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The Food-Sleep Connection


Quality sleep—and enough of it—is key to good health. We tend to treat sleep as a luxury rather than a vital part of life. When we don’t get enough QUALITY sleep, it disrupts our basic metabolic functions, such as storing carbohydrates and regulating hormones, which can lead to weight gain and chronic disease. Even just one or two bad nights can throw your body out of whack. Prioritizing a healthful diet promotes deep, quality, restorative sleep.

How Sleep Affects Your Health:

Less Sleep = More Weight Gain. While a lack of sleep isn’t the only factor when it comes to unwanted weight gain, more studies are showing a connection between the two. There are several factors at work here, including disrupted hormones. When you’re tired, your body produces the hunger hormone ghrelin, while the lack of sleep simultaneously suppresses the production of leptin, the hormone that signals when you’re full. Fatigue also impairs your judgement, so you’re more prone to reach for the junk food your body craves instead of something much more nourishing. We desire those sweet and fatty treats because our brains want a quick burst of energy, but it also ups our caloric intake by as much as 20 percent.

A recent study revealed that food is even processed differently after sleep deprivation. After just four nights of restricted sleep, participants found themselves hungry after eating the same meal that satisfied them earlier on a good sleep night. Their bloodwork showed that their bodies were also more likely to store those same calories as fat when they were tired.

A Greater Risk of Diabetes. Genetics, diet, and weight play a significant role in your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but sleep deprivation is an equally significant, but often overlooked, factor. Just as poor sleep messes with your hunger hormones, it also wreaks havoc on your insulin and cortisol levels. Insulin production goes down while cortisol goes up and makes it harder for insulin to do its job. Prolonged sleep deprivation can result in chronic insulin resistance—increasing your risk for prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. While studies consistently show that type 2 diabetes is twice as common in adults who report being regularly sleep-deprived, a 2010 study showed that just one night of poor sleep led to insulin resistance in healthy subjects.

A Lack of Sleep May Affect Your Microbiome. Research is ongoing about how sleep and gut health affect one another. Studies continue to find links to poor sleep and higher inflammation, insulin sensitivity, and even obstructive sleep apnea. This breathing disorder results in snoring and unrestful sleep, and those who suffer from it have less of the bacteria necessary to produce the short-chain fatty acid called butyrate. Butyrate improves non-REM sleep, including the ultra-important deep sleep phases where the body repairs itself. As a result, low butyrate levels lead to a vicious cycle of sleeplessness and poor gut health that exacerbate each other.

How Food Affects Your Sleep:

The health risks associated with poor sleep are enough to keep you awake at night, but making some lifestyle changes can help you begin to sleep better. In addition to practicing good sleep hygiene, it is absolutely essential that you make good nutrition a priority. Here are three ways to alter your eating habits to help you get the most restful and restorative sleep possible: 1. Eat the Right Stuff. Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, is found in most high-protein foods, such as poultry, fish, eggs, hummus, cheese, and pumpkin and sesame seeds. When combined with carbohydrates, which make tryptophan more available to the brain, these foods can help prime you for rest. If you’re at all sugar-sensitive, however, carbohydrates can trigger too much insulin production, leading to a wakeful blood sugar crash while you’re asleep.

Other foods that help promote sleep include walnuts, almonds, and cherries, which all contain melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate your circadian rhythms. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, mushrooms, and spinach all contain the brain-calming amino acid GABA, which promotes relaxation. Bananas, too, are a sleep superfood. In addition to tryptophan, they’re rich in potassium and magnesium—natural muscle relaxers. 2. Eat at the Right Amount. It is also essential that you eat the right stuff in the right amount. Going to bed with a full stomach can lead to indigestion and limit how much of that vital restorative sleep you get by preventing your heart rate from dropping to its lowest point. A large meal also signals to your body that you’re planning to remain active for much longer, preventing it from “powering down.” To help kickstart this process, try eating your biggest meal earlier in the day and enjoy a smaller dinner, with a small serving of both lean protein and green vegetables. You’ll feel more energized during the day and your body will more easily wind down for sleep when bedtime rolls around.

However, eating too little during the day and going to bed hungry can also negatively impact your sleep—either making it difficult for you to fall asleep or causing you to wake up from a blood sugar crash between 2-3 AM.

3. Eat at the Right Time. Eating the right stuff, in the right amount needs to be combined with eating at the right time of day. Nighttime snacking can certainly make restful sleep more elusive. Rethink your post-dinner habits and their connection to food. Do you eat popcorn while you watch a movie, or an indulgent treat while binging your favorite TV show? Not only do these snacks impact your waistline, but they can negatively impact your sleep. Try phasing out these treats with herbal tea, and/or try a new activity that you don’t associate with food. If you MUST eat before bed, make it small and blood sugar-stabilizing.

In addition to rethinking your nighttime snacking, reconsider your nighttime drinking. While alcohol has a sedative effect initially, it doesn’t last long. In fact, when the alcohol wears off, it can interrupt you during deep, restorative sleep. Furthermore, regular consumption can exacerbate disruptive sleep problems, such as sleep apnea, sleepwalking, and sleep talking.

Good food choices throughout the day lead to better sleep, and better sleep leads to good food choices the following day. By committing to the lifestyle changes necessary to get restful sleep, you’ll develop a sleep habit that continues to build and maintain itself. If you need help in your journey to feel and sleep better, contact me. We can start paving the path to wellness together virtually, from the comfort of your own couch!



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