How Sleep Habits Affect Eating Habits & Eating Habits Affect Sleep

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By Dr. Melody Hawkins, Pediatric & Adolescent Sleep Center

How Does Sleep Affect My Eating Habits?
Have you ever noticed that after having a particularly bad night of sleep, the next day, you are more hungry than usual, causing you to eat foods that usually would be considered an indulgence?

You are not alone! Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase hunger levels by increasing hunger hormones as well as increasing the chance of eating less healthy foods, a so-called hedonic type of eating.

Your body is metabolically active during the day and at night. During the day, your muscles increase the metabolism of fats and sugars, the liver produces bile and glycogen, the pancreas releases insulin in response to eating, and fat is deposited.

At night the process of fat catabolism is increased. This is partially why it is so important to obtain adequate sleep times to help maintain normal body weight.

Studies have shown that short sleep times in children are associated with higher rates of being overweight and obese. This can set children up for a lifetime of struggles with their weight and confidence level.

How Does Eating Affect My Sleep?
The timing of your eating can affect your sleep onset and sleep quality.

Eating is a primary zeitgeber — meaning it is a major factor in helping to entrain your circadian rhythm. Some people notice changes in their sleep patterns after intermittent fasting (this usually involves a shortened feeding window) or other changes in their diet.

If you start setting the alarm to wake yourself up to eat a meal during the night, over time, you’ll likely start waking up on your own at this time — and you’ll be hungry.

A “sleep-promoting” diet would generally be a “healthy” diet with a wide range of foods.

Healthy levels of dietary fiber are thought to improve sleep quality. Some foods contain certain compounds (such as tryptophan and magnesium) or may influence melatonin secretion. However, the effect of eating these types of foods is often not as dramatic as one might hope; eating these foods isn’t generally recommended as a primary sleep-promoting strategy. These foods and drinks include:

• Soybeans
• Nuts (walnuts, almonds)
• Fruits (bananas, kiwi, oranges, pineapple, tart cherries)
• Cottage cheese with fruit
• Lima beans
• Complex carbohydrates and oats
• Herbal tea (peppermint, chamomile)
• Milk

In one 2019 study of over 400 medical students, eating papayas was associated with reduced sleep quality. Here’s some advice on eating before bed:

• Avoid very large or high-fat meals very close to bedtime. This could cause an increased chance of acid reflux. It is also thought that if your body is spending the first few hours of sleep digesting your last meal, then your sleep may not have the same restorative value.
• Avoid eating during desired sleep times, as eating is a signal to the body that it is time to be awake (exceptions to this include infants less than 6-months-old or children with growth problems).
• Avoid going to bed very hungry, as this can cause problems falling asleep.
• If you struggle with late evening hunger and late-night snacking, make sure you are eating enough earlier in the day.
• Foods high in sugar and heavily processed carbohydrates can make it more difficult to fall asleep.
• Make sure you are drinking enough during the day, so you’re not thirsty at night.
• Be careful that you’re not accidentally taking in caffeine.
– Dark chocolate, tea, and sodas are common caffeine culprits.
– Avoid caffeine for 4- to 6-hours before your desired bedtime (some people may need even longer).
– Check any medications for hidden caffeine, especially cold medicines and pain relievers.
• Avoidance of alcohol is recommended (even if it helps you to fall asleep faster).
– Alcohol will cause you to awaken in the early morning.
– Alcohol decreases the restorative value of your sleep.

Do I Need to See a Sleep Doctor?
Endocrine problems, including polycystic ovarian disease, diabetes, and obesity, have higher prevalence rates of obstructive sleep apnea and some other sleep disorders.

If you or a family member has any of these problems, consider having a low threshold to see a sleep doctor. A neck circumference of more than 16 inches for women and more than 17 inches for men is associated with an increased risk of having sleep apnea.

If you eat at night while you are sleeping, then seeing a sleep doctor is recommended as nocturnal eating can be dangerous. Some people have been described to eat unusual foods that they would never normally eat (coffee grinds, raw meat). Others eat large portions of snacks, which can cause an upset stomach.

If your baby is over 6-months-old and healthy, then gradually phasing out nighttime feedings will usually lead to fewer awakenings at night. Fewer awakenings result in improved sleep quality for both you and your baby. A pediatric sleep specialist can help give guidance on how to do this best, as a gradual approach is recommended for infants.

What If I Just Want to Sleep Better?
If you are healthy but would like to optimize your sleep quality, then many of the same recommendations for general health apply. This includes:

• A regular, age-appropriate sleep schedule (7- to 9-hours of sleep per night for adults and more for children).
• Find healthy ways to manage stress.
• Exercise/physical activity, ideally including some sunlight exposure.
– Avoid extremely strenuous activity ~1- to 2-hours before bed.
– Stretching and light activity before bed is encouraged.
• Eating a wide variety of foods to meet your physical and emotional sense of self-satisfaction.
– A balanced diet high in fiber and low in added sugars is recommended.
– Avoid a diet that promotes vitamin deficiencies, such as extreme elimination diets (unless recommended by your doctor or for special circumstances).
– Avoid foods that will worsen your heartburn close to bedtime, including high-fat foods, spicy foods, and alcohol.

One Last Tip!
If your sleep schedule has shifted back during the quarantine and you or your child need to move up your sleep schedule in order to start getting up earlier, the general advice is to expose yourself to bright light upon awakening.

Light is the most dominant environmental factor in setting the circadian rhythm. Once you are falling asleep earlier, move your wake up earlier by 15- to 30-minutes until your desired wake-up time is achieved.

As the only American Academy of Sleep Medicine accredited sleep center in Northern Virginia, the specialists at Fairfax Neonatal Associates’ Pediatric & Adolescent Sleep Center evaluate and treat sleep-related problems specific to pediatrics and adolescents. Patients, ages 20 and younger, are seen by board-certified Pediatric Pulmonologists who are dedicated to fully treating a wide range of sleep disorders, including restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and more.

Learn more about Dr. Melody Hawkins, this post’s author here, and all of Fairfax Neonatal Associates’ providers here. Connect with their Pediatric & Adolescent Sleep Center online or by calling (703) 226-2290.

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Advice: Fairfax Neonatal Associates

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