Sleep: the great equalizer. It’s our proverbial “reset switch”. We quite literally can’t live without it, and yet societal pressures often force us to forego sufficient sleep in lieu of a perpetual need to accomplish more:make more money, have more friends, make more of ourselves. This desire to acquire comes at tremendous cost though: less long-term quality of life. The quantity and quality of sleep we get is connected to the dietary choices we make, and in a cyclical fashion those same dietary choices can impact how we sleep. Finding a way to break this cycle is a crucial step in regaining optimal health for those who get less-than-optimal rest.
“The quantity and quality of sleep we get is connected to the dietary choices we make, and in a cyclical fashion those same dietary choices can impact how we sleep.”
What happens when we don’t sleep enough
Too much (more than 9 hours) and too little (less than 7 hours) sleep are both associated with reduced health outcomes. In a review of 634,511 individuals from around the world, inadequate sleep was associated with an 89% increase in risk of obesity in children and a 55% increase in adults. Lack of sleep can impact optimal hormone levels, increase risk of diabetes, heart disease, and more. While the average adult needs about 7-8 hours of sleep per night, teenagers and children require more. That said, there truly is no such thing as average when it comes to individualized health, and everyone should aim to get the amount of sleep required to feel well rested throughout the day. If consistently sleeping 8 hours is not enough to accomplish that, it may be a good idea to explore other reasons for low energy levels (hormonal influences, excess weight, environmental toxicity, insufficient nutrient intake – especially iron and the B vitamins, etc.).
Sleep impacts dietary choices
There’s an understanding in Chinese medicine that an hour of sleep before midnight is equal to two after midnight. Those who tend to sleep late (midpoint of sleep at or later than 5:30 a.m.) consume on average 248 more calories than people who sleep earlier (going to bed and waking earlier), and the majority of those excess calories come at dinner or after 8pm. While inadequate sleep makes us eat more, it has also been shown to impact the variety and quality of our choices. One study concluded that “Those who sleep less are more likely to consume energy-rich foods, get higher proportions of calories from fats or refined carbohydrates, consume lower proportions of vegetables and fruits, and have more irregular meal patterns and consume snacks more often than those sleeping more.”
Diet impacts quantity and quality of sleep
As if you needed yet another reason to eat a health promoting whole foods diet containing plenty of fruits and vegetables, research shows us that what we choose to eat can deeply impact how well we sleep. A study of 3,129 Japanese female workers concluded that low intake of vegetables and fish, along with high intake of confectionary, noodles, and beverages with caffeine or added sugar all independently resulted in lower quality of sleep. In addition, skipping breakfast and irregular eating habits lead to reduced sleep quality. The jury is still out on the ideal proportion of protein, carbohydrate, and fat for long-term improvements in sleep duration. Until that time, an individualized dietary plan meant to improve other parameters of health should align with optimal sleep patterns. These diets are typically low in added sugar, refined/highly processed foods, fried foods and trans fats. They are high in fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, lean sources of protein, and healthy fats such as those found in extra virgin olive oil (monounsaturated fats) and cold water fish (polyunsaturated fats). They are also high in fiber and essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
A few foods which have been traditionally promoted as sleep-inducing have been studied in limited capacity. Elderly patients with insomnia who consumed fresh tart cherry juice twice daily showed improved sleep quality and increased sleep duration by 17 minutes. In another study, consuming 2 kiwi fruits an hour before bedtime improved sleep time and sleep quality over four weeks. Adequate dietary consumption of magnesium, B vitamins (specially B3 and B12), and the amino acid tryptophan may also be useful, but further research is needed.
Here are some additional tips to get higher quality sleep. As always, see your naturopathic physician for recommendations that are specific to your needs:
1. Regularity: Maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle. Try to go to bed at the same time each night, as we truly are able to train our bodies to expect regularity. The time you choose is important as well: sleep prior to midnight is more restful.
2. Power down: Turn off devices with blue light, such as the light emitted from TVs, telephones, and iPads. This light has been shown to inhibit the production of the all-important sleep hormone melatonin. Similarly, try to avoid highly stimulating activity of all kinds, including exercise and stressful conversation right before bed.
3. Black out: Try to keep your sleep environment as dark as possible, as any light from the outside interferes with our circadian rhythms. Whenever this is not possible, sleeping masks may be recommended.
4. Ditch that coffee: Those who metabolize coffee more slowly can be impacted for up to 24 hours by just one cup. While coffee may have some benefit and is not an issue for everyone, consider reducing your intake if you have sleep issues. On that note, if you wake to urinate often during the night, see if reducing your intake of fluid 3 hours before bedtime reduces this.
5. Snacks: Though eating before bed is not generally recommended, those who wake often in the middle of the night may benefit from a small snack high in protein (think a small handful of healthy nuts) to help stabilize their blood sugar throughout the night.
6. Sometimes, sleep to satiety: The alarm clock is a very recent addition to our morning routine. All animals sleep until they feel rested, and for good reason. Sleeping just a few minutes per day short of what our bodies need may be enough to cause harm. Since most of us have no choice but to stick to a routine, take every opportunity you can to listen to your body. At least on weekends, turn off that alarm and allow yourself to sleep in. Your body will thank you.
7. Unwind and let go: Choose something relaxing (a warm bath, light reading, calm conversation with a loved one) to add to your bedtime routine. Set your intention on releasing the stresses of the day and remember that with the next morning comes a new opportunity to work toward your goals. Accept what has transpired today, and make an effort to be present in the moment at hand in order to create a more fulfilling tomorrow.
8. Keep cool to sleep cool: Studies show that a slightly cooler room can be helpful in achieving restful sleep. 68 degrees is often a helpful starting point.
9. Create an oasis: Your bed should only be used for sleep and sex. Allow this to become a space for revitalization only, so try to avoid doing work or watching TV in bed for extended periods of time.
10. Make time for exercise