Diet and Sleep: Understanding the Connection
If you’re sleepwalking through life, your diet may be partly to blame.
“Nutrition is the backbone of your health,” says Dr. Claire Kim, DO, family medicine physician at Memorial Hermann Medical Group (MHMG) Fairfield. “If you eat well, you’re more likely to sleep well—and vice versa.”
Burning the candle at both ends can expand your middle—and not just because you’re more likely to crave and binge on higher calorie snacks to crank up your energy and mood.
Subpar slumber is linked to obesity and larger waist circumferences. Those in turn raise the risk of cardiovascular disease—and obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that causes multiple nighttime awakenings and extreme daytime drowsiness. It doubles the chance of stroke or heart attack.
“Poor or inadequate sleep also disrupts two key hormones: ghrelin, which hikes hunger, and leptin, a hormone that curbs it,” she says.
So choose and time your meals wisely.
Dr. Kim suggests how you can improve your slumber:
What to add
Two well-known eating strategies are an ideal snooze fest. The Mediterranean diet is heaped with vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, fish and lean proteins, while the similar American Heart Association-urged Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) trims salt and saturated fats.
Both plans are rich in folic acid, B6 and B12, which are mood lifters and sleep aids.
So are unsaturated fats, which boost feel-good, slumber-surging serotonin. They’re found in avocados, peanut butter, olive oil, fish oil, pumpkin and other seeds, she says.
You’re also better off grazing on whole grain breads, cereals and brown rice, and lean proteins, including turkey, chicken, low-fat cheese, egg whites and soybeans, Dr. Kim says. “Those foods have higher amino acids, including soothing L-tryptophan.”
What to cut
Counter-productive foods are high on the glycemic index. Simply put, simple carbohydrates spike blood sugar and then cause it to crash. While found in comfort foods, they make sleep anything but easy.
Such foods include white bread, pasta, rice, sugar, cookies, cakes, pastries and other serotonin slashers.
And be sparing with high-fat cheese, deep-fried foods, pepperoni pizza and potato chips. These are high in unhealthy trans fats—and douse dozing.
How to time it
“Dinner should be rich in green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, which are higher in magnesium and promote higher quality of sleep,” Dr. Kim says.
Generally, three hours before bed should be your guide to quitting time for certain eating and activities. A full belly or heavy meals can make you uncomfortable, heighten heartburn and aggravate sleep apnea. So can spicy foods, which also alter serotonin production, she says. The bottom line: it’s harder to fall or stay asleep.
“Even black pepper can affect serotonin production, making it harder to fall and stay asleep,” Dr. Kim says.
Avoid alcohol during the same timeframe. At first a drink may make you groggy, but sleep will be shallow. And at any hour, don’t over-imbibe. Women should average at most one serving daily and men two servings.
Curb caffeine even earlier—at least six hours before hitting the hay. “Caffeine is a stimulant that keeps you wired,” she says.
And caffeine is not only found in coffee, tea and energy drinks, but also in some pain relievers and cold medicines.
“Ideally, you don’t want to exercise either for three hours before bed,” Dr. Kim says. “Workouts rev up your motor and body temperature at a time when your circadian rhythm would prepare you for slumber by lowering your core body temperature and slowing your heart rate and brain waves.”
For healthy recipes to add into your diet, sign up for Memorial Hermann Everyday Well Eats™ here.