Sleep is one of the most essential needs for humans and animals alike. However, in spite of all of humanity’s technological and scientific advances this last century, the exact way in which sleep works still remains mostly a mystery.
One thing scientists do know, however, is that adequate sleep is absolutely fundamental for healthy functioning. Unfortunately, whether we get high quality sleep at night is dependent on many factors, not just the time we go to bed and when we set the alarm for. While some of these factors may be related to issues beyond our control or understanding, some can be easily improved if only armed with the right information.
One of these factors which affects our sleep quality is diet. As the saying goes, “you are what you eat.” Unsurprisingly, the chemical components we feed our brains impact the way it functions, both awake and asleep.
Here’s a list of tips to keep in mind during the day to improve your sleep quality at night.
Caffeine helps many of us improve our performance during the day. It does so by binding to adenosine receptors in the brain (normally responsible for slowing down neuron activity) and speeding up neuron activity instead. Additionally, the brain notices this increase in activity and releases adrenaline (the “fight or flight” hormone) which increases attention and makes us feel awake.
The downside is that this substance can remain in the bloodstream for up to six hours from the moment you consume it. This means that drinking caffeine in the evening and possibly in the afternoon as well can impact your brain’s ability to naturally slow down and enter sleep mode at night. Even though you may not notice it, that cup of coffee you drank hours ago may be the reason you are not managing to fall asleep correctly.
People’s bodies are different and therefore caffeine affects us all to different degrees. Nevertheless, if you are concerned about your health and sleep quality, it’s a good idea to avoid it altogether for at least 6 hours before going to bed.
While alcohol can make you fall asleep faster, it actually disrupts your sleep quality during the night. Alcohol disrupts REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the most important restorative phase of the sleep cycle. A lack of proper REM sleep can have negative effects for both physical and psychological health. Therefore, even though alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, you will end up feeling less rested in the end. In order to maximize sleep quality it’s best to avoid alcohol before bedtime.
Additionally, alcohol places a strain on the body by dehydrating it, which leads us to our next tip:
Dehydration causes your mouth and nasal passages to become dry. This can potentially lead to sleep-disruptive snoring. A lack of proper hydration can also lead to leg cramps that may keep you awake. Being dehydrated during the night also compromises alertness, and cognitive performance the following day.
Conversely, short sleep duration may in turn cause inadequate hydration during the day, according to a recent study carried out by academics at Penn State University.This study involved more than 20,000 adults and showed a correlation between hydration and sleep quality. Those who slept at least 8 hours per day had higher levels of a hormone called vasopressin, which is related to the body’s ability to remain properly hydrated.
As we can see, the body’s ability to sleep well at night and remain properly hydrated during the day go hand in hand
When You Eat Impacts Your Sleep
Just like the rest of the body, the digestive system needs some time to rest and recover. A large quantity of food can take the body several hours to digest. This means that lying down with a full stomach forces your digestive system to work overtime. Some of the potential side effects of this are indigestion, acid reflux, heartburn, and other sleep-disrupting symptoms.
According to scientists at Brazil's Universidade Federal de São Paulo, the timing of food intake can have an impact on the brain’s sleep patterns. Consuming lots of processed carbs, fats or sugar right before bed can disrupt the brain’s REM and non-REM sleep cycles, which as mentioned previously are a fundamental part of the sleep process.
Therefore, it is advisable to eat dinner a few hours before bedtime, particularly if it is a large meal.
As with hydration, diet and sleep quality are a two way street. Not only can a poor diet affect our ability to sleep well, a lack of sleep can also make us eat more during the day. Poor sleep increases cravings, and over time this increases risks for obesity and disorders such as diabetes. Sleeping well is one of several necessary factors in order to protect one’s weight and maintain a healthy, happy lifestyle.