Having difficulty sleeping now and then? Waking up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason? It could be due to your diet. Or just to confuse you, it could also be the other way around as we will reveal a little later. Remember that sleep is an important regulator of health. Lack of sleep can compromise our immune system, cause inflammation and even damage our genes. Sleep deprivation can lead to memory loss, negatively affect reflexes and decision-making skills, cause hearing loss, and increase the risk of cancer, heart attack, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
And some of this we know because of fruit flies that have similar sleep patterns to humans. Thus researchers used them to show how fundamental sleep is for proper brain function. Sleep researchers at Washington University in St. Louis created a fruit-fly boot camp. First thing in the morning, after the flies woke up, the scientists counted their synapses and set about training them in various tasks. During the training sessions, fruit flies mastered the tasks, and afterward, scientists found that the number of their synapses increased. When the trained flies fell asleep, long-term memories were formed, and the brain was free enough to learn again. However, when the trained flies were prevented from sleeping until the next day, they forgot everything they had learned.
Convinced now to read on? Perfect, let’s review what we know.
Food consumption disturbing sleep
Combating sleeping difficulties through diet is about eating the right combination of foods in the evening, and even more importantly knowing what foods to avoid. The number one to give a miss is caffeine-containing food and drink since they stimulate the nervous system, but I am sure you knew that already. This would include avoiding consuming coffee, tea, many soft drinks, and chocolate several hours before going to bed. Extra sensitive people should stop consuming caffeine at least eight hours before bedtime.
Most people associate caffeine and closely related compounds with coffee, tea and maybe also chocolate. Other products, such as guarana, a Brazilian plant whose seeds are high in caffeine, and yerba mate, a South American herb used to make tea, are less well-known natural sources of caffeine. These are increasing in popularity, and are being used more and more as food ingredients. Energy drinks and beer-like products containing guarana are now available in many markets. Be aware that these products contain caffeine so you can recognise all caffeine-containing ingredients on product labels.
Next on the list is alcohol, again no surprise. Although many people use alcohol to help them relax before going to bed, the effects can wear off, so they wake up in the middle of the night. Over time, alcohol-induced sleep becomes less restful, so sleepiness will become a constant fact of life. It is thus important not to use alcohol as a sleeping pill in case of sleeping problems and maybe avoid alcohol for a few weeks to see if the sleep problem resolves.
What about spicy food? Less clear I have to say but there are indications that such food as hot pepper, garlic, onion and similar might cause indigestion, which in turn could influence sleep. It is also thought that fatty foods can have an influence on sleep by increasing the work necessary by the gastrointestinal system, including the liver and gallbladder. This can stimulate nerve centres that might cause insomnia. Research has shown that people who often eat high-fat foods not only gain weight, they also experience a disruption of their sleep cycles.
And then we have the more odd discomfort situations. The best example would be beans that clearly increase intestinal gas production. This can easily lead to abdominal distension and discomfort that can hinder normal sleep. Eating a huge dinner, or even a large before-bedtime snack, may make you feel drowsy, but sleep might not necessarily come to you. When you lie down and try to sleep, your digestion will slow down, make you feel uncomfortable, and possibly keep you awake. And should you wake up in the middle of the night feeling the urge to visit the bathroom, good advice is to not drink water or other fluids within 90 minutes of bedtime. It takes that long for the body to process any liquids.
Lack of sleep influencing food consumption
Now it is time to separate your leptin from your ghrelin. Sleep deprivation disrupts hormones that regulate appetite, according to a number of recent studies. Being low on sleep increases feelings of hunger, a result of imbalances to the levels of the two hormones leptin and ghrelin, which work to regulate appetite and body fat. Leptin, released by fat cells, signals the brain to feel satiety, you feel full. Ghrelin, produced in the stomach, signals hunger.
Being short on sleep can also compromise the ability to select healthy foods. Changes in brain chemistry brought about by insufficient sleep affect impulse control and judgment, resulting in poor food choices. Short sleep has also been shown to activate the reward centres of the brain, making junk food appear even more enticing. Too little sleep has been linked to increased calorie intake, and to eating more high-fat foods. It has also been found that people short on sleep are more likely to consume more of their overall calories from snacks, with higher carbohydrate amounts.
In short, researchers have found that the risk of weight gain can be influenced almost as much by sleep as by eating habits.
So what to do?
It has been found that a vitamin and mineral-rich diet can both keep weight in check and promote healthy, restful sleep. Foods rich in magnesium and potassium, like many fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts, improve circulation and relax muscles. Research has shown that the gene that regulates potassium in the body may also be responsible for generating slow-wave sleep, the deepest and most restorative phase of sleep. Foods with calcium aid in the body’s production of melatonin, a hormone critical to maintaining a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
And finally to the ultimate solution, reach for tryptophan-rich foods. You have surely heard of the magical ability of warm milk to send us to sleep, but why is this true? Well, dairy foods contain tryptophan, which is a sleep-promoting substance. Other foods that are high in tryptophan include nuts and seeds, bananas, honey, and eggs.
Time to try some sleep.
- The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation (visual.ly)
- Sleep Deprivation Effects: 8 Scary Side Effects Of Too Little Shut-Eye (huffingtonpost.com)
- Sleep Less, Eat More, Gain Weight (wnyc.org)
- 8 Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Health (psychcentral.com)
- Lack of sleep and unlimited food access a recipe for weight gain (cbsnews.com)
- Well: Lost Sleep Can Lead to Weight Gain (well.blogs.nytimes.com)