Sleep is fundamental to our good health. It’s crucial role in immune and stress support and in helping us to lose weight makes it even more of a priority at the moment. Yet most of us are not getting enough. Find out if you are in ‘sleep debt’ and how to improve your sleep.
Studies show that the longer we sleep, the longer we live and vice versa.
Getting less than 7 hours sleep at night, even in the short term has a measurable negative impact on our immune system. This may make us more vulnerable to infections and reduce our response to vaccines. Getting sufficient sleep is also fundamental to help us manage stress and to boost resilience and focus. It’s the best legal performance enhancer available to us. If you have ever had a bad night’s sleep of 4 or 5 hours or less, you will know the impact this had on how you felt. But getting even slightly to little sleep most nights chips away at our ability to cope on an ongoing basis.
We are getting lots of queries on managing the ‘Corona stone’ and of course, what we are eating and drinking is important for weight management, but so is sleep. Sleeping less than 7 hours reduces levels of the hormone that tells us we are full and increases our hunger hormone ghrelin.This means we eat up to 200 – 300 more calories the next day. This can add up to a couple of pounds a month. Our bodies also hold on to fat when we are under-slept. This means that if you are trying to lose weight but not sleeping enough, up to 70% of weight loss is from lean muscle and not from fat – the exact opposite of what helps long term weight loss.
So how much do we need?
The WHO and other organisations recommend 7 – 9 hours for adults i.e. an average of 8 hours sleep and more for kids. Yet 2/3 of us fail to get this, with measurable effects on our physical and mental health. If you answer yes to any of these questions, it is likely you are in ‘sleep debt’
- Do you need to set an alarm in the morning to wake?
- ……. caffeine to get you going in the morning?
- Do you sleep in at the weekends?
- You get less than 7 hours sleep per night, even once or twice per week
Sleep quality is as important as quantity and some food and lifestyle choices can reduce both and disrupt our ability to get enough deep, restorative sleep. So, what can you do if you are struggling to sleep? The bad news is that there is no miracle fix, despite what the internet might tell you and different things work for different people. However, there are some common themes……
Watch sleep stealers
Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world and the only one we give to our kids! Having too much, even earlier in the day, reduces our ability to get into deeper, restorative sleep. It stays in our systems a long time. 6 hours after you have had a mug of coffee, half of the caffeine is still in your system. It’s not only found in coffee. Caffeine is also found in black tea (about half the amount as in coffee), green tea, colas, dark chocolate (the higher the cocoa content, the higher the caffeine) and some pain killers. Even decaf coffee contains some caffeine, up to 20% of the amount as normal coffee. I recommend sticking to one or two cups and having them by noon.
Although having a nightcap might be a traditional recommendation for sleep and many of us may be drinking more now than ever, research shows us that alcohol is a sleep stealer. It has a sedative effect, but sedation is not the same as sleep. Alcohol can reduce the amount of deep recovery sleep we get by up to 30%. This means our sleep is 30% less effective. It especially disrupts our REM sleep, which is the type of sleep we need for emotional convalescence.
Stay well hydrated
Many of us are out of our regular routines and might be drinking less water then previously. We don’t generally feel thirsty until we are already dehydrated and water can be a bit of a boring choice. But going to bed even mildly dehydrated can be disruptive, acting as a roadblock to the production of melatonin, our sleep-inducing hormone. To find out more about melatonin and how to check your levels, click here. While everyone has different requirements, most of us need 1.5 to 2L throughout the day, more if exercising a lot.
Herbal teas are a good alternative if you don’t like water. Just make sure that the herbal tea you chose in naturally caffeine free. Some herbal teas like chamomile and passiflora have been shown to be supportive, so can be a nice addition to your bedtime routine.
Eat regularly throughout the day
It’s not just what we eat or do right before bedtime that impacts our sleep. How we eat during the day can make a difference. Skipping meals or going for long periods of time can cause stress hormone levels to rise. This is the natural physical response to running out of fuel and can impact our ability to get to sleep and achieve deep sleep at night. It can also cause us to overeat in the evenings, triggering digestive issues which further impact sleep.
Even if you are fasting for 12 hours overnight (intermittent fasting ‘lite’, great for lots of different aspects of health), once you start eating, you should eat regularly throughout the day. For most of us, this is three meals and one snack e.g. in the afternoon. It’s helpful to finish eating your dinner by 7 or latest 8pm, to allow time for your body to ‘process’ your food before bed.
If you find that you are waking up in the middle of the night and especially if you are feeling hungry when you do, try a small snack with some protein 90 minutes before bed. Good examples with sleep-friendly foods are 2 oatcakes with nut butter or natural yoghurt with seeds and berries.
Some food groups can help
Wholegrains like potatoes with skin on, wholegrain bread and brown rice are great sources of B vitamins, which help us to manage stress, one of the most common sleep disrupters. They also release their energy more slowly than their refined / white counterparts, so help to support more consistent energy levels and avoid dips that might send us looking for pick me ups like caffeine.
Nuts and seeds are one of our best sources of magnesium, a mineral that has been shown in countless studies to support better sleep. It helps us to relax and promotes production of melatonin, our sleep hormone. Nuts are a nutrient dense (aka higher calorie) food so bear in mind that a portion is a palmful, not a packet. Other good sources include green leafy veg and wholegrains. Try including one portion of nuts or seeds every day, in your breakfast or as part of a snack.
A growing body of evidence shows that probiotic foods that support our gut microbiome, like natural yoghurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso paste and kefir play a role in supporting sleep too. Prebiotic foods, serving as the fuel for bacteria, are also important. These are found in fibre-rich foods like vegetables, wholegrains, seeds and nuts. Find out more about probiotics and how to check the levels of bacteria and other health markers in your gut here. We produce more neurotransmitters in our gut than in our brain, including the feel-good hormone serotonin that is needed to make melatonin. Looking after gut health can support better sleep. I recommend having small amounts of a variety of different probiotic foods throughout the week. If you are not used to them, start slowly. They can have an initial wind-inducing effect on your gut, not ideal in lock down!
The biggest game changer
Lifestyle factors like getting some daily exercise, managing stress levels, avoiding blue light emitted from devices before bed and having a relaxing bedtime routine are also important for good sleep. However, the most essential step to better and sufficient sleep for many of us is prioritising sleep. We need to get into bed early enough to allow us at least an 8 hour sleep opportunity. If you are getting up at 7am, getting into bed by 11am at the latest will give you a chance to enough sleep and reap all of the rewards that come with that. Now, while most of us are stuck at home, it’s a great time to prioritise sleep and put some healthier habits into place.
Sleep supporting menu
|Breakfast||Overnight oats with apple and cinnamon|
|Lunch||Omelette with mixed salad, slice wholegrain bread / salad jar|
|Snack||Natural yoghurt with seeds and chopped fruit|
|Dinner||Roast salmon and vegetables with wholegrain coconut rice|
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