You are What You Eat
But… did you know that what you eat can also affect how you sleep? The relationship between sleep and diet is a complex one. The foods that we eat can either positively or negatively influence our sleep. Conversely, the amount of sleep we get can also influence what foods we tend to eat during the day.
For example, research shows that those who consume caffeine up to 6 hours prior to bedtime report taking longer to fall asleep and less sleep time overall. Those who drink alcohol prior to bedtime may fall asleep faster, but are likely to experience less deep sleep. On the other hand, foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan, are more likely to make you feel sleepy. This is because tryptophan is a building block that is required to synthesize the sleep hormone, serotonin. It is important to note that you may not experience a dramatic sense of sleepiness after eating foods that contain tryptophan. The effect of tryptophan on sleepiness is different for everyone. You will most likely experience a noticeable affect if you were not getting enough tryptophan in your diet previously.
This relationship between sleep and diet also extends in the other direction as well. Reduced sleep has been linked with reduced levels of the hormone leptin which is an appetite suppressant; and increased levels of the hormone ghrelin which is an appetite stimulant. With these two key hunger hormones out of balance, it is more difficult to regulate dietary intake and this is when we often see overall increased caloric consumption as well as increased consumption of carbohydrates, specifically.
You are How Much You Eat
A study published in the journal, Appetite showed a correlation between how much people ate and how well they slept. The results indicated that those who ate the most were sleeping the least. The study also found a correlation between the types of food consumed and sleep. For example, those sleeping for the shortest amount of time (<5 hours per night) consumed less tap water, total carbohydrates, and a compound found in red and orange foods, compared with the other kinds of sleepers. Additionally, the study also found that those who consumed a less varied diet were likely to either sleep less or more than is recommended.
What can I do?
It’s all about balance. Try to consume less of the foods that will keep you awake and more of the foods that may help you sleep. Remember, everyone does not respond to food and drinks in the same way. It may take some time to pinpoint which food/drinks are influencing your sleep. Keeping a food diary and sleep log will help you to track everything and look for patterns.
Foods to avoid
- Caffeine 6 hours prior to bedtime
- Excessive alcohol consumption (>2 drinks for men, >1 drink for women).
- Fatty fried or spicy foods. They can cause heartburn, which will keep you awake.
- Nicotine. It has been linked to insomnia.
Foods to eat
As mentioned above, tryptophan can make some people feel sleepy. Turkey is a well-known food that contains tryptophan. Other foods, such as chicken, fish, eggs, and nuts also contain tryptophan. Carbohydrates make tryptophan more available to the brain, so if you want to increase the impact, try consuming a small turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread or peanut butter on whole grain crackers before bed. Keep it to a snack size, as eating a normal or large sized meal before bed can actually keep you awake, due to increased digestion. Try to eat your snack at least an hour prior to bedtime.
What to look for: natural sources of caffeine like coffee, tea; ≤400 mg caffeine per day
What to stay away from: un-natural sources of caffeine like energy drinks; caffeine-alcohol combinations; ≥400 mg caffeine per day
When consumed in moderation, caffeine has some health benefits. The issue arises when too much coffee, energy drinks, or supplements high in caffeine are consumed. High amounts of caffeine can negatively impact cognitive and physical performance. The effects are even worse when caffeine is combined with alcohol. Caffeine is a stimulant, which can blunt the “downer” effects of alcohol, reducing the feeling of drunkenness and further impairing the ability to exercise good judgment and make good decisions.
Energy drinks may be one of the most widely consumed sources of caffeine among military personnel. Like other dietary supplements, energy drinks are not considered “food” or “drink” by the FDA and therefore do not have regulations for caffeine content or other stimulants included in their products. In fact, it is not mandatory to list all ingredients on the label, which leaves consumers in the dark as to what ingredients they are actually drinking.
Known adverse effects of energy drink consumption include: nausea, kidney damage, irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, and heart attack. Coffee and tea are safer alternatives to energy drinks since they are made from natural sources (cocoa beans and tea plants). Dietitians suggest consuming no more than 1 to 3 8 ounce cups per day. Go easy on the cream and sugar to limit the extra calories from sugar and fat. Coffee, tea, and dark chocolate also contain heart healthy antioxidants.
Take Home Point: The best way to keep energy levels steady is to eat a balanced diet with snacks that are low in refined sugar, and drink plenty of water. When choosing to consume caffeine, be sure to do so in moderation and select natural sources over manufactured energy drinks.