I feel like sleep is the new national obsession – and it has more to do with your health and nutrition than you might think. “Why can’t I sleep?” is a question I hear all the time from clients…and quite honestly, something I have asked myself multiple times since having kids.
How does not sleeping affect your health?
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 35% of Americans are getting less than adequate sleep. In that same survey, people who reported getting less sleep were more likely to report having chronic conditions such as heart disease, depression or diabetes.
Our bodies are deeply connected to daily cycles known as circadian rhythms. Sleep is a foundational component of these daily cycles and a critical time of growth and repair. When sleep is of poor quality, or not long enough, it can affect our daily rhythms and our body’s ability to repair itself, leading to a myriad of potential issues:
- Increased appetite and calorie intake and decreased dietary quality
- Increased risk of obesity, although causal links are still uncertain
- Altered mood and cognitive performance
- Increased risk of chronic disease like diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease or perhaps even irritable bowel syndrome
How many hours of sleep do adults need?
According to research from the National Sleep Foundation, the sleep recommendation for adults is 7-9 hours a night. 7 hours is the cut off that the CDC used to define ‘adequate sleep’.
If you are the parent of an infant or toddler, you probably just laughed out loud. I know, I’ve been there. My first didn’t even sleep ‘through the night’ for 2.5 years…and wake up time was 4:30AM!
There are simply times in life when optimal is not possible. You might have to make due with taking a 30 minute nap when baby naps. Or trading off sleep nights and baby nights with your partner. However, for the rest of us, it is probably more possible than we might believe. We can make the hard decision to do less, to shut screens down and to prioritize sleep more but it requires an upstream effort.
Food and sleep: what’s the connection?
Honestly, we are not researching this topic enough. I think that will change, as sleep deficiency is becoming such an issue but we have a long way to go. In my professional experience, I believe that lifestyle has an impact on sleep…and sleep on lifestyle. It’s all connected! If you are having issues with sleep, I think that the first dietary step is consuming a more whole foods, plant-based diet as I describe in Eat More Plants. Alongside eating a more healthful diet, at this stage in the research, there does appear to be multiple connections between what you eat and how you sleep that I can share.
Here is what we know so far:
Caffeine and Sleep
Caffeine has a half-life of 6 hours; this means that when you have a cup of coffee, half of that caffeine is still in your system six hours later. While caffeine is just one contributor to sleep quality – and we have an individualized response to caffeine intake – caffeine is thought to alter sleep duration and quality in the research.
For my clients who are having issues with sleep, I strongly recommend that they both watch total caffeine intake by consuming no more than 1-2 small coffees a day in addition to cutting caffeine intake by noon, to allow the caffeine to metabolize out of their systems in time for their bodies to wind down at night.
Sugar and Sleep
There isn’t a great deal of research on food choices and sleep quality; however, in one study, fibre intake improved slow wave sleep while increased sugar was associated with more wakefulness during the night. Other research suggests that poor quality of carbohydrates, and consuming sugar sweetened beverages, might be associated with poor sleep quality. A few older trials exist that suggest low carbohydrate and high fat intake can alter sleep patterns but they are too old and too sparse to really confirm the data. However, when it comes to sugar intake, we have some interesting parallels we can look to in diabetes.
In diabetes, it is thought that both high and low blood sugars can augment sleep. If sugars are high, you might have trouble falling asleep and body temperature might remain higher. However, if blood sugars drop too low overnight, it can cause the brain to wake you up so you can eat. Since an anti-inflammatory diet is all about maintaining stable blood sugars, it’s a great strategy to help prevent sleep issues that might be linked to sugar abnormalities. This is also in line with research suggesting that a Mediterranean diet (which is very similar to an anti-inflammatory diet) may improve sleep.
GERD and Sleep
If you are suffering from reflux, it can make trying to sleep miserable; data suggests that 75% of GERD sufferers have sleep issues due to the condition. Elevating the head of the bed helps; as does ensuring that you eat an early dinner, with low to moderate fat, so it has time to fully digest before bedtime.
If you have issues with nighttime reflux, I recommend that you avoid evening snacking as much as you can to ensure that stomach contents have been released before you try to sleep. If you find you are hungry after dinner, have something small and easy to digest, such as a glass of soy milk or piece of fruit. Many of us tend to under eat during the day, which contributes to compensatory eating at night. Try starting the day with a bigger breakfast and dinner and see if it helps you decrease your appetite at night.
Keeping a food and symptom journal can help you assess which common triggers, such as alcohol, peppermint, tomatoes or spice, may be increasing your symptoms at night.
Alcohol and Sleep
Alcohol may help you feel relaxed and make it easier to fall asleep…but your sleep quality will suffer. Research suggests that sleep quality in the second half of the night suffers with alcohol ingestion.
For most of my clients, I advocate for at least 4 days alcohol free during the week; if you are having difficulty with sleep, it might be worth experimenting with a few alcohol free weeks to see if it has an effect.
Food and nutrients that might help with sleep
Carbohydrate intake may be important in improving sleep; carbohydrate intake increases serotonin production, which produces a calm and happy state that welcomes an easier sleep. What’s more, carbohydrate intake may help improve the amount of tryptophan (an amino acid) that reaches the brain, so that it can become melatonin – the hormone that tells our body it is time to sleep.
At dinner time, try to eat ½ – 1 cup of whole grain like quinoa, whole grain pasta or brown rice alongside your vegetables and protein.
Vitamins B12 + D
There is some thought that nutrient deficiencies might interfere with sleep; if you are on a plant-based diet, make sure you are getting adequate vitamin B12. There is emerging research to suggest that improving your vitamin D status may support healthy sleep; since vitamin D supplementation is important (and safe!) for almost all eaters, make sure you take a vitamin D supplement daily. I usually recommend 1000IU during the 6 warmest months of the year and 2000IU during the coldest.
Some interesting research has been done examining the effect of kiwifruit as a before bed snack, with 2 kiwifruits before bed improving sleep time and quality. This is just one trial…but if you are an evening snacker, it certainly doesn’t hurt to snack on this healthy treat!
Tart Cherry Juice
Tart (Montmorency) cherries are a natural source of melatonin, the ‘sleep’ hormone. Early research suggests that tart cherry juice may improve sleep; however, the amount of juice required is more than I would typically recommend for an adult. Instead, I would be more likely to recommend a high vegetable diet to reduce inflammation and a melatonin supplement.
Sleep supplements that work
There are SO many supplements out there for sleep…but I am happy to report that some of them really do work! Here are the supplements I use most in practice.
Magnesium for Sleep
Magnesium is often described as a ‘calming’ mineral; the reason for this is that magnesium helps to activate your ‘rest and digest’ nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system. It also activates GABA receptors; GABA is the ‘chill out’ neurotransmitter. However, magnesium also augments melatonin production. Which makes magnesium a pretty good candidate for sleep.
You have to be careful about what form of magnesium you take; in order to flood your body with enough magnesium to activate the calming effect, you need a pretty high dose. And at higher doses, many forms of magnesium can have a laxative effect. For this reason, I like magnesium glycinate (or bisglycinate) forms for better absorption.
However, magnesium on its own doesn’t work for everyone; it didn’t work for me. However, when my chiropractor recommended I try it with l-theanine, an amino acid naturally found in green tea, it honestly changed my life. I take 400mg of magnesium glycinate with 200mg of l-theanine and sleep better now than I have in a decade.
Melatonin for Sleep
Melatonin is a common sleep supplement; as it is the hormone that tells your body it is time to sleep I find it an excellent choice for travelling across time zones.
The dosage you need is individualized; I recommend you start with the lowest dose (typically 3mg) and increase each night as needed (usually up to 10mg).
Lavender for Sleep
Lavender is a common aromatherapy for calming and encouraging sleep; people will often take lavender baths, or diffuse lavender oil in the bedroom before bedtime. However, you can also take lavender supplements – and research suggests they may be effective in improving sleep quality.
Can’t Sleep? Consider an Integrative Approach
As with most things, getting a good night’s sleep requires an integrative approach. Shutting down screens, allowing for downtime before bed, keeping your room dark are all important habits to encourage sleep. However, eating a healthy diet – and experimenting with some dietary or supplemental strategies – can also help you restore a healthy sleep habit so you can wake up feeling your best! Talk to one of our dietitians to help support you on your healthy eating path. And as always, if you are having real difficulty sleeping, you should always check in with your doctor to make sure a serious medical issue isn’t the root cause of your sleep problems.