Eat to Help your Sleep
While some call it the most wonderful time of the year, for others the holiday season is a time of undue stress. Office and cocktail parties, school concerts, family gatherings... these are all meant to be happy festive occasions, a time to celebrate the best of the season. But add holiday shopping, home decorating and meal preparation to the mix and the already time-crunched individual may be just about ready to crack. When there are only 24 hours in a day, something’s got to give. And too often, that something is sleep.
Who decided that sleep is expendable? Somehow those of us who admit they “need to sleep” are considered wimps. There’s a social pressure associated with staying up late and doing it all. Research published by the National Sleep Foundation shows that 30% of those surveyed sleep six hours or less per night. Yet sleep scientists agree that a minimum of 7 1/2 to 8 hours of sleep are required to reap the benefits of a restorative night’s sleep.
When we sleep our cells rejuvenate, which is crucial for the growth and repair of muscles and tissues. Why do you think babies and teens (and athletes) need more sleep than the average adult? Insufficient sleep can lead to premature aging, decreased immunity and an increased risk of degenerative chronic illness. For the athlete, it can also translate to slower recovery times, poor performance and higher risk of injury.
We’ve all experienced the mental fog that accompanies sleep deprivation. Mood, alertness, reaction times and our immune system are all affected by even one night of insufficient sleep. It’s time to stop neglecting ourselves and to recognize that getting enough sleep will ultimately make us more productive, more energetic and, most importantly, healthier and happier.
What do many of us do when we wake up feeling lethargic and fuzzy headed? We look for comfort as well as stimulants, usually in the form of foods we really shouldn’t be eating: coffee and a muffin for breakfast; pizza for lunch; more coffee, maybe some chocolate later in the day. It’s not all in your head. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Sleep Research reported that even one night of sleep deprivation can increase the levels of ghrelin (the hunger-stimulating hormone) and decrease the levels of leptin (the hunger-suppressing hormone). It also negatively impacts insulin sensitivity, which explains why you’re looking for high fat or sugar-laden snacks like potato chips or cookies.
Refined carbs and sugar may make you feel good in that moment, but in the long run they add hormonal and digestive burdens to an already stressed body. Those carbs will give you a short-term boost, but will also cause your blood sugar to crash an hour later and set you up for more cravings as your physiological need for nutrients hasn’t been met. By wreaking havoc with your insulin levels, desserts and sugary drinks can interfere with a good night’s rest, especially when consumed later in the day. It becomes a vicious cycle, as sleep deprivation can spike your cortisol (a stress hormone), which further fuels that desire for comfort food. Result: weight gain and further interrupted sleep.
Holiday time might affect the number of hours you sleep, and you can’t always control that, but what you can control is what you eat. Nutrition can enhance the quality of your sleep as well as your energy levels throughout the day. Here are a few tips to help you get through this busy season and enjoy a restorative night’s sleep.
- Drink 8 to 10 glasses of water per day. Dehydration (compounded when you drink alcohol) can stimulate the adrenal glands, which in turn can interfere with quality sleep
- Limit (or even avoid) caffeine. It also releases adrenalin (which not only disrupts sleep but also stimulates your appetite). In the long term, caffeine can impair the production of melatonin (which naturally declines with age and during times of stress). Melatonin is a powerful antioxidant released in the dark that helps regulate our sleep cycle
- Large late night meals, especially hard-to-digest items such as fried foods, starchy carbs and red meat can disrupt quality sleep. Aim for four to five smaller meals throughout the day so you’re not famished in the evenings, or when you hit the late night cocktail party circuit
- Replace high-glycemic carbs with lower glycemic and alkalinizing raw fruits and vegetables. Oxygenating your cells will give your adrenals a break and boost your mental clarity and energy throughout the day
- Sleep disruption is most commonly caused by stress or an over-active nervous system. Magnesium has been shown to induce calm and relaxation. Include plenty of magnesium-rich foods such as pumpkin and sunflower seeds, almonds, salmon and green vegetables in your diet. You may also wish to supplement with 300 to 600 mg of magnesium (in divided doses; start low and gradually increase dosage)
- Alcohol consumed within two hours of sleep can interfere with REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and cause undue fatigue the next day. It can also cause your blood sugar to fluctuate and give you a case of the munchies. Limit your consumption and aim to drink two glasses of water for every alcoholic drink
- Plug into your personal energy source and recharge your batteries. Go for a run, take a spinning class, enjoy meditative yoga or soak in a lavender-infused bath. Find your own version of calm.
And don’t forget that good nutrition can make all the difference in getting a good night’s sleep