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How Nutrition Can Optimize Your Sleep: Cynthia Sass Explains

How Nutrition Can Optimize Your Sleep: Cynthia Sass Explains

In our most recent conversation with Cynthia Sass (MPH, MA, RD, CSSD), UPGRAID's nutrition consultant weighs in on just how valuable a nutritious diet can benefit your sleep cycle and keep you refreshed to be your most productive self.

UPGRAID: We all know that getting enough sleep helps us feel better, but what are some of the specific reasons why sleep is so important for health?

Cynthia: Too little sleep has been linked to a number of problematic effects, including: increased inflammation; reduced athletic performance and diminished exercise recovery; poor appetite regulation and weight gain; reduced productivity; an increased risk of depression and anxiety; and suppressed immunity. Studies show that people who lack quality sleep are more likely to become sick after being exposed to a virus. 

A great deal of bodily healing and repair takes place during sleep. And research shows that brain cells shrink during sleep, which allows toxins to be flushed away that build up during waking hours. In short, missing sleep can impact how both your body and brain function.

UPGRAID: How does not getting enough sleep impact nutrition?  

Cynthia: Too little sleep or sleeping poorly has been shown to spike appetite, up cravings for unhealthy foods, and decrease the desire to make healthy food choices. Research also shows that being awake while your body wants to sleep may trigger cells to burn fewer calories, which can make it easier to gain weight.

UPGRAID: Can nutrition help improve healthy sleep?

Cynthia: Absolutely! The right nutrition is a key aspect of what we refer to as sleep hygiene, which also includes habits related to ideal room temperature, noise, light, and the use of electronics.

UPGRAID: Do certain foods interfere with healthy sleep?

Cynthia: Yes. Eating candy, desserts, and other refined sweet treats before bed may initially make you feel more relaxed. But they can wreak havoc with blood sugar levels, which can lead to waking up in the middle of the night, or being pulled out of a deep sleep. 

The saturated fat in red meat has been shown in research to disrupt sleep, and red meat is more difficult to digest, which can lead to sluggishness and restlessness. Other heavy foods (fried items, creamy sauces, etc.) can have a similar effect.   

Spicy foods have also been shown to make it more difficult to fall asleep and interfere with deep, restorative sleep.

UPGRAID: How does caffeine affect sleep?

Cynthia: Caffeine’s stimulant effect can interfere with sleep length and quality. Some people metabolize caffeine more slowly, but a good general rule of thumb is to cut off caffeine by early afternoon. One study found that caffeine consumed six hours before bed reduced total sleep time by one hour. 

UPGRAID: How does alcohol affect sleep?

Cynthia: Alcohol may make you sleepy and help you fall asleep faster, but it triggers waking during the night. Alcohol also interferes with restorative REM sleep, which can leave you feeling groggy, drowsy, and unfocused the next day.

UPGRAID: Which foods or nutrients help support healthy sleep?  

Cynthia: Some nutrients play a vital role in healthful sleep. Magnesium activates the nervous system in ways that induce relaxation. This mineral also helps regulate the hormone melatonin, which guides sleep-wake cycles. Too little magnesium has been linked to insomnia.  

Research shows that adults with low blood vitamin D levels take longer to fall asleep compared to those with adequate intakes of this key nutrient. B vitamins also influence sleep-inducing hormones, and research shows that a low consumption of vitamin C is tied to short sleep, meaning sleeping less than six hours a night.

Specific foods have also been studied for their ability to influence sleep. One study in men and women with insomnia found that compared to a placebo, consuming eight ounces of 100% tart cherry juice in the morning and again one to two hours before bed increased sleep time by one hour and 24 minutes.   

Another concluded that eating two kiwis one hour before bed allowed men and women with sleep disturbances to fall asleep over 35% faster, sleep more soundly, and experience a 13.4% increase in total sleep time.

Chamomile tea consumption has also been shown to enhance sleep by promoting relaxation and drowsiness, and improving sleep quality.

UPGRAID: Is there an overall eating pattern that best supports healthy sleep? 

Cynthia: Yes. A diet rich in whole, nutrient rich plant-based foods has been linked to the ability to fall asleep more easily, settle into deep, restorative sleep, and inhibit overnight wakefulness.  

In women specifically, a traditional Mediterranean diet, which is abundant in whole plant foods, has been linked to fewer insomnia symptoms. These include trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and waking up too early. 

Research shows that fiber is particularly helpful for triggering restorative sleep. To hit the minimum daily target of 28 grams of fiber per day, aim for five daily cups of non-starchy vegetables and two cups of fruit, along with moderate portions of whole grains, starchy vegetables, beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, nuts, and seeds.  

UPGRAID: What tips would you give someone who struggles with getting enough sleep? 

Cynthia: One of my top tips is to try meditation (if you haven’t already incorporated it into your daily routine), because it supports both sleep and nutrition, and their interactions. Even a daily five minute guided meditation can reduce stress hormones and improve sleep, which in turn can enhance appetite regulation. Meditation has also been shown to curb emotional eating - which is amplified by sleep deprivation - and boost mindful eating and body awareness, including hunger and fullness cues.   

In addition to eating a healthful, whole foods, plant-focused diet, a few other practical include cutting off caffeine at least six hours before bed, and avoiding too much liquid close to bedtime, to prevent the need to get up during the night to use the bathroom.  

In large part getting a good night’s sleep starts in the kitchen, not the bedroom! 

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