The Relationship Between Nutrition and Sleep

Eating and sleeping are two of the most basic functions we do as humans. The average person can live for up to three weeks without food, and even less without water. And while it is unclear how long a person can survive without sleep, the effects of sleep deprivation can show immediately. It goes without saying, of course, that both food and sleep are essential to health and survival. But how exactly do the two relate to each other? Does the food we eat affect the quality of our sleep and do our nighttime habits impact our nutrition? Let’s find out.

How sleep affects nutrition

When you wake up from a night of poor sleep, you might feel fatigued, irritable, and forgetful. This state of grogginess is actually experienced on a cellular level in what researchers have coined, “metabolic grogginess.” This is characterized by the body’s inability to process insulin — a hormone responsible for regulating the amount of sugar in the blood.

Researchers from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that lack of sleep increases the body’s resistance to insulin, which is equivalent to going on a high-fat diet for six months. The excess insulin can increase the rate of fat storage in the body — even if no changes were made to your diet or level of physical activity.

But that’s not all. You might notice that you tend to eat more when you’re sleep-deprived. A bigger appetite is one of the symptoms of sleep deprivation and it is also a result of hormonal changes. Tuck explains that without good sleep, leptin levels in the body drop while ghrelin levels simultaneously increase. Leptin is the hormone that signals when your body is satisfied from eating, while ghrelin stimulates the appetite. The change in hormone levels explains why you tend to eat more without feeling full when you’ve had minimal sleep.

Furthermore, researchers at the University of Warwick also found that quality sleep is the equivalent of winning the lottery in terms of happiness. It is linked to improved mental health, which is instrumental in the nutritional choices that we make. Of course, that’s not to say that the real-life lottery is something to disregard — Lottoland, after all, points out that the Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots are worth $125 million and $197 million, respectively — winning that sort of money alone is enough to give anyone sleepless nights, pondering the endless possibilities of what they could spend the money on. But when considering the nutritional choices you make, as a lottery winner or not, overeating and undereating are common habits adopted by people with poor mental health and who don’t get enough sleep. So it goes without saying that food will undoubtedly have a profound impact on your nighttime habits.

How nutrition affects sleep

Similarly, the food we eat also impacts the quality of sleep we get. Sleep Review provides a detailed breakdown of the effects of different nutrients on sleep. Author Dr. Jose Colon highlights protein as essential in helping reduce the difficulty in which you fall asleep. Eating too much sugar or carbohydrates, on the other hand, can induce daytime sleepiness and effectively disrupt normal sleep/wake cycles. When it comes to the third macronutrient, fat, some studies claim that it can actually alleviate the symptoms of insomnia. However, there needs to be a distinction between the kinds of fat and their specific effects on sleep.

Registered dietitian Whitney Catalano also claims that micronutrient deficiencies can impact sleep. One example of a micronutrient is melatonin, which is found in food such as almonds, walnuts, tart cherry juice, and olive oil. Nuts, along with bananas, are also a good source of magnesium, which is known to promote sleep. If you want to sleep better, consider incorporating these foods into your diet.

There’s no doubt that nutrition and sleep are related. Poor sleep alters with hormones critical to appetite and fat storage, while nutrients can directly induce or hinder sleep. For holistic health, aim to get at least 8 hours of sleep every night and find a healthy balance in your macro- and micronutrient intake.