The need for sleep: How nutrition can help
In the Sleep Council’s 2013 Great British Bedtime survey, only 30 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women said they sleep very well. So, it is likely that you are reading this article because you are one of many who do not get a good night’s sleep, suffer from insomnia or sleep apnea.
Researchers are now pretty much agreed that short sleep and sleep deprivation are linked with a variety of mental problems (including poorer decision-making and memory) and physiological changes too including an increase in levels of inflammation in the body.
Inflammation in the body may participate in the poor functioning of hormones such as insulin (insulin resistance) and leptin (leptin resistance) – both of which are implicated in obesity and diabetes.
Short sleep or disrupted sleep patterns (such as in shift work) has also been found to increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol and as excess cortisol can cause fat deposition, usually around your waistline, this is not a good thing.
Conversely, adequate sleep can help improve your cognitive functioning and help keep your waistline in check.
So, what does what you are eating have to do with getting a better night’s sleep?
- Firstly, if you suffer from insomnia and/or wake in the night unable to get back to sleep and wake unrefreshed in the mornings, you may well have high cortisol levels, which also has the effect of lowering production of the growth hormone needed for cell repair. To help bring cortisol down, you need to keep a stable blood-sugar level, which means avoiding sugar (such as chocolate bars) and an excess of refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, rice, pasta). Even too much fruit (and certainly fruit juice) can be a bad thing.
- Being highly stressed, eating a lot of sugar and refined carbohydrates or high alcohol consumption can lead to a magnesium deficiency, which may affect your sleep. In addition, certain B vitamins are necessary to make adequate melatonin (the hormone that helps you sleep).
- Being overweight can increase your risk of sleep related disorders, such as sleep apnea, so taking steps to lose weight may also help.
- Drinking coffee in the afternoon or early evening may also prevent you from falling asleep and alcohol can also make it harder to get to sleep as it has a stimulatory effect on the brain (after its initial relaxation properties).
There are, however, some simple dietary steps that you can take that may help you get a better night’s sleep, including:
- Eating magnesium and B vitamin rich whole foods such as whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Folic acid is particularly rich in green vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, while B12 is only found in animal foods such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy produce;
- Avoiding or cutting back on caffeine and alcohol;
- Supplementing with Vitamin D. Researchers at the East Texas Medical Centre and the University of North Carolina have discovered that vitamin D helps to regulate the sleep-wake rhythm; they have proven a connection between a vitamin D deficiency and sleep disorders.
There is evidence that exercise can help reduce stress, which means that it may also help improve your sleep.
Asking a trained nutritional therapist to carry out a dietary evaluation would be a good step to see if any of the above apply to you, as they will be able to work out from your diet history how to improve what you are eating or if you may be low in certain minerals or vitamins.
In addition, biochemical testing can also be arranged, to identify any vitamin or mineral deficiency or to assess if your hormones are out of balance (such as cortisol and melatonin) and steps can then to taken to correct them through improving your diet and possibly supplementation.
For more on the recent research about the dangers of insufficient sleep and shift working, listen to the Radio 4 Programme Monday first aired on 27 July at 8pm, called ‘The Night Shift’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0639jpl