Eat Well to Sleep Well

Fall is upon us. Schools are back in session, less vacations are happening, new routines and new schedules abound. This may mean that we need to start getting to sleep earlier and up earlier, but for many of us, that may be difficult.

Insomnia is something I frequently hear about in my office. It might be trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early or just not a restful sleep. It's a huge topic and the cause of your difficulty could range from sleep apnea, hormonal imbalance, pain and inflammation, depression and anxiety to name a few. If you suffer from chronic insomnia I suggest you see your naturopathic doctor for a complete assessment.

But here's something that you may not have considered. How you eat and when you eat can also have a dramatic affect on your sleep quality and quantity.

I've consistently observed that my patients sleep better when they have well-managed blood sugar. I'm not just talking about people with diabetes, this applies to everyone. That late night bowl of cereal or bag of chips might be doing more than adding inches to your waistline. It may be causing a sugar rush and subsequent crash that either prevents you from falling asleep or wakes you from sleep during the night.

Simple carbohydrates, such as in a low fibre cereal or a bag of chips, are quickly broken down in your body into sugar and released in the blood to be used for energy. Once that energy is used up, you experience a quick drop in your blood sugar that may disturb your sleep. Establishing better control of your blood sugar will help to avoid those peaks and valleys that can lead to fatigue, anxiety, irritability and poor sleep. If you've ever described yourself as someone that gets “hangry” (hungry + angry), I'm talking to you!

Tips for healthy blood sugar for a good night's rest:

  1. Establish a healthy diet full of whole foods, tons of veggies and very little packaged food and added sugar. The more real food (as close to natural as possible) that you eat, the easier it will be for you to maintain your blood sugar. Flour products (breads, crackers...), even if they are “whole grain” are still processed foods.
  2. Focus your first meal of the day on protein and good fat. In my mind, packaged cereal, even the “healthy” sort, is a treat and not something that should be consumed as breakfast. Examples might include eggs with veggies and avocado or a smoothie with protein, such as hemp seeds or nut butter. If you enjoy savoury food for breakfast, just about anything is game... how about soup?! Throughout the day, aim for complex carbohydrates and do include protein, fibre and good fat with every meal or snack.
  3. Go easy on the alcohol. Even though alcohol might make you feel sleepy, it will not help you get a good night's rest. Not only will drinking mess with your blood sugar, alcohol will also change your brain chemistry and inhibit restorative sleep. Additionally, it may contribute to sleep apnea and lead to more nighttime trips to the washroom.
  4. See if you can make dinner the last time you consume calories for the day. Everyone is a little different and there may be some who need to snack before bed. My observation is that for many people, the better they do with points 1-3, the easier it is not to snack. Time away from digesting food gives your body space to focus on other things. If you do need a snack before bed ensure it includes some protein.
  5. Caffeine too close to bedtime affects sleep. Some people can tolerate coffee in the morning and still get a good night's sleep but I've had patients tell me that any caffeine in the day will negatively impact nighttime sleep. Caffeine can also impact anxiety and make those late night worries seem magnified. Consider an experiment with no caffeine for a while, (on a weekend so you don't have to work with caffeine withdrawal headache!) and then slowly see how much and how late in the day you can tolerate.

Wishing you a happy and restful fall!

Dr. Alexis Blanks is a naturopathic doctor who is clinically trained and naturally focused. She is co-owner of Flourish Naturopathic at Moss Healthcare. Learn more at FlourishND.com. 

Dr. Alexis Blanks, ND