The recipe for a healthy lifestyle isn’t really a secret. To look good and feel great for decades to come, you need to move. You need to nourish and hydrate your body. And you need consistent, healthy sleep.
Did you know, though, that the quality of your diet can significantly impact the quality of your sleep? This article explores the important connection between nutrition and sleep.
How Diet Affects Sleep
It’s not news to say that the way you nourish your body will play a pivotal role in your overall health and vitality. Likewise, in our sleep-deprived culture, it will probably come as no surprise to most of us that the lack of consistent, quality sleep can take a profound toll on both physical and mental health.
What is perhaps less widely known, though, is that the foods you consume may well be responsible, in whole or in part, for your poor quality sleep. Issues such as food sensitivities, digestibility, and the stimulating effects of some ingredients can not only lead to sleep disturbances but also insomnia.
One of the most important ways that your diet may be impacting your sleep derives simply from the timing of your meals. For example, irregular meal times can drastically affect your body’s circadian rhythms. A consistent meal schedule, researchers have found, can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep each night by helping to regulate your body’s natural daily cycles of rest, wakefulness, and nourishment.
Lack of Essential Nutrients
In addition to the disruptive impacts of an irregular meal schedule, science also suggests that a lack of key nutrients can lead to impaired sleep. For example, deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals, including calcium, Vitamin D, and Vitamin B12, have been strongly associated with poor sleep quality and even insomnia.
The good news, however, is that increasing your intake of essential nutrients yields benefits that impact the entire body, helping you to feel and function better in general. Healthy overall functioning increases your likelihood of getting a restful night’s sleep.
For example, a diet rich in Vitamin D can not only enhance the quality of your sleep but can also contribute to eye health. When your eyes are healthy and strong, you are less likely to experience the physical and emotional distress that can accompany eye strain and low vision, from mood disturbances to severe headaches. That’s good for your sleep because when you’re anxious and in pain, you simply can’t expect to have a healthy night’s rest.
Another important connection between diet and sleep relates to the digestibility of the food you eat in the hours before bedtime. To be sure, a heavy, fatty meal eaten just before you lie down to sleep all but invites reflux, indigestion, and poor sleep.
However, you might not realize how strongly your evening dinner, even when consumed several hours before bed, can be interfering with your sleep. This can be true even with healthful meals. Issues with digestibility, for example, may cause you to wake frequently throughout the night, even if you do not realize it. Such bouts of wakefulness impede your ability to reach the REM state of sleep, leaving you exhausted the next day.
What matters isn’t just the nutritiousness of your dinner or late-night snack but also its digestibility. For example, even healthy proteins and fats tend to take significantly longer to digest than do complex carbohydrates.
That means your body may be trying to do double-duty in getting you to sleep while at the same time trying to process your protein-rich evening meal. To sleep more soundly, you’re probably better off to opt for a light salad or a bowl of oatmeal in the evening and save your lean proteins and healthy fats for mornings and afternoons.
If you’re having trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep, it may well be because you have an undiagnosed food allergy, intolerance, or sensitivity. Food sensitivities in their various forms are actually quite common and they can cause an array of physiological symptoms, any of which can disturb your sleep, whether you are aware of it or not.
For example, food sensitivities and intolerance can lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), stomach cramps, migraines, constipation, and nausea. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, not surprisingly, you may find it very difficult to sleep long and well.
Unfortunately, though food sensitivities and intolerance are very common, they can also be quite difficult to diagnose, particularly because the symptoms are so varied and non-specific. This means not only that you may not realize how significantly your sleep is being disturbed through the night, but you may not be able to trace the cause of your insomnia or fatigue to the foods you eat.
Stimulating and Calming Foods
It’s pretty common knowledge that caffeine can keep you up at night, but you may not realize exactly how long the stimulating effects of caffeine-rich foods and drinks can last.
Research estimates, for example, that caffeine has a half-life of four to six hours, meaning that your body is likely to continue to experience the stimulating effects of a caffeinated food or beverage up to six hours after you consume it. That can lead not only to difficulty falling asleep but also to frequent wakefulness throughout the night and/or to the inability to achieve the REM state.
The good news, though, is that you have a lot of great options for your pre-bedtime food and drink. There’s ample evidence, for instance, that a cup of chamomile tea or a glass of milk, or even a snack of kiwi fruit before bed can be quite soothing, helping you to fall asleep more quickly and to sleep more soundly.
We all know how important good nutrition and consistent, quality sleep are to our overall health and wellbeing. The connection between diet and sleep, however, may be less obvious. The reality, though, is that the key to a good night’s sleep may well be found on your dinner plate or in your pre-bedtime snack. The goal is to ensure that you’re consuming the essential vitamins and minerals that you need for a good night’s sleep and that your pre-sleep meals and beverages are easily digestible, calming, and well-tolerated by your system.
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