wellness — By registered dietitian chris mohr
We’ve all been there. You stay up way too late binge watching your favorite Netflix show, only to remember you have a 7 am Zoom meeting meaning you’re cutting you sleep short. Again.
Not able to get down enough coffee to keep your eyelids open, you turn to a quick hit of sugar to give you the jolt you need and bring your A game to the call.
You’re not alone.
When we sleep less, we eat more to the tune of approximately 300 calories more the next day. And the “more” most often means higher sugar, higher fat foods. So it’s not just the quantity, but also the quality that can hurt us overtime.
To put this in perspective, a few hundred more calories each day can lead to big weight gain at the end of a year if not accounted for. But it’s not just about weight gain; it’s about how the quality of your diet is impacted by sleep and, how your diet impacts the quality of your sleep as well.
At the end of the day, well-being is a big cyclical puzzle that’s all connected. What we eat, how we sleep and how we move are all related with sleep arguably at the base of the well-being puzzle.
Let’s specifically examine what foods (and drinks) can play a role with the quality of our sleep to see if we can get all the pieces in place to meet the one of the March Pursuits: allowing yourself to get 6-8 hours of sleep each night.
First, let’s start with caffeine. No, I’m not going to say stop drinking it or using it. But I will say stop drinking it after a certain time.
If you’re rolling your eyes right now thinking “listen, Mohr – I can chug caffeine and keep a mug on my nightstand and I still sleep like a baby” think again. Being asleep and having a sound night of sleep are two different things.
I was giving a talk once and one of the individuals in the group came up to me at the break to say he was having a terrible time sleeping. This dude was in his mid 50’s and was certainly no stranger to the weight room. He was a physical specimen, but also said he drags through work all day because he’s up so frequently at night. As we dug in a bit more, he told me he normally lifts hard at 9 PM (mistake #1) and on the way there, has his pre workout drink (mistake #2). When he showed me what was in his pre workout drink, I saw it had just under 300 mg of caffeine per scoop (that’s 3 times the amount of a typical cup of coffee). Remember, he was drinking this close to 9 PM in the evening.
Why does that matter?
Research in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine measured the effects of caffeine when consumed 0, 3 and 6 hours before bed and the researchers found that even that consumed at the 6-hour pre bed mark had profound negative effects on sleep. I’ll do the math for you; that means if you usually crash at 10 PM, according to this study, 4 PM is cut off.
But, and this is a big one, sleep researcher Dr. Chris Winter, the President of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and this months Rhone Sleep Expert, added “Interestingly, the research would say that caffeine can hang around in your system for much longer than that in terms of affecting sleep.”
Here’s essentially how it works. The half-life of caffeine, which is the length of time that half the dose is still available in your system, is about 6-8 hours for most. That means for your typical cup of coffee, which provides about 100 mg of caffeine, 50 mg is still in your system 6-8 hours later and if you do the math, about half that dose 6-8 hours later (so, in this example, 25 mg). But there’s also a compound effect, which is great with finances, but horrible with caffeine so it’s all adding up throughout the day and into the evening.
In other words, if I have a cup of coffee at home in the AM, then go to my favorite coffee shop on the way to the office and maybe have another hit of ‘Joe’ in the early afternoon, by the time I’m trying to wind it down, some of the caffeine from all those coffee’s is still in my system. And while you may be able to fall asleep without a problem, research suggests your brain is still active for at least 1 hour during sleep. Of course you can also count caffeinated energy drinks, tea, pre workout drinks or anything else with caffeine to the mix.
Moral of the story? Most suggest cutting off caffeine by noon, 2 PM at the latest and certainly not the 9 PM like the individual I mentioned earlier. As an aside, he was able to swap out that daily 9 PM pre workout drink habit (and push his workout to earlier in the day) and emailed me about a month later saying he was literally sleeping like a baby, which had a positive outcome on not just his productivity, but his workouts and his mood. Win-Win-Win.
First I tell you to cut back on caffeine and now alcohol.
Who invited the fun sponge?!
Well, while alcohol can in fact knock you out, it doesn’t help you stay asleep. In fact, when there’s alcohol in your system, you can’t dream and you will certainly wake up in the middle of the night. That of course interrupts the quality of your sleep as well and will interfere with the goal of the March Pursuit.
This doesn’t mean never have a drink again, unless that’s what you want, but the usual recommendation is making “last call” at least 2 hours before bed and then enjoying some non-alcohol drinks (e.g., water) pre bed. That’s according to the science. I’ll also add maybe considering limiting the frequency of your drinks to just one or two nights max, per week. Consider maybe just a Friday and Saturday drink and see how it affects your sleep and then your mood, focus and everything else the next day.
While anecdotal, the sleep tracker I have and wear regularly consistently has shown me when I have alcohol in my system, my sleep score is way down. Knowing how differently I feel when I sleep less, that was all I needed to change up my routine.
What’s the worst that can happen by giving this a try?
Tart Cherry Juice
Clearly you’ve heard of melatonin, right? Yes, maybe you take it regularly.
While the data are mixed on the beneficial effects of regularly use, there are some impressive data that boosting it naturally through foods may be of benefit. Enter tart cherry juice. One study conducted at Louisiana State University found that tart cherry juice extended sleep time by over an hour (84 minutes, to be exact). This was a very small study, but the researchers found when the study subjects drank 8 oz of tart cherry juice in the morning and 8 oz of tart cherry juice in the evening, they improved their quantity of their sleep by nearly an hour and a half! Chalk one up in the win column for natural food sources of melatonin!
While we’re on the topic of natural sources of melatonin, pistachios clearly win this competition with one study finding that they contain significantly more than any other food – namely 600 ng/gram. While the number may not mean much, when compared to other food sources like fruits (0.05 – 15 ng/gm) or seeds (2.0-198 ng/gm), it’s significant. Now admittedly I am not aware of any studies that fed individuals pistachios and measured sleep, but it certainly can’t hurt to enjoy a serving as an evening snack if you’re hungry. If nothing else, they’re a quality source of fiber, protein and other nutrients. Wash it down with a glass of tart cherry juice and who knows what that result may be.
While this isn’t about any specific food, keep in mind that gorging on a feast where the only option when done is to unbutton your pants so your stomach can expand will certainly interrupt the quality of your sleep. Aside from the general discomfort, while your body is trying to digest all that grub, it could lead to acid reflux and indigestion, which can certainly make it hard to fall asleep. Now, acid reflux and indigestion may not be issues for you typically so they may not currently be an issue for you, but in general, the large bolus of food and immediately lying horizontal may just general be uncomfortable and not let your body settle as it needs to, so why not give a little buffer between eating and bedtime.
There are literally dozens of variables that can affect sleep quality and quantity. Food is just one of the money and we’ll discuss some other sleep hygiene habits in another piece this month.
I say, control the controllables knowing just how important sleep is for our body and our soul and do as much as you can to take care of your body so it will take care of you.
Want more on sleep, check out MohrResults.com/sleep