will fall asleep - Maria Jose San Roman
Copyright © MediaCorp Press Ltd

"Saffron is the sleeping pill!" she said. "If you put saffron on your tongue it will fall asleep."

And, intriguingly, a 2009 study at Mashhad University in Iran revealed an extract of saffron did have soporific qualities - on mice at least. "The mice trial is interesting," conceded Morgan. "The rodent model of the nervous system has served us well. There is something worth investigating here."

Later, at home, I lie down and wait for sleep. Then, after five minutes, I turn the light on and make a note for this article. This happens twice but I do fall asleep within an hour. Not bad at all, for me. THE GUARDIAN
By Trevor Baker,, 04:46 AM Jun 10, 2011