How Do I Use Nutrition for Quality Sleep?
We’ve all heard that nutrition gives us fuel for the day, but what happens at night when it’s time to go to sleep?
Making sure you get enough sleep is no longer the only thing to consider – what about quality sleep? Simply being in bed with your eyes closed for eight-or-so hours isn’t enough if it’s not good quality. Research over the past few years has revealed that certain nutrients in food can affect sleep.
Let’s start at the beginning. When you fall asleep, your body goes through different phases of sleep. The quality of your sleep will depend on whether your body goes through all the phases it needs to allow you to wake up feeling rested and recovered. What you eat and drink impacts your body’s ability to go through all of the necessary phases of sleep.
REM sleep is considered one of the most important stages of sleep, during which an individual dreams. This stage is accompanied by muscle relaxation and an increase in the breathing rate. The intense dreaming that occurs during REM sleep is a result of heightened cerebral activity. REM-disrupted sleep may be one of the reasons that some individuals can have a full eight hours or more of rest and still wake up feeling exhausted.
One of the main reasons for REM-disrupted sleep is high-glycemic index foods. These foods are high in sugar and refined starches, which cause cortisol (stress) levels to rise. For individuals who start the day with a normal cortisol level, starchy or sugary breakfast food choices can cause the cortisol to overshoot the normal range. As people tend to eat junk food or sugary foods throughout the day, the cortisol will likely remain elevated all day – and continue all night.
Worse than having a high glycemic meal is having no meal at all. When people skip meals altogether, the cortisol level in the body tends to rise. When cortisol is high during the day, it’s very difficult to get it to a normal level in the evening.
This is where the link between poor sleep quality and weight gain comes in. A 1999 study at the University of Chicago showed that restricting sleep to just four hours per night for a week brought healthy young adults to have the glucose and insulin characteristics of diabetics. Such sleep restriction may have been a bit extreme, but it is also not altogether uncommon in our busy society. Keep in mind that this study only changed up their hours of sleep while they were still consuming a healthy diet. Decreasing quality sleep alone changed their hormone function!
Research also shows that people who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have bigger appetites due to the fact that their leptin levels (an appetite regulating hormone) fall, promoting an increase in appetite. The link between appetite and sleep provides further evidence that sleep and obesity are linked. For example, when you’re feeling sleepy, you might feel like you need to head for the fridge instead of bed especially when trying to stay up late to finish that work project.
Although many studies report a link between sleep and diet, it is unknown whether it is poor quality sleep that affects daily nutrition choices or poor nutrition choices that causes poor quality sleep.
REM Sleep Inhibitors
Your personal habits with alcohol, caffeine and a few distinct nutrients can greatly affect your sleep quality.
There are many people who say, “Oh, caffeine doesn’t bother me! I can drink it any time and still fall asleep easily.” However, having caffeine in your system when you go to sleep won’t necessarily stop you from falling asleep or staying asleep, but it will stop you from going into that deep (REM) sleep. Caffeine has a very long half-life, which means it stays in your body for
a long time. If you have your normal coffee in the morning around 7 a.m., then six hours later (1 p.m.) there is likely to be around half the amount of caffeine from that coffee still in your system, and 12 hours later (7 p.m.) a fourth of the caffeine will still be in your system. Be careful when deciding to have that afternoon coffee or energy drink even when it feels like it has no effect on sleep.
Alcohol has a similar affect to caffeine – you probably feel like it helps you to sleep, but the breakdown products of alcohol also stop you from going into deep (REM) sleep. Think of alcohol as a sleep stealer. It can make you drowsy initially, but it impairs your sleep cycles later in the night.
So, what might actually encourage healthy, deep sleep? Let’s see what you should munch on for better sleep and what foods to skip altogether.
Certain nutrients consistently stand out as beneficial for sleep, so incorporating more into your diet can be very helpful in developing quality sleep habits. Try to include more:
Tart cherries: Tart cherry juice, which contains relatively large amounts of phytochemicals including melatonin, has been shown to result in modest improvements in sleep time and quality after consuming for one week. Tart cherry juice has become popular among athletes due to its natural inflammation fighting qualities, including that of producing good sleep! Drink tart cherry juice by itself or mix into a berry smoothie.
Vitamin C: is important for repairing tissue & iron absorption. Find it in bell peppers, guava, leafy greens, kiwi, berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes and peas.
Vitamin D: is necessary for absorbing calcium, protecting bones, and it may play a role in circadian rhythms. Direct sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, but you can also find it in fatty fish (salmon), dairy, mushrooms, tofu and eggs.
Calcium: is a mineral crucial for healthy bones and tissues. Find it in dark leafy greens, milk, cheese, fish, fortified soy, okra, almonds, and black-eyed peas.
Potassium: is an important mineral for cell function. Find it in white beans, spinach, potatoes, apricots, squash, yogurt, salmon, avocados, mushrooms and bananas.
- High GI foods such as white rice, pasta, bread, and potatoes should be consumed at least one hour before bedtime.
- Diets high in protein may result in improved sleep quality and increased muscle recovery
- Diets high in unhealthy fats may negatively influence total sleep time.
- The hormone melatonin and foods that have a high melatonin concentration (e.g. tart cherries) may help you fall asleep faster.
Overall, consistent habits of good sleepers include getting the right amount of calories, eating a balanced diet with quality carbohydrates and lean protein but keeping fats in moderation, drinking plenty of water, and eating a wide variety of foods. Allowing two to three hours for digestion after dinner or exercise before bed is key to letting the body temperature drop, promoting quality sleep. It might also help to try a supplement like tart cherry juice or increasing vitamin C & D intake.
If you are interested to hear more and receive personalized nutrition, check out STYR’s app, fitness tracker and suite of connected smart devices. Through the platform, you can track and log activity, food, hydration, sleep, nutrition, mood and more to personalize your nutrition needs based on data, science and access to registered dietitians, nutritionists and personal trainers.
Please note that this information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. We insist that you always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical/health condition or treatment and before initiating a new health care regime. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on the STYR app or on www.MyNutritioniQ.com.
Howatson G, Bell PG, Tallent J, Middleton B, McHugh MP, Ellis J. Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. Eur J Nutr. 51(8):909-16, 2012