The vicious cycle of food and sleep


NOTICE: More than a third of Americans don’t spend enough hours in bed, which has serious health consequences. Food is an important and unrecognized reason.

The future, my mother said, belongs to those who get up early. The future belongs to those who get up early. She was saying this as we went to the first ice skating sessions on those cold winter mornings growing up in Quebec. As it turns out, science might prove her right, but maybe not exactly as she thought.

I am a researcher specializing in understanding the links between diet, sleep and health. Until 2014, my lab focused on examining the impact of a lack of sleep on obesity. Our work showed that a reduction in sleep of about four hours per night, for four nights, resulted in an increase in diet, amounting to about 300 calories per day (the equivalent of a McDonald’s cheeseburger). The cause, we have found, is increased activity in the reward centers of the brain specific to food, as well as alterations in the hormones that control feelings of fullness. In other words, people who sleep less are hungrier and tend to crave foods that are high in sugar and fat.

Then, in 2014, the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – the group of scientists who make recommendations on what Americans should eat to be healthy – contacted me to ask the reverse question: How do I eat? Diet Affect Sleep? It was an intriguing question.

It is also a very important question. On 35 percent of Americans get less than the recommended minimum of seven hours of sleep per night; 10 percent to 30 percent suffer from a sleep disorder such as insomnia or sleep apnea. Lack of sleep and sleep disturbances have been linked to a host of problems ranging from psychological disorders to chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

But getting more and better sleep isn’t always about going to bed earlier – diet turns out to be an underestimated factor in good or bad sleep.

Usually, people can identify the food or drink triggers that contribute to poor sleep: drinking coffee too late in the day or having a heavy meal too close to bedtime are two obvious factors that can interfere with it. the sleep. What is less visible is how healthy choices made throughout the day can have a positive influence on sleep.

Our studies over the past seven years have shown that eating more fiber and less saturated fat and sugar during the day results in deeper and less disturbed sleep at night. It can be especially helpful to eat a Mediterranean-style diet high in fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains and olive oil, and low in red and processed meat and whole dairy products. In our research, those who followed the diet were 1.4 times more likely to get a good night’s sleep and 35% less likely to have insomnia.

Why? This is in part because foods high in protein such as nuts and seeds, fish, poultry, and eggs contain tryptophan, an amino acid from which melatonin, a sleep regulating hormone, is produced in. the brain. Other foods including tomatoes, pineapples, tart cherries, bananas, apples, vegetable oils, nuts, and animal products contain melatonin itself. In plants, melatonin serves as an antioxidant to prevent damage, while in animals, it is used to regulate their sleep (as it does in humans). Eating such melatonin-rich foods may also increase your own melatonin levels, although research on this is scarce.

Our work suggests that the effects of diet on sleep may be as strong, if not more potent, than mindfulness practices (increasing awareness and acceptance of thoughts and feelings, for example through meditation) or supplementation of melatonin with pills. Studies show that melatonin supplements on average reduce the time it takes to fall asleep four minutes; in one of our studies, eating a healthy diet reduced the time it took to fall asleep by about 12 minutes, and the overall quality of sleep was better.

Ultimately, poor sleep and poor nutrition can be a vicious cycle: Lack of sleep leads to poor food choices, which in turn leads to poor quality sleep. But we can interrupt this cycle and reverse it. Eating well throughout the day could produce healthier, more restful sleep, which, in turn, could help make better food choices.

Interestingly, this may be easier to achieve for early risers. People who see themselves as night owls – feeling better late in the day rather than early in the day – tend, on average, to eat less vegetable proteins, fruits and vegetables. This evening preference is also associated (again, on average) with higher and earlier disease rates death.

So maybe the future belongs to those who wake up early after all.

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This article originally appeared in
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