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Food For Sleep: How Your Diet Impacts The Quality Of Your Sleep

The 3 golden rules for a healthy and long life are exercising, healthy eating and sound sleep. We know that good quality sleep is essential for a healthy body and mind. But, did you know that a well-balanced diet is essential for good quality sleep?

These two processes are far more interconnected than we realize and each can have a role to play on the other. Optimum sleep which includes N-REM and REM sleep of 7-9 hours is necessary for our body to replenish itself and prepare us mentally and physically to take on the challenges of the next day. There are certain food groups that help in promoting sleep and some that inhibit sleep. The timing and the amount of food we consume can also have an impact on the quality and quantity of sleep we get.

Food groups that impact sleep.

There are a variety of food groups that can influence our sleep. Excess or lack of certain foods can disrupt our sleep and our health. Let us see some of these effects on our sleep;

  1. Micronutrients - Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals that our body needs to stay healthy. Each vitamin and mineral has a specific function in our health and wellbeing. Research shows that lack of nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, and K can cause people to have shorter sleep duration. Iron deficiency is linked to sleep disorders such as restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement, sleep disordered breathing and sleep disturbances. Tryptophan is an amino acid that helps in the production of melatonin. This helps people fall asleep faster. Other nutrients that help in sleep include zinc and vitamin B6. Thus the food we eat should include all these essential vitamins and minerals to obtain sound sleep.
  2. 2. Macronutrients - Macronutrients are the fats, proteins and the carbohydrates that we consume. They constitute the largest part of our diet. Carbohydrates provide us with energy. Proteins help in providing structure to the body tissues and muscles. They also regulate the metabolic, hormonal and enzyme systems of our body. Fats are useful for reserving our energy and insulation and protection of our organs.
    Unhealthy amounts of carbohydrates can negatively impact sleep and health. Processed foods high in carbohydrate are linked to lifestyle diseases such as obesity which can in turn, lead to sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It can also impact our energy levels and often make us feel drowsy and sleepy. A high carbohydrate diet has been linked to reduced sleep onset latency (time taken to fall asleep), slow wave sleep (NREM 3&4) and frequent awakenings. Foods high in fats and sugars also contribute to poor sleep quality.
  3. Mediterranean diet - Food groups that include more plant-based items and lean meat, with small amounts of complex carbohydrates and healthy fats are good for health and sleep. This diet is also called the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet consists of high fiber food. These help in overall sleep quality, increase sleep efficiency and reduce sleep disturbances and insomnia. They also contain food groups that improve the production of serotonin which helps build sleep pressure (need to go to sleep) and melatonin which helps in our sleep wake cycle.
  4. Alcohol - Alcohol is another culprit behind poor sleep quality. Alcohol may make us fall asleep faster but it is linked to low REM sleep which negatively influences our cognitive processes such as learning, concentration, motor coordination and memory. It can also cause broken sleep which results in feeling tired and irritable the next day. It also can worsen obstructive sleep apnea symptoms, insomnia and other mental health conditions like depression which affects our sleep.
  5. Caffeine - Caffeine - found in coffee, tea, energy drinks and aerated drinks - can impact the quality of sleep. It is a stimulant that helps in blocking the adenosine receptor which prevents people from getting tired. Caffeine can delay bedtime, and impact our circadian rhythm. Consuming caffeine can also reduce slow wave sleep which can cause problems in learning, memory, problem-solving, and emotion regulation and can make us feel fatigued the next day. Research indicates it can affect us even when we consume caffeinated products 6 hours before going to sleep.
  6. High caloric food - Sleep plays an important role in our metabolism and hormones. High caloric foods can decrease sleep patterns (bedtime and wake up schedule) and lead to hormonal imbalances which cause metabolic disorders such as obesity, dyslipidemia (unhealthy levels of lipids), diabetes, and insulin resistance. High caloric food can also decrease slow wave sleep (N-REM). Lack of deep sleep can impair immune system functioning, and increase the risk for dementia and cancer.

Timing of Sleep & Digestion of Food

Eating too close to bedtime can reduce quantity and quality of sleep in healthy individuals. It gives the body less time to digest it properly. When this happens it can cause discomfort and make it difficult to fall asleep as well as get proper deep sleep. Lack of deep sleep can impair immune system functioning, and increase the risk for dementia and cancer. Eating late at night is also linked to health problems such as increase in blood pressure, blood sugar and weight gain due to metabolic changes. There can be an increase in acidity which can exacerbate GERD. It is important to eat meals 2-3 hours before we go to bed. There are healthy snack options that one can opt for if they are really hungry such as yogurt, dried fruits, seeds and nuts, cheese, dark chocolate, and fruits. They do not disrupt sleep and are easy on our digestive systems.

Quality of Sleep & Consumption of Food

Changes in sleep patterns can also change the kinds of food and the amount of food we consume. When we have inadequate sleep there is an increase in the production of ghrelin which increases our food intake and fat storage. There is also a reduction in leptin which helps in regulating our hunger by making us feel full. This leads to an increase in the amount of food we eat and influences our choices of food by selecting food groups which are high in calories. This in turn leads to higher values of body fat percentage, body mass index, and waist circumference.

In fact, a research conducted showed that when we experience lack of sleep there is a reduction in the function of our frontal lobes (which control decision making and judgment) and an increase in the function of our amygdala (emotion processing center). This combination leads people to choose weight-gain promoting high-calorie foods that lead to depression.

Sleep and food have a complex yet circular relationship. When we pay attention to one we can improve the condition of the other. Eating a well balanced diet which includes good amounts of macro and micro nutrients, consumption of caffeine in the morning instead of the afternoon and limiting the consumption of alcohol and high caloric food can lead to better sleep. Apart from this, consuming foods at the right time and not indulging in late night meals and heavy snacks can also improve the quality of sleep. Lack of sleep can also influence the type of food we select, and how this can impact our overall health as well.

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