Sleep is a cornerstone to wellness. If your sleep is poor, your health will be poor, and there is no life hack to get around that fact. Sleep wellness requires a consistent 7-8 hours of good sleep (for most folks). It means falling asleep quickly and staying asleep until it’s time to wake up. Does life let you do this every night? Nope, it sure doesn’t, but your goal should be to maximize sleep quality, and one of the ways to achieve that goal is through what you eat.
At a former job, I worked three, twelve hour days in a row, with 5 ½ hours of sleep each night on average. By the afternoon of the third day, I would be tired, unmotivated, and unable to focus on anything. There’s a reason for this (not to mention it’s kind of unsafe to work like that).
7 HOURS SLEEP, IT DOES A BODY GOOD
Sleep is good for you! It does things for your body that you need. Daily. Yes, daily. This is why even one night of messed up sleep can have unwanted effects on you. Your body changes when you fall asleep, doing a number of things:
- Your body temperature lowers a couple of degrees
- Your sympathetic nervous system takes a rest which lowers blood pressure
- The stress hormone cortisol slowly diminishes
- Cytokines (a protein) are released to fight inflammation and infection
- Glucose gets stored for the following day
- Growth hormone releases to repair the body
On the mental side of things, mostly during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, it helps process information through dreams and creates long term memories. Norepinephrine, released throughout the day during stressful situations and sensitizing our fear response, can be reset to healthy levels during REM sleep. Not getting this reset can leave us irritable, more prone to an overactive fear response, and because most REM sleep happens in the last couple hours of a sleep cycle, we miss out on a lot of dream time, and dreaming really can be useful.
5 HOURS SLEEP, IT DOES A BODY NOT SO GOOD
One only needs to look at the above benefits and consider what might happen if they were short-changed through lack of sleep: blood pressure would stay up, stress hormones wouldn’t get back to normal, inflammation and infection wouldn’t be fought properly, the body wouldn’t get repaired as it could, and our glucose levels would be messed up. Is it any wonder lack of sleep can raise the risks for obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a number of other maladies, not to mention, poor focus and response times, memory problems and a generally irritable mood? And the worst part? The damage is cumulative. It slowly builds over time unless you allow your body the time to get back in balance.
Part of achieving that balance is eating in a way to encourage and not disrupt your sleep. I’ll be up front and say that there is no “eat this at this time and you’ll be good” diet plan. It depends on so many factors, like health factors and risks, exercise level, stress level, work hours, family life, and so on. So many things have influence, which makes it difficult to decide what and when to eat, and to be motivated to figure it out. The first step is awareness, both of your current life circumstances and how food types and specific foods can effect you.
THE GOOD AND THE BAD ABOUT FOOD AND SLEEP
- The more carbohydrates consumed, the lower your sleep quality. This is improved by consuming better (not simple carbs like sugar or flour) more complex carbs. Spiking carbs during the day can make you sluggish, disrupting your circadian rhythm. Try to avoid this, particularly the closer to bedtime you get. So, a carb-loaded breakfast is going to have less effect on your sleep than one at dinnertime.
- The same goes for high sugar drinks like energy drinks and soda. The morning energy drink or lunchtime soda isn’t going to screw things up in most cases.
- Irregular eating habits will lower sleep quality. Consistency is king. Your body will love you for it.
- High fat consumption can lower sleep quality.
- Spicy food will lower sleep quality.
- Alcohol will lower sleep quality.
- High fiber can raise sleep quality.
- Protein consumed close to bedtime can improve sleep quality.
- Nuts (almonds/pistachios), tart cherry, kiwi, goji fruit, eggs, milk, fish (salmon) may benefit sleep quality due to melatonin content.
- Food and drink with vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, folate, and melatonin, can be generally helpful for sleep, assuming amounts of other variables don’t subvert their effects.
WHEN YOU DON’T GET ENOUGH SLEEP
So, let’s say for the moment that you don’t get enough sleep. The neighbor was rocking the driveway at midnight, your kid crawled into bed with you crying from a nightmare at 2 a.m., and the dog barked for 15 minutes straight at 5 a.m. due to someone’s car alarm going off. Life snickers at you sometimes. You managed 5 hours of broken up sleep, not an a-typical situation. Can you do anything healthy to compensate? Yes.
- No processed carbs or added sugars. The last thing you want when started out low, is to have a blood sugar crash.
- Yes for complex, nutrient-dense carbs: whole fruits, veggies, sweet potatoes.
- Yes for a decent amount of protein: protein drink, eggs, plain yogurt, cottage cheese, or lean meats.
- Yes for healthful fats: avocado, olive oil, nuts/seeds, or nut butters.
Is a cup of coffee going to hurt you? No. If energy drinks have to be a thing, go with the “no sugar” variety. A protein drink would be better. There are a lot of good resources out there to help you develop your own menu list for meals, whether you need one fast or have the time to cook. Eating healthy takes some planning, because it’s very easy to slip out of healthy eating due to life being life.
WRAPPING IT UP
It may seem that this isn’t much different than some healthy, general diets, like say, the Mediterranean Diet, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Starting from the foundation of, “just eat healthy amounts of healthy foods” is perfectly acceptable in my opinion. One can more easily monitor oneself from that starting point and more easily make adjustments, depending on one’s circumstances. The important factor is to know and understand the food and drink you consume, and how, when, and why to consume what you do in order to achieve the results you desire.
Yes, it can be complicated. You need to take the appropriate, incremental steps to reach your goal, which should be aimed at achieving rhythm and balance for your mind and body. Assess your current life situation. Figure out a plan of action to eat healthy and in a way that supports sleep. Try out the plan, and do it in steps you find manageable. Make adjustments to your plan and try again. Implement your plan in a consistent way and reward yourself for when things go well. Don’t judge yourself when things don’t go right. Acknowledge the issue, make adjustments and move forward. It’s a continuous and ongoing effort, a cycle you must go through like everything else in life.