Diet for Better Sleep

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Waking up tired? Feeling fatigued and you don't know why? Dragging through the afternoon, looking for caffeine and a snack as a pick-me-up? Craving carbohydrates for a relaxing treat? For any of these complaints, it is wise to assess eating patterns since they influence energy levels gained through sleep. Influences on sleep range widely and include mood, stress levels, health, and daily routines. Diet is only one influence, but a potent and multifaceted one. Conversely, the way we sleep influences food patterns.

Diet choices influence a good night's sleep. Eating large amounts of food promotes a drowsy state but then can keep you awake later or wake you up in the middle of a sleep cycle. At the other end of the spectrum, eating too little can result in middle-of-the-night awakening from rumblings of hunger.

Food intolerances of any type will likely disrupt rest. For some, highly seasoned and spicy foods leave an irritating sense of discomfort that makes falling off to sleep difficult, if not impossible. Caffeine, a well-known stimulant, comes in many disguises. For instance, medications can provide a surprise source. Alcohol is a beverage to monitor closely. Like a big meal, alcohol before bedtime can cause a relaxing sense of drowsiness but then backfire several hours later and causes wakefulness. According to Elizabeth Somer, author of Food and Mood, depressants, such as alcohol, suppress the active and dreaming phase of sleep, called Random Eye Movement (REM). Disrupted REM "is associated with more night awakenings and a more restless sleep."

Adequate fluid intake reduces fatigue and enhances relaxation. However, overloading with beverages just before bedtime will likely result in nighttime awakenings for trips to the bathroom.

The neurotransmitter, serotonin, enhances a general sense of calm and positive feelings. Serotonin activity falls during sleep so that brain levels are probably recharged during this time. Disrupted sleep results in suboptimal next-day serotonin levels. Coping with irritability, a normal consequence of sleep deprivation, then becomes challenging. Low serotonin levels result in cravings for food rich in carbohydrates, often associated with fat. Protecting serotonin levels through adequate sleep limits daytime food cravings.

Modifying protein and carbohydrate intakes provides another way to protect serotonin levels. The amino acid, tryptophan, acts as a serotonin precursor. Protein-rich diets often interrupt typtophan transportation across the blood-brain barrier by supplying competing amino acids. A high carbohydrate diet and moderate in protein improves the tryptophan journey across this barrier. Consequently, this diet prescription helps to provide the necessary framework to build serotonin levels.

Adequate sleep boosts the immune system. For individuals experiencing difficulty with sleep, eating to maximize immune function becomes a higher priority. A diet rich in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, adequate in protein and calories, and low in omega-6 fatty acids enhances immunity.

Rest and a full night's sleep should be a priority for all of us. Preventive measures through food and other lifestyle choices shape the adequacy of our slumber.

Rachel Trevethan, MS, RD, LD

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