Dietitian’s Advice: Eat right to sleep better

ADRIAN PENZHORN explains why sleeping is such an important part of your lifestyle!

It can be argued that the pillars of health and performance are training, nutrition, sleep and recovery. Each possibly as important as each other.

Sleep of less than six hours per night for four or more consecutive nights has been shown to impair cognitive performance and mood, disturb glucose metabolism, appetite regulation and immune function. Athletes sleeping less than eight hours per night have 1.7 times the risk of picking up an injury. Nutritionally a lack of sleep can be a great hindrance to weight management due to a number of factors, from irregular hormonal function through to increased caloric intake and disrupted metabolism of nutrients.

We know there are a number of daily habits that can impact sleep quality and quantity, timing of exercise, exposure to blue light, consumption of caffeine to name a few. Interestingly there are a few nutritional strategies that can enhance sleep and some of these are elements I regularly work on with clients.

Timing of meals is a first port of call for evaluating impact of diet on the sleep-wake cycle. Two crucial elements that entrain this system are light and food.As a simple message I would often encourage eating inline with sunshine hours, starting the day with a good size and early breakfast when the body is priming for the day and eating the last meal when the sun dips. This can be one of the issues with intermittent fasting if you find that it negatively effects your sleep or if you are naturally a breakfast skipper.

The pre-bed meal content can also effect sleep. A meal high in carbohydrate or protein can cause drowsiness (most of you have experienced that post lunch slump) as the insulin response leads to an increased absorption of branched chain amino acids ultimately increasing tryptophan absorption by the brain and conversion to serotonin. This brings about drowsiness and the onset of sleep. Conversely a high fat meal might negatively impact sleep.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin (feel good hormone) and melatonin (key regulator of sleep-wake rhythms) as well as niacin (vitamin B3). A deficiency can negatively impact sleep quality and mood and improving intake through diet is relatively easy with good sources being eggs, cheese, turkey, fish, pork, sesame and sunflower seeds, oats and cocoa.

Meal size itself can also stimulate sleep via a nervous system response to distension in the stomach. A large meal thus brings on the desire to rest.

Avoiding caffeine is a trial worth running if you struggle with sleep, slow metabolisers of caffeine may need to avoid any sources for eight to 10 hours before going to bed. This is an important one for athletes
using caffeine for training or competition, the small benefit might not weigh up against any negative impact on sleep.

Lastly 5-HT, tart cherry juice, melatonin and valerian show promise as supplements that can be trialled to enhance sleep.

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