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Stress Management

How Food Affects Sleep

Danya Shu, WellTheory Health Coach

Did You Know Not Only What You Eat, But the Timing of Your Meals Can Have a Large Impact on Your Sleep?

During the first lesson of this course, we spoke about your body temperature dropping in order to facilitate sleep. This can be achieved by finishing your shower with cold water, opening the window next to your bed, using a fan, or lowering the temperature of your bedroom. That’s how important temperature is to quality sleep, in which your body slows down to rest, repair, and grow.

Digestion requires the opposite. Your body temperature rises and blood flow is redirected to your stomach and intestines and away from your brain and other organs. This prevents important rest, repair, and growth that those organs require, due to your body focusing on digestion too close to bedtime.

Melatonin: A Sleep and Blood Sugar Hormone

Hormones have a rhythm based on the circadian clock. As you know by now, melatonin levels rise in the evening to increase tiredness and prepare you for sleep. Did you know that melatonin also plays a big role in the regulation of our blood sugar? Melatonin reduces insulin production by the pancreas. Why does this matter for sleep?

The hormone insulin is responsible for signaling organs and cells to take in glucose from the blood. The reduction in insulin due to melatonin prevents your blood sugar from dropping too low during sleep. If you’re eating too close to bedtime, your body doesn’t have enough insulin while you’re sleeping to properly utilize that energy that you just consumed. This can lead to higher than expected fasting blood sugars in the morning. Blood sugar naturally rises in the morning due to the hormone cortisol preparing us to wake up and have energy for the day. Starting the day with higher than normal blood sugar due to eating too close to bedtime, followed by nutrition choices that further keep blood sugar high (drinking coffee right away, eating cereal, or toast without protein) leads to oxidative damage of tissues, which exacerbates autoimmunity and may lead to accumulation of belly fat, heart disease, metabolic dysfunction such as type 2 diabetes, as well as neurocognitive impairments.

So when should you time your evening meal? Try to have that last meal about 3 hours before bedtime to ensure most digestion will be near complete by the time you turn in.

How to Build a Sleep Promoting Meal

If you are troubleshooting your sleep, it’s worth experimenting with your meal composition. For example, eating a meal of complex carbohydrates such as leafy green vegetables, root vegetables, winter and summer squashes, lower glycemic fruits, and cruciferous vegetables with protein can promote sleep.

The tryptophan from protein can be used by the brain in the presence of carbohydrates to make serotonin, which is then converted into melatonin. You can read more about that in The Sleep Fix by Diane Macedo.

For those who would like a guideline to begin testing meal composition to optimize sleep, use the following as a guide:

Try 40% complex carbs (sweet potato, root vegetables such as butternut squash, pumpkin, rice), 35% protein (go for leaner cuts of protein), and 25% healthy fats (olive oil, avocado oil, ghee, butter (if you’re reintroduced dairy), lard and tallow).

For some, high fat meals slow digestion, especially if not consumed long enough before bed, which decreases sleep quality. It’s worth noting how you sleep after certain meals so you can have more meals that promote a restful sleep.

But I Keep Waking Up Hungry in the Middle of the Night

We realize that people have varied metabolisms. It may be that your last meal is the lightest meal of the day. In that case, hunger might wake you up as your blood sugar dips. If so, you have to experiment to see what works for you.

If you fall into this camp, try a balanced snack 30 minutes before bedtime. Try to get a small amount of protein and fat to keep the blood sugar balanced.

Here are some examples of bedtime snacks:

  • high quality jerky sticks
  • apples with almond butter
  • a banana with almond butter on gluten-free bread
  • yogurt with a grain-free granola
  • smashed avocado with plantain chips

Others who are accustomed to eating a higher carbohydrate diet might need a bit of carbs closer to bedtime to keep blood sugar stable while sleeping, especially if the last meal was earlier in the day.

Also keep in mind that our bodies are used to our usual patterns. If you suddenly go from eating 1 hour before bed to 3 hours before bed, you may likely experience some sleep disruption. If you’re not sleeping as well as you’d like, make small, gradual changes at a time when your life’s challenges can be handled sufficiently. We each have to figure out what works best for our bodies and our goals.

Take Action

If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night feeling hungry, try one of the balanced bedtime snack ideas above.

Take inventory of your typical dinner. Are you meeting the guidelines above with your protein, healthy fats, and carbs? If not, choose one area to focus on. Maybe it looks like increasing your protein or adding a new veggie to your dinner plate.

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