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Nutrition Can Impact Your Sleep

Sleep concerns impact many children, adolescents, and adults in today’s world

“But I’m not tired,” quipped Joe. “I can’t sleep.”
“But it is time to go to bed,” returned his mother.

“I know I need to go to bed,” says Betty to her partner, “But I know it will just be hard to get to sleep, so I don’t even want to try.”
“You should try anyway,” replies her partner.

Sleep and nutrition

These kinds of discussions are very common and can be very difficult for families. Oftentimes, families feel like they have tried everything, and that nothing has been successful.  The 2003 National Survey of Children’s Health showed that 15 million US children and teens get inadequate sleep.  The numbers are even higher for adolescents and adults.

There are many reasons that people today have a hard time sleeping.  A few common ones are described below

School, work, and activity schedules can interfere with optimal sleep

Families today are busy.  Children and teens go to school all day, and many have activities or clubs after school, which can go into the evening hours.  When they get home, they often want to connect with their friends online. Research tells us that busy activities up until bedtime, including computer games and social media use, makes it harder to fall asleep.  Similarly, adult work schedules and family obligations often keep them very busy throughout the day.

Certain medications interfere with getting a good night’s sleep

Medical conditions that contribute to poor sleep include sleep apnea, allergies, eczema, and itchy conditions. Medications that adversely affect sleep include steroids and decongestants (often used in allergy and asthma treatment), and stimulant medications (medications used to treat ADHD).  Long-acting stimulants can be particularly problematic at times.  Sometimes, medications that are designed to help people sleep can even interfere with sleep (some antidepressants and antihistamines such as Benadryl).

Many people with mental health concerns also have sleep problems

Oftentimes, once our bodies are still, our minds continue to be active.  Many people lie bed worrying about something that could happen the next day or in the future.  They may even worry about not falling asleep.  Some people go back over their day, remembering all of the mistakes that they made or bad things that happened.  Some people cannot lie still after having a busy day, fidgeting and demonstrating restlessness for many minutes.  Unfortunately, what we know is that all these strong emotions interfere with sleep.  

Finally, nutrition influences how well we are able to relax and sleep at night

The foods that we eat — not just before bed, but all day long —have a significant impact on our sleep. What we fuel our bodies with during the day, impact our body’s health. Certain dietary practices negatively impact our brain’s ability to prepare for sleep, sustain our sleep, and wake up in the morning.

Here are a few ways to help yourself (or your child) sleep better, based on nutrition and behavioral principles

Use Good Sleep Hygiene

Poor sleep hygiene is also an important topic.  When we use good sleep hygiene, it helps our bodies function better.  It helps our bodies know what to do when we can’t get to sleep, and our bodies learn to adjust.  Using good sleep hygiene will be very important if you expect any nutritional changes to help.

Limit Caffeine 

This recommendation is probably seems like a no-brainer for many people.  However, limiting caffeine is often easier said than done. When you don’t sleep well, you are tired.  As a result, you may reach for the caffeine to make it through the day.  The more you use caffeine, particularly after 12 pm, the harder sleep will be during the night.  It can become a vicious cycle.

You may say, “Hey, I am not drinking cappuccino or espresso.  I avoid Red Bull and similar drinks, I’m ok.”  Well, think again.  Caffeine is present in many popular drinks, including fruit drinks, tea, and regular coffee.  It is also present in chocolate (another popular choice for tired people), protein bars, and candy bars.  It is important to always read the labels, particularly if the food or drink advertises “more energy.”

Caffeine reaches a peak level in your blood within 30 to 60 minutes. It has a half-life of 3 to 10 hours (depending on several factors). The half-life is the time it takes for your body to eliminate half of the drug. The remaining caffeine can stay in your body for a long time after that. That means, that by midnight, there is still caffeine in your system from the energy drink that you consumed at lunch.  

What is even more confusing is that if you consume caffeine frequently, you may not notice a strong effect from drinking it. But, the caffeine can still interfere with sleep.  So to rephrase, even though it doesn’t help you stay awake anymore, it can still make it hard to sleep. Caffeine during the day makes it harder to go to sleep at night, but it also prevents you from having a sound, deep sleep at night.

If you struggle with sleep or anxiety, researchers recommend that you consume no more than 150 mg per day as an adult. That is the amount of caffeine is 12 ounces of regular coffee.  It is not recommended that children have any.   Below are some examples:

ProductServing SizeCaffeine (mg)
Coffee, brewed1 cup (8 oz)95
Espresso1 oz64
Lipton Black Tea1 cup55
Lipton 100% Green Tea1 cup45
 Energy Drinks  
Monster16 oz173
Red Bull12 oz
16 oz
Pepsi One12 oz54
Mountain Dew12 oz53
Chocolate chips, semi-sweet1 cup (6 oz bag)104
Milk chocolate bar1 bar (1.55 oz)9

Note: Caffeine levels are estimates based on both the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference and information provided by manufacturers.

Avoid Cortisol Triggers and Fatty Foods Prior to Bed

Cortisol is a stress hormone.  It helps our bodies fight real or imagined threats.  Cortisol also controls energy production, building muscle strength, and resisting infections. Cortisol levels rise and fall over the course of a 24-hour period, and if they are elevated at night it makes it difficult to sleep. 

Foods that rank high on the so-called glycemic index (mainly, sugary foods and refined starches) cause cortisol levels to rise, according to the American Nutrition Association.  If our cortisol is high, our sleep is often slow.  Eating fatty foods before bed can also negatively impact sleep quality, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. Steer clear of chips, cookies, ice cream, or pizza.  Try fruits, veggies, cheese, or warm herbal tea or milk.

Think Low-Glycemic During the Day if You Have Sleep Struggles

The Glycemic Index (GI) is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels. Carbohydrates with a low GI value are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolized.  As a result, they cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and, therefore usually, insulin levels.  People who struggle with sleep often benefit from less variability in glucose.  Lower glycemic foods help moderate cortisol levels, supporting sound sleep at night. Food that have a low glycemic index include vegetables, fish, poultry, and eggs.  The more you eat these healthy foods during the day, the better that you will sleep at night.

Eat regular snacks throughout the day rather than big meals before bed

Even though the evenings can go quickly, particularly when families have outside interests, it is better to eat smaller amounts prior to bed.  Several smaller snacks in the afternoons and evening hours are better than a large dinner late at night.  It takes many hours to digest a large meal; consuming it too close to sleep time means the body will remain active when what you want is for it to relax.  Large meals can reduce quality of sleep, as the body is active, rather than resting. 

Alternatively, missing a meal during the day or going for more than 5 hours between daytime eating can also increase the risk of sleep problems. That’s because the body’s cortisol levels will rise and stay elevated if too long passes between bouts of energy intake. Provide your family healthy snacks throughout the day.  Some families pack their children several snacks (or a second, smaller lunch) if they are in after-school activities or at daycare until later in the evening.

Consider fish oil or omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are most commonly derived from fish oils, including tuna and salmon, and they have been linked to numerous health benefits. Research suggests that having higher levels of omega-3 DHA is associated with better sleep. Sleep problems in children are often associated with poor health and behavioral and cognitive problems, the same health issues associated with deficiencies of long-chain, omega-3 fatty acids. People who take 600 mg of omega-3 fatty acids have been reported to have over an additional hour of restful sleep than people who do not consume this nutrient.  If you do not like the idea of a supplement, eating fish (like salmon) weekly can also help.

Obviously, sleep is a complicated issue with many inter-connected components.  However, if you or someone in your family is struggling with sleep, it may be worth your time to consider making some dietary changes to promote improvements in your sleep cycle.

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