Connecting What You Eat with How You Sleep

sleeping woman

What you eat may influence how you sleep, and vice versa. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

When Ebenezer Scrooge encountered the ghost of Jacob Marley in the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, his first thought was to think the apparition was nothing more than the result of something I ate. At this point in the story, Scrooge may have known little of the holiday spirit, but he did understand that what he ingested by day could affect how well he slept at night. Indeed, the link between eating and a good-nights sleep has long been accepted as something so basic that it perhaps required no scientific verification. Surprisingly, only recently has the quest to gain a better scientific understanding of the connection between eating and dreaming been addressed. The results are intriguing because, far from only affirming a relationship , which seemed in little need of outside verification, they also suggest that not only does what we eat while were awake affect our sleep, but that how we sleep affects the choices we make while were awake.

For example, one study presented at a recent meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB) suggests that a high-fat diet in rats decreased their brains sensitivity to orexin, a neurochemical important in stabilizing sleep states. The result was that the rats on the high-fat diet slept more, but their sleep was uneven and not continuous. According to the lead author of the study, Dr. Catherine Kotz, These findings suggest that poor sleep associated with weight gain due to a high-fat diet may be a consequence of reduced orexin sensitivity in the brain. The lower the sensitivity to orexin, the less the brain is able to regulate sleep and so the more tired we feel.

But, it gets even stranger. Research from Uppsala University in Sweden is leading scientists to believe that only a single night of fit-full sleep can result in altered eating habits. The study tracked 16 normal-weight males and asked them to select ideal portion sizes of several food items. The subjects made their selections both when they had very little sleep and after a full night of eight hours of restful slumber. Pleunie Hogenkamp, the principle author of the study, explains: “After a night of total sleep loss, these males chose greater portion sizes of the energy-dense foods. Interestingly, they did so both before and after a breakfast, suggesting that sleep deprivation enhances food intake regardless of satiety. Sleeping and eating patterns, therefore, appear to affect one another. Eat a high-fat, that is, energy dense, diet, and chances are you dont sleep as well. Dont sleep well, and chances are you’re going to want to eat a higher fat diet.

But just how complex the relationship is between mealtime and bedtime still remains a complex question. More importantly, it doesnt seem at all clear if a good nights sleep is just a few more proteins or a few less carbs away. The ultimate answer to this question may come from work done at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. There, researchers analyzed data from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data included demographic, socioeconomic, dietary, and health-related questions, and the Penn researchers selected their sample data to get a cross-section of the entire country. The data included detailed records of everything the subjects ate and drank during a typical day, so the researchers had an excellent starting point to begin to understand better the link between satiety and sleep.

They separated groups into distinct sleep patterns: “VeryShort” (<5 h per night), ”Short” (5-6 h per night), ”Standard” (7-8h per night), and ”Long” (9 h or more per night). Comparing the other groups to the Standard (7-8h per night) group, they looked to see how those groups differed from it both in total caloric intake and in the relative amounts of specific nutrients. They also considered overall diet, demographics, socioeconomics, physical activity, obesity, and other factors that could affect the relationships.

The researchers found that short sleepers consumed the most calories, followed by normal sleepers, and then very short sleepers, with long sleepers consuming the least. Food variety was highest in normal sleepers and lowest in very short sleepers. And while they found that there were a number of dietary differences among all categories of sleepers, they determined these were centered on a few key nutrients. For example, very short sleepers seemed to drink less water, eat fewer foods containing lycopene (a carotene pigment found in red- and orange-colored foods), and fewer total carbohydrates, while short sleepers seemed to share a diet lower in vitamin C, water, selenium (an element found mostly in nuts, meat and shellfish), and more lutein/zeaxanthin (another organic pigment found in green, leafy vegetables). Long sleepers appeared to consume less theobromine (an alkaloid found in chocolate and tea), dodecanoic acid (a saturated fat), choline (an element found in eggs and fatty meats), total carbohydrates, but more alcohol.

One of the authors of the study, Dr. Michael A. Grandner, instructor in Psychiatry and member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at Penn, appears optimistic about the findings but concedes that there is still much more to uncover. “What we still don’t know, he cautions, is if people altered their diets, would they be able to change their overall sleep pattern? This will be an important area to explore going forward as we know that short sleep duration is associated with weight gain and obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Likewise, we know that people who sleep too long also experience negative health consequences. If we can pinpoint the ideal mix of nutrients and calories to promote healthy sleep, the health care community has the potential to make a major dent in obesity and other cardiometabolic risk factors.”

Whether or not Scrooges conversion to seeing the joy of giving during the holidays was in fact nothing more than the consequence of an underdone potato, there’s little doubt that, once the link between what we eat and how we sleep (and vice versa) is better understand, it will result in a happier life for many of us. It seems the best we can do is understand that what we put in our stomachs during the day affects how restfully we lie on the pillow at night and that how restfully we lie on the pillow at night can affect the choices we make in our diets during the day.

More to Explore
People Who Eat and Sleep Late May Gain Weight
Eat to Dream: Study Shows Dietary Nutrients Associated With Certain Sleep Patterns
It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat it
Changes in sleep architecture increase hunger, eating

 

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