I attended the largest-held food and nutrition conference in the U.S. for the last two years- last year in Philly, and two years ago in D.C. It’s called FNCE, short for the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. Both were fully funded by my university’s Student Government Association, and I couldn’t be more grateful for these opportunities. If you have never been to one of these grandiose and usually overwhelming events, you may not know that several rooms host various speakers all the same time. It is the attendee’s responsibility to choose, plan, and navigate each session as the day goes on.
One topic that stood out to me was about sleep and nutrition. We have known for awhile now that 8 hours of sleep is the standard recommendation, but does everyone really know the science behind it and how it relates to our eating habits? I was intrigued, so I added that to my schedule. The session was called “Best of the Rest: Improving Health Through Better Sleep”, and it was presented by Michael A. Grandner, PhD, MTR from the University of Arizona. He was pretty engaging, which my friends and I were thankful for since it was started at 9am on a Sunday.
He introduced the topic by simply defining sleep as a “naturally rhythmic and recurring process with a reduction or lack of consciousness, perceptual disengagement, immobility, and which is reversible”. Now this process is controlled by two mechanisms: 1) Our sleep drive, and 2) our biological clock, aka circadian rhythm.
Did you know…
when we are awake that our brains accumulate fluid, toxins, and adenosine (a cell by-product from energy production)? Yep! This is our body’s sleep drive. When enough build-up and pressure is present, we grow tired. When we sleep, this is when these fluids, toxins, and adenosine are released. Sleeping is detoxifying for our brains!!!!!
This is such an important fact I think everyone should be made aware of. We tend to glorify those who can function off of less sleep and praise the “hustlers” and “go-getters”, but is the exchange of long-term health for success worth it? That’s kind of a rhetorical and subjectively-pointed question. What I can tell you is that this presenter made it clear that no matter how well you think you function sleep-deprived, no one is exempt from the health recommendation of getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
The tricky thing is getting enough quality sleep. Many of us think we are getting our suggested 7-9 hours in because we spend that time in bed, but quality sleep takes many things into account:
- Sleep onset, or how quickly you fall asleep
- Number of awakenings per night
- Total sleep time
- Sleep efficiency
For quality sleep, you should be falling asleep within 20-30 minutes of putting yourself to bed. If you are having a difficult time with this, try turning off any devices 2 hours prior to bedtime, wearing blue-blocking glasses if you absolutely need to have screen time (I just ordered myself a pair), avoid doing anything but sleeping or having sex in the bedroom, and practice going to bed satisfied with food (not hungry, but not too full).
Some foods that have been proven to aid in melatonin production, relaxation and sleep include:
- tart cherry juice or tart cherries,
- foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan (which is a precursor to serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin- whew! science) Foods with tyrptophan include turkey, seafood, dairy, chicken, nuts, seeds and eggs.
What about melatonin supplements?
Melatonin supplements aren’t typically effective. Our bodies already produce this hormone, so it isn’t necessary to supplement with it. Melatonin supplements can have a minimal effect on sleep quality by timing the dosing right around 8pm, the peak at which natural melatonin reaches a high in the body. When the sun sets, our body’s secrete the most melatonin. This occurs around 8pm on average, so it makes sense why we would have to time our melatonin supplement then- to aid in the amount of melatonin present for sleep support.
Now to return to the other points I made about quality sleep…
The average person wakes up about 30 times a night, but only for a few seconds. Yep. That’s kind of a startling number, right? This is normal, and we typically don’t remember these brief awakenings. What we do want to focus on is the number of times we remember waking up. Since each full sleep cycle entailing the 5 stages of sleep (REM + nREM) takes place in 90 minute intervals, we should be getting about 5-6 cycles in per night. So we shouldn’t be consciously waking up more than 5 times per night, at the maximum.
How long should my naps be?
This was a popular subtopic when the end of the presentation opened up for questions. Dr. Michael Grandner suggested that a person should set their alarm for a 90 minute nap if possible. Why is this? Because this is the duration of a full sleep cycle, which gifts you quality sleep. He acknowledged that everyone does not have the luxury to take a 90 minute nap and that any amount of sleep is better than none.
What’s this talk about circadian rhythm being important?
Circadian rhythm is our body’s internal mechanism of knowing when to wake up and when to sleep. A large component of this is light. When the sun rises, our eyes register this light and release cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone that makes us alert, hence, why it is secreted when we rise- to wake us up! It is this reason why coffee first thing in the morning is not suggested- because it is not necessary with our body’s natural way of waking itself up. We just have to give it time. I do not practice what I preach when it comes to this though, simply because I LOVE my caffeine highs. 😉 I must note that if you are having trouble sleeping, you should consider reducing or removing caffeine from your diet. Stimulants and depressants (including alcohol) have shown to disrupt sleep in numerous studies, even when the subject was unaware.
What else does sleep deprivation affect?
- weight gain- increased appetite
- (those who sleep less consume 300-500 kcals extra/day)
- exacerbates chronic disease symptoms
- adds to inflammation
- toxins build up in the brain
- lowers immune responses
- reduces performance
- effects mental health
- can cause behavioral issues
- can lead to poor decision-making
- shorter life expectancy
What else can I do to improve my sleep?
Aside from shutting down electronics 2 hours before bed, only using the bedroom to sleep and for sex, and eating or drinking tart cherries, kiwis, tryptophan-rich foods, or taking a melatonin supplement, you can also…
- drink more water for improved temperature regulation
- invest in black-out curtains
- ensure a comfortable sleeping environment
- engage in regular exercise
- eat healthy, balanced, and sufficient portion sizes
- avoid stimulants or depressants
- maintain healthy relationships to decrease stress.
Sleep is considered the third pillar of health, next to diet and exercise. It is essential for humans to reset, detoxify, and function properly. A regular schedule and ample amounts of sleep can lengthen one’s expected life span and decrease other health risks, including but not limited to weight gain, chronic disease, and heart issues.
While eating healthy, exercise, and certain food and supplements may help, you should seek help from a professional sleep expert and undergo a sleep study should you still have trouble sleeping. Many suffer from undiagnosed insomnia and sleep apnea, which are serious medical conditions that cannot be helped by lifestyle changes alone.
Grandner, M. (2019). Best of the Rest: Improving Health Through Better Sleep [1-46].