We’ve all been there: a heavy dinner or impromptu decadent late night snack and the ensuing difficulty in getting to sleep. Or that rough night’s sleep followed by the insatiable craving for donuts. Or chips-pizza-and-burgers. But what we sometimes fail to understand is that sleep and food are two sides of the same equation: each variable affects the other.
Scientists have long known that there is a relationship between sleep and what and when we eat. The less sleep you have, the more (and more unhealthy) you are likely to eat. Conversely, eating the wrong combinations of food prior to bed greatly affects the quality of your sleep. This study reports that adults who only got four hours of sleep registered food smells differently and with more intensity than they did after getting a full eight of hours of sleep. It seems that exhaustion increases brain activity in two olfactory brain areas – the piriform cortex and the orbitofrontal cortex. But surprisingly the spike in scent-perception only applied to food smells; non-food odors (like fir trees) didn’t provoke a heightened response.
An earlier study looked at how sleep deprivation can affect the endocannabinoid (eCB) system – a key component of the brain’s appetite regulation center. When participants were restricted to only four-and-a-half hours of sleep, their eCB levels rose, resulting in enlarged appetites and increased snacking on less healthy foods. Lead researcher, Dr. Erin Hanlon explained: “if you're sleep deprived, your hedonic drive for certain foods gets stronger, and your ability to resist them may be impaired. So you are more likely to eat it. Do that again and again, and you pack on the pounds.”
While both studies were admittedly small, they definitely seem to indicate that the body reacts to food differently when it lacks the required sleep.
On the flip side, what you eat can certainly influence how you sleep. If you’re looking to set the stage for a pleasantly drowsy path to bedtime, you should choose your foods wisely, especially within the four hours prior to going to sleep. For optimal snoozing, the key is to pair that magical amino-acid tryptophan (of Thanksgiving turkey fame) with complex carbohydrates. The tryptophan is converted into two brain chemicals that assist sleep: melatonin (which regulates your natural circadian rhythm) and serotonin (which aids in relaxing). Carbohydrates stimulate the release of insulin, which enables the tryptophan to better cross the blood-brain barrier, giving it an edge over other amino acids in play.
So if you need to get your snack on later in the evening, opt for combinations like unsweetened cereal with milk, a banana with a dollop of nut butter, or low-fat cheese on a whole grain cracker. Things to avoid include anything spicy, sugary, fatty or caffeinated (including the hidden caffeine in chocolate). And while the common perception is that alcohol helps knock you out, it can actually interfere with your body’s ability to enter deep sleep.
Armed with this knowledge that sleep and food are two halves of the same whole, you can now go forth and make sleep-happy food decisions so that you can sleep well to eat right, a cycle that will benefit your health in the long term.
This article originally appeared in Sleep Retailer eNews on December 28, 2017
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