Do you feel permanently tired? Do you get less sleep than you would like? Do you have a difficult time falling asleep at night? Is your sleep frequently interrupted? Do you wake up from a deep slumber when your alarm clock goes off? Are you still sleepy or groggy in the morning? Are you regularly exhausted in the afternoon or evening? If so, it may not only be your lifestyle but also your diet that wreaks havoc on your sleep.
Millions of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. For many, there seems never enough time for rest, and it takes a toll on people’s health. One often-seen response to sleep deprivation is increased food consumption, which can lead to unhealthy weight gain.
While clinical research has long shown connections between sleeplessness and weight problems, a new study has found that eating habits also influence sleep in ways that were previously not considered.
Less sleep, greater appetite
Researchers from Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania studied how various diet and sleep patterns correlate by evaluating self-reported data from a survey by the National Health and Nutrition Examination, involving thousands of participants.
According to the study’s findings, people who slept fewer hours also had different eating habits and food preferences than those who allowed themselves more rest. For instance, short sleepers (usually five to six hours per night) consumed more calories on average but had less variety in their food choices than normal (seven to eight hours) and long sleepers (nine or more hours). Long sleepers consumed the least amount of calories but had a less-varied diet than normal sleepers.
The reasons for these differences are not altogether clear. Short sleepers may generally have less time to take care of their dietary needs, such as food shopping, cooking and taking breaks for meals. Normal and long sleepers may have a more leisurely lifestyle.
Prior studies on diet and sleep have primarily focused on how sleep, or lack thereof, influences eating habits. There is growing evidence that overeating and binge eating are frequently linked to sleep problems. One particular study showed that participants whose sleep was restricted for a specific period of time increased their food intake by up to 500 calories per day. Poor sleep made them vulnerable to overeating and weight gain over time, says Dr. Virend Somers, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and lead author of the study. Surprisingly, the additional waking hours did not allow them to burn more calories than their better-sleeping counterparts.
How exactly insufficient sleep leads to greater appetite is not yet fully understood. One possible explanation is that many important functions in the body are affected by sleep deprivation, including hormonal functions that regulate appetite and satiety. A reduction in the hormone leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone that is released by fat cells during the night, may be a cause. The hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin, which responds to sleep restriction with increased secretion, may also play a role.
Furthermore, lack of sleep can reduce sensitivity to insulin, thereby weakening blood-sugar regulation and the ability to metabolize blood sugar.
Help falling asleep
Obviously, it is not always easy to make changes to one’s sleeping habits because of pressures from work, long commutes and other chores. Still, there can be room for improvement by setting priorities.
Here are some suggestions: Neither food nor drink, especially alcohol, should be consumed later than two hours before bedtime. A full stomach is not conducive to restful sleep. Caffeine may keep you awake. Late intake of liquids may have you go to the bathroom during the night.
There are also issues that are not diet-related. The final hours of the day should be spent with as little exposure to stimulating events as possible. That includes late-night exercising, watching TV, dealing with e-mails or discussing controversial subjects.
Observing good sleep hygiene is equally as important. Setting the right temperature, dimming the lights and keeping the bedroom uncluttered are just a few examples.
Some changes will require experimentation. What matters most is that your actions as well as your environment help you getting the rest you need.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Visit her website: timigustafson.com. To comment on this column, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.