What does Food Consumption have to do with my Sleep?

Fast food!  Too much food!  The type of food!  Food sensitivities!  Eating too late!  They all have one thing in common – eating the wrong food (and beverage), too much food or too late at night can wreak havoc with your sleep. 

Fast food!  Too much food!  The type of food!  Food sensitivities!  Eating too late!  They all have one thing in common – eating the wrong food (and beverage), too much food or too late at night can wreak havoc with your sleep.  Did you have any idea that just changing your diet could really improve your sleep? 

Let’s start off with when you eat your last meal of the day.  If you eat too large a meal, too late at night, you can almost be guaranteed you’ll wake up mid-night feeling the digestion process and the effects of over eating, or at least, eating that biggest meal too late in the evening.  For most people, eating smaller portions in the early evening is best. I think the Europeans have the right idea.  They eat their main meal somewhere between noon and 2 PM.  Then for their evening meal, it is usually lighter fare, like soup and sandwich.  Oh, this makes so much more sense and is so much easier on your digestion process.  Eating the bigger meal midday, gives an opportunity for you to digest it while you conduct the rest of your day, instead of taking the weight of the meal to bed with you.

However, there is a caution – Don’t go to bed hungry.  Hunger pangs in the middle of the night can wake you up too.  And just like the circadian rhythm our bodies experience, it is important to eat your meals on a set schedule to help re-establish balance.  Eating at fixed times helps to set your body’s biological clock.  Our bodies operate best with regularity.  Disruptive or inconsistent timing for meals can lead to disruptive sleep habits. 

Now, what to eat?  Be suspect of food intolerances if you have sleep challenges.  Some of the common food sensitivities include wheat, dairy products, corn and chocolate.  It is thought that with the intolerance, the brain releases histamines.  These histamines upset your biochemistry causing restlessness, irritation and inattentiveness during the day and insomnia at night.  The histamine replaces the neurotransmitters and causes a disruption in the brain’s biochemical circuitry, which is responsible for thinking, mood and behavior.  When this circuitry is disrupted, on of the symptoms can be insomnia.

In addition to the release of histamines, physical discomfort can arise after the ingestion of foods that you may have sensitivity toward.  A good example is that wheat can cause gastric pain and bloating – no doubt two side effects that will keep you awake (and in pain) during the night.

If you suspect that this may be one of your insomnia contributors, begin an elimination diet of the culprit.  In the above example, cut out everything containing wheat.  When all wheat is eliminated, if this is a contributing factor, your sleep will begin to improve almost immediately.

In terms of beverages, everyone likely knows, you need to eliminate or drastically reduce your caffeine consumption.  Even a few cups of coffee in the morning can affect your sleep at night.  Caffeine has a long half-life so it should be drunk with caution early in the morning.  Definitely don’t drink any caffeine-laced beverages close to bedtime, or you definitely will toss and turn all night.  And it’s not just coffee and cola-type beverages that can cause your sleep disturbance, many over-the-counter medications, such as cold and cough preparations, contain caffeine and can also result in sleep-challenged nights.

Typical foods to avoid – particularly late at night are:

  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Colas
  • Spicy foods
  • Alcohol
  • Chocolate
  • Drugs with caffeine
  • Refined carbohydrates – like cookies, pastries, donuts, sweet breads
  • Preservatives
  • Foods likely to cause gas/bloating, like: beans, cucumbers, fatty/spicy foods
  • Foods really high in protein, like beef, can inhibit sleep by blocking the synthesis of serotonin, which in turn makes us feel more alert.
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate, often found in oriental food.
  • Food to eat – sleep enhancing foods:
  • Breads, bagels and whole wheat crackers, brown rice – high in complex carbohydrates. They increase the serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter that promotes sleep.
  • Mushrooms
  • Fruit – lemons, figs, dates, bananas, grapefruit
  • Legumes
  • Fish or poultry. Turkey is high in tryptophan, which promotes sleep.
  • Warm milk with honey is still one of the best remedies for insomnia. Milk contains tryptophan, which converts to serotonin, inducing sleep.

The bottom line is this – if you want to fall asleep more easily, eat a small complex carbohydrate snack and avoid protein-rich foods an hour or so before bedtime.  Avoid too many ingredients in a meal and too much food late at night.  And one last comment, try sticking to a new or modified food and meal routine for at least 2 – 4 weeks to evaluate whether this improves your sleep habits.

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