A Nutritional Therapist's Guide to Sleep
he traditional view of sleep is of a period of time when the mind and body shut down to recharge. However, the advent of brain imaging has revealed that the brain is actually incredibly active during sleep, performing a number of vital functions. We now know that lack of sleep not only impacts your ability to function during the day, but it can also contribute to numerous health issues. This article takes a look at what you can do with your diet and lifestyle to make sure you are getting the best sleep possible.
Why do we sleep?
Alongside nutrition and exercise, sleep is recognised as one of the ‘pillars’ of good health. Neuroscience is only beginning to reveal the complex functions performed by the brain while we are asleep, but we do know that events and information from the day are processed and consolidated into our long-term memory. It is while we are sleeping that many important hormones are synthesised and muscles and tissues are restored and repaired. Studies show that, next to nutrition and exercise, sleep is paramount to disease prevention and weight control. Not only does poor sleep make you feel uncomfortable and less productive, it actually wreaks havoc on your health, particularly on your hormones. Some common side effects associated with poor sleep include:
- poor concentration
- impaired memory
- low mood
In the long-term, lack of sleep can also increase the risk of various chronic health issues, including:
- heart disease
- respiratory issues
- type-2 diabetes
Importantly, sleep also clears the brain of toxic proteins at night, preventing them from building up and destroying our brain cells. Imagine what would happen if you put the rubbish out every night and it was never collected. Beta-amyloid is a metabolic waste product that’s found in the fluid between brain cells (neurons). A build-up of beta amyloid is linked to impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s disease. In Alzheimer’s disease, beta-amyloid clumps together to form amyloid plaques, which hinder communication between neurons. Impaired sleep has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Studies suggest that sleep plays a role in clearing beta-amyloid out of the brain.
It may seem odd that lack of sleep could also be the cause of your weight gain, but the process is well understood. When we are tired, we tend to crave foods that will give us a quick energy spike. These will often be high-sugar foods, which also cause weight gain. Additionally, when we are tired, we exercise less. As well as not burning calories, this affects our production of ghrelin and leptin, which are responsible for regulating the appetite. Furthermore, when we are sleep deprived, the body produces less leptin, which is the chemical that helps you know when you are full.
How much sleep do I need?
It is true that not everybody needs the same amount of sleep to function properly, but the recommended amount is generally between 7 - 9 hours. This is what is required to enable your brain and body to perform the essential tasks that allow them to function properly the next day. Many people point to the fact that they, or others, can get by on 4 or 5 hours a night. However this does not mean they are getting enough down time for the body to do the processes it can only do when we are asleep (repair, rejuvenation and detoxification). In fact, these people may be doing serious long-term damage to themselves that is not immediately obvious. The average person in the U.K. gets around 6 hours of sleep per night, which is well below what is needed to function properly.
There is also a common misconception that we can build up a ‘sleep dept’,which can then be paid off later. Unfortunately, this is not the case as the consequences of sleep deprivation are more than just tiredness. The damage done can be long-term so it is best not to adopt the sleep-dept approach.if you can avoid it.
What is sleep hygiene?
‘Sleep hygiene’ refers to anything that negatively or positively affects your sleep. This can include the nightly routines and habits that you have in place and also other factors such as your sleeping environment, your eating habits and your stress levels. The table below gives some common contributors to sleep hygiene and lists positive and negative examples of each.
|Good Hygiene||Bad Hygiene|
|Bedroom||Bedroom is reserved for sleeping and sex. Temperature is kept cool, the room has blackout blinds and double-glazing to restrict noise. Room is kept free from clutter or work materials.||Bedroom is multifunctional, with bed used for working and watching television. Room temperature is kep hot throughout the night. Room is never completely dark due to bleed from streetlights and LED's on electronic devices. Street noise is audible throughout the night.|
|Electronics||Phones, laptops etc. all have ‘nightmode’ or other blue light filter applied from early evening onwards. Stimulating programmes are avoided for 2 hours and electronics are not taken into bed.||Social media checked last thing before going to sleep and upon waking in the night. Phone kept in, or near, bed and often watching action or comedy programmes an hour before bed.|
|Food||Evening meal eaten 3 hours before bed. If hungry before bed, a small handful of nuts or other low-sugar, healthy fat options.||Large meal often eaten late at night. Sugary snacks such as cereal or milk chocolate consumed before bed.|
|Routine||Consistent nightly routine observed each night. Wind-down begins at least 30 minutes before sleep. May include bath, reading, meditation, journaling, calming music, relaxing yoga, listening to a non-stimulating podcast, burning scented candles.||Short or no routine. Erratic with different behaviours or activities each night.|
|Mindset||Staying centred and in the moment or reflecting on positive aspects of the day and hopes for tomorrow. Writing down any lingering anxieties and making a few notes of what can be done about them, before dismissing them from the mind. Making a gratitude list, including positive points about oneself.||Worrying or obsessing about upcoming issues. Going over unpleasant conversations or incidents from the past. Specifically thinking about sleep or the importance of sleep and worrying about not falling asleep.|
|When unable to sleep||Don't stay in bed for more than 30 minutes. Get up, make the bed and walk around. Reset and do some gentle, repetitive activity. Take the emphasis off sleeping and enjoy this special time before beginning the bedtime wind-down again.||Becoming agitated and focussed on not sleeping. Fighting your body. Picking up your phone and scanning social media, watching a film or working.|
Eating for better sleep
Eating large meals or sugary snacks close to bedtime can make it difficult to sleep. Sugar causes energy spikes and dips. When your blood sugar levels spike and then fall too low while you are asleep, this will cause you to wake up wanting a snack. This is your body's protectictive mechanism to help rebalance your blood glucose levels. If you are going to snack before bedtime, make sure it is a protein and healthy fat combo such as nuts and a piece of cheese, which will result in more balanced blood sugar levels whilst you sleep.
Eating a large meal close to bedtime also interferes with a good night's sleep, resulting in your digestive system working overtime just when you want it to be slowing down. While you are asleep your body slows down and it takes much longer to digest a heavy meal. This can result in acid reflux. In addition, while the body is busy with the task of digesting food, it is unable to properly engage the important processes needed for cellular rejuvenation, repair and for detoxification.
Caffeine is a powerful stimulant and so anything that is high in caffeine, such as coffee, tea, milk chocolate or cola should be avoided for around 6 hours before bed. However for those of you who believe that you can drink an espresso before bed and have no problems sleeping, this is where genetics do play a role. There are certain genes that influence how your brain metabolises caffeine. Many people are therefore able to drink two or three cups of espresso before they go to bed and not have any sleep issues. There are others who do not process caffeine well at all and find that a coffee in the afternoon interferes with their ability to fall asleep. The same does apply to blue light. There are those who have no problem sleeping despite working on a laptop until they retire for the night.
Eating specific snack foods before you turn in has been found to actually aid in the sleep process for those who do struggle. These foods usually contain an amino acid called ‘triptophan’, which helps to produce the hormones serotonin and melotonin that regulate sleepiness. Snacks containing magnesium can also help to prevent disturbed sleep. Some foods that can be eaten as pre-bedtime snacks include:
- Nuts, especially Brazil and macadamia.
- Herbal tea
If you are having trouble sleeping and would like to discuss your issues further, please do get in touch to arrange a free discovery call or to book a 1:1 consultation where we can take an in-depth look at your nutrition and lifestyle and create a personalised plan to help you develop a more healthy relationship with your sleep.