by Anna Marie Trotman, Nutrition Consultant 

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is essential not only for being productive during the day, but also for supporting brain function, growth, and physical health over the different phases of a woman’s life. The effects of a bad night’s sleep can sometimes be felt the next day, causing lethargy, inability to focus, and excess hunger. You may have been advised by your health care provider at The Birth Center to work on getting better sleep, and here are the reasons why. 

Sleep and Nutrition

Nutrition has an important effect on sleep quality and the body’s natural clock, or Circadian rhythm. Eating habits can impact sleep quality primarily by influencing neurotransmitters, hormones, and digestion. Neurotransmitters and other hormones help control sleep patterns, and influence all of the body’s natural processes. 

Digestion slows down during sleep, causing food to sit in your stomach. Eating heavy or large meals close to bedtime can disrupt sleep by increasing acid reflux symptoms and causing indigestion. Depressants (such as alcohol) and stimulants (such as nicotine and caffeine) can also have detrimental effects on sleep quality. 

Not only is it important to pay attention to what you eat before bed, but also when eating during the day. A consistent diet, eating the bulk of food earlier in the day, and avoiding eating late in the evening can improve sleep quality.

Sleep and Increased Weight Risk

Research suggests that shorter sleep times are correlated with increased weight gain and waist circumference for all age groups. Sleep deficiency also increases your risk of developing obesity. The relationship between sleep and weight remains unclear, but a few mechanisms like appetite hormones and cortisol levels have been proposed to explain this relationship.

Sleep Recommendations

Most adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. This range is a recommendation; some individuals might function better when getting more than the recommended amount of sleep, while others may function normally on the lower end of this range. Sleeping less than six hours each night is not recommended for most adults.

Quality of sleep is just as important as the amount. Sleep consists of two basic phases: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM. Non-REM sleep is commonly known as deep sleep and is the phase where our bodies perform the most healing and rehabilitating processes. If you frequently wake up feeling unrested, you might not be getting enough non-REM sleep. A good night’s sleep usually consists of 3-5 cycles of REM and non-REM sleep per night.

Nutrition Recommendations

Eat your last meal or snack a couple of hours before bedtime. Eating a couple of hours before bedtime will give your stomach time to digest food before going to sleep. As discussed above, sleep slows digestion, causing food to sit in the stomach longer and create more stomach acid. Though you may not be conscious of the impacts of indigestion while you are sleeping, you will likely feel the effects of a poor night’s sleep the next day.

Keep a consistent diet: Just as sleep contributes to the body’s Circadian rhythm, so does your diet. Eating close to the same time each day and making sure to have a healthy balance of nutrients will aid in aligning your body with its natural rhythm, which might in turn improve sleep.

Eat more during the daytime and less at night: As mentioned, when food is eaten too close to bedtime digestion will slow and lead to lower quality sleep. If the majority of food is consumed during the day when the body is still active, the greater part of digestion can finish before sleep. Removing the need for digestion allows the body to focus on repair, restoration, and elimination of metabolic by-products during sleep.

Foods that Improve Sleep

Some research indicates that foods high in melatonin, tryptophan, and magnesium may help improve sleep quality. Dietary sources of each are listed below.

Melatonin: Eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, berries, tomatoes, and peppers.

Tryptophan: Poultry (chicken & turkey), eggs, fish, milk, tofu and soy products, chocolate, and seeds.

Magnesium: Fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, fortified grains, spinach, and soy product.

Moderate caffeine and alcohol consumption: Caffeine is a stimulant and disrupts sleep by blocking sleep-inducing hormones and increasing adrenaline production. Though consuming up to 250 mg of caffeine, or three 8-oz cups of coffee, a day is considered safe, the stimulating effects of caffeine may impact the body’s Circadian rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep, remain asleep, and enter deep sleep cycles. 

Alcohol is a depressant and may increase adenosine (a sleep-inducing hormone) and help you fall asleep quicker. However, it also impacts the ability to enter deep sleep and remain asleep, causing poorer quality sleep overall.

Good Sleep Practices

Whether you already have an established bedtime routine or are looking for new ways to improve your sleep, nutrition is an essential component to consider. Making a few small changes to your daily diet can improve sleep quality and enhance health for years to come.

Resource: Duke Integrative Medicine 

Additional Information 

Your Body on No Sleep:

Why Do We Need Sleep?