You’re startled out of your sleep on Monday morning by your obnoxious alarm after finally falling asleep around 2 am.
You’re so exhausted that you hit snooze only to wake up 10 minutes later feeling like your eyelids are made of lead.
You finally make it out of bed, get dressed, and head to the kitchen to make some coffee and heat up a leftover cinnamon roll.
Before lunch even rolls around, you’re so low on energy that you’re opening a red bull and grabbing handfuls of potato chips. So much flavor and irresistible crunch - it’s only a matter of minutes before you realize almost half the bag is gone!
The cravings and need for energy don’t stop there.
By the time you’re off work you feel like you could go to sleep, but you’re hungry for dinner, so you decide to stick to something that’s quick, like a veggie burger and fries night. And a milkshake just sounds so nice after the stressful day you had, so you’ll get one of those too!
Those first few bites are exactly what you wanted and that milkshake is so thick and chocolatey. You eat every last bite and now you’re feeling a bit more awake, but it’s not too long before you crash. Again.
Why is it that when we’re so exhausted, it doesn’t seem to matter what we eat or how much caffeine we have, we can’t fight off the fatigue for more than a couple hours?
Because when your body is lacking sleep, you’re more likely to choose highly processed, sugary foods that give you a short burst of energy instead of healthy ones that provide sustained energy.
The primary reason for this is due to an imbalance in hormones.
SLEEP AND HUNGER HORMONES
When your body is low on sleep, it affects the release of ghrelin and leptin, our hormones that tell us when we’re hungry and when we’re full. Ghrelin is increased, making you feel hungry more often than normal, while Leptin is suppressed, making it difficult for you to know when you’re full.
One meta-analysis study found individuals who were sleep-deprived, consumed 400 calories more per day compared to those who got adequate sleep while physical activity remained the same. Not surprisingly, the increase in calories came mostly from fatty foods and those really low in protein.
Your hunger and fullness hormones aren’t the only hormones negatively affected by poor sleep habits, though.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released as a result of insufficient sleep that leads to increased abdominal fat, muscle breakdown, and overall hunger. This has also been known to cause emotional eating, and we all know when we emotionally eat, it’s not on celery and hummus. It’s comfort foods loaded with flavor and texture like pizza, potato chips, and double chocolate chip brownies. You know… the foods that don’t just taste amazing, but are also significantly higher in calories!
Not to get all scientific, but there have been brain imaging studies that prove the reward-seeking portion of your brain is stimulated when you get less than 7 hours of sleep a night. This results in cravings for high carb, processed foods that spike your blood sugar and lead to insulin resistance, which causes weight gain.
IT’S A CYCLE
It’s clear that your sleep habits affect your food choices, but did you know your nutrition also affects your sleep quality? It’s one of those ‘the chicken or the egg’ situations - which comes first?
Eating less fiber, more saturated fats, and more refined sugar results in lighter, more disruptive sleep, which means deep REM sleep hardly (if ever) gets reached.
REM sleep is the stage where we experience dreams and it’s important for muscle repair, fat burning, and for stimulating the area of our brain that’s involved in learning and retaining memories. It’s also important for emotional processing.
So if you’re not reaching REM sleep, you're not allowing your body to get restorative sleep, which can leave you feeling like you’re always tired, even when you get sleep.
The number of times you wake up in the night also disrupts the quality of your sleep.
If you struggle with staying asleep, you may want to try reducing your sugar intake because it’s been known to increase how often you wake up in the night. On the other hand, diets with adequate fiber intake actually help promote deeper, more restorative sleep.
In fact, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys found that in 2007-2008, over 12,000 people in the United States who were reported to have the best sleep also reported the highest intake of fiber.
So, if it’s been a long time since you got a good night’s sleep, try prioritizing getting the recommended amount of fiber in your diet and limiting refined sugars. Men need 38 grams of fiber per day, while women need 25 grams.
THE BEST DIET FOR SLEEP
Maintaining a balanced diet of protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, adequate fiber, and plenty of water will promote better sleep leaving you rested and energized! And better sleep will, in turn, result in lower levels of cortisol and balanced levels of hunger hormones.
These will help keep those unhealthy cravings at bay so you can choose healthier options that will sustain your energy levels throughout the day and help support a better sleep cycle.
WHAT ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS?
Even with the best nutrition, sometimes you may find you still need some help falling asleep.
You don’t want to rely on sleep-promoting supplements every single day, but they can be helpful when you have a lot on your mind, when you’re traveling, or perhaps if you’re anxious the night before a big event at work.
The most well-known sleep aid is Melatonin, which is the hormone in your brain that helps sync your sleep cycle to the presence of light and darkness.
Other supplements that are becoming more popular for inducing your natural sleep cycle include GABA, Glycine, Passion Flower Extract, Lemon Balm, Inositol, L-Theanine, and Ashwgandha.
GABA has been known to help you fall asleep faster, Inositol helps reduce mental chatter that keeps you up at night, Glycine and L-Theanine help you stay asleep longer, Ashwagandha lowers cortisol levels, and Passion Flower and Lemon Balm are recognized for helping to reduce symptons.
These all contain at least one of the sleep aids mentioned above and can be part of your evening routine when you need to get a good night’s rest.
Paired with a healthy, balanced diet, adequate sleep will help you make healthier food choices, which will further support better sleep patterns.