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Nutrition and sleep

Published: August 7, 2020

Our dietary habits and the quality and duration of our sleep are inextricably linked. It is unclear from the research whether poor dietary habits cause us to sleep badly or vice versa, but it is abundantly clear that there is indeed a link. Poor sleep has been linked consistently to diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Long term, poor sleep can lead to difficulty regulating mood, trouble with memory and decision making, which can cause a decline in mental health and executive functioning.

Additionally, obesity can reduce sleep quality as it increases the risk of developing sleep apnoea; a serious condition whereby a person will actually stop breathing whilst they are sleeping, causing disruptions throughout the night and preventing deep sleep from occurring. Reflux is another common side effect of obesity and is more likely to occur when lying flat during the night.

People who sleep for 8 hours or more have less time to consume food, therefore, they naturally consume less calories than those who have less than 8 hours of sleep. Lack of sleep also increases an individual’s susceptibility to stress and people who tend to eat when they are stressed generally reach for higher calorie options. People who don’t get enough sleep generally feel hungrier and have an appetite for calorie dense foods. This may have something to do with the increase of the hormone that stimulates hunger, known as ghrelin, and the inhibition of the satiety hormone, leptin, when lack of sleep occurs.

Additionally, people who don’t get enough sleep are less likely to exercise due to low energy levels. I mean, who wants to exercise when just walking to the shower from the bedroom feels like a chore?

Good news, good nutrition can help to improve sleep quality! Here are a few dietary habits that we can implement to help improve sleep quality:

  • Consume your last meal for the day four or more hours before going to bed. This might make it easier to fall asleep, since digestion is an active process that we can actually feel happening, it can disrupt sleep. Also, having a four hour gap between mealtime and sleep time will reduce the potential for reflux to occur, providing for a more comfortable sleep.
  • Watch what your last meal of the day is. What you eat as your last meal before bed is also critical to determining sleep quality. Meals high in wholegrain carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in saturated fat have been shown to help people fall asleep. This might be due to the fact that wholegrain carbohydrates increase serotonin, a chemical in the brain that research shows help us to fall asleep. It is also a chemical precursor for melatonin which helps us to stay asleep. Although more research needs to be done on this topic to provide concrete evidence!
  • Don’t consume alcohol and caffeine before bed. Alcohol has been shown to make it easier to fall asleep but prevents us from entering a deep sleep. Caffeine is a stimulant which is excellent for boosting our energy at the front end of the day, but after about 2pm or 3pm it will interfere with our sleep. This is because it has a half-life of about five-six hours, so it’s best to keep coffee and tea to the morning and early afternoon.
  • Exercise is another factor that can either help or hinder good sleep. Whilst not dietary, exercise goes hand in hand with eating well. Research consistently shows that people who engage in physical activity have an easier time falling asleep due to expending more energy and therefore feeling more tired. However, exercising within the two-hour period before bed increases energy levels and can make it difficult to fall asleep.

If you need further information or would like to discuss how your nutrition may be affecting your sleeping patterns, please contact our practice on 9439 6776 to book in a consultation with Carly, our dietitian.