In terms of our health outcomes, meaning whether or not you succumb to the mercy of diabetes, heart disease, dementia and cancer as you age, I’ve been conflicted as to what the prime needle mover is. The two big ones I’ve narrowed it down to are nutrition and sleep. I lean towards the latter being more important. But food is a close second.
Food tugs on sleep, sleep tugs on food
It is, however a two-way street. Your nutrition impacts your sleep and vise-versa. Nutrition provides the raw materials your body needs in the generation of signaling molecules needed and the daily rhythms that support that. Such things include protein, vitamins and minerals. All the more reason why ditching boxed and bagged crap is so important.
Sleep loss, funny enough, actually makes it more difficult for you to make the right choices when it comes to food selection. Essentially, you end up eating more calories and making lousier choices [2, 3].
But today, we’re going to be focusing on the nutritional aspect.
Aside from focusing on good quality food, two other components often get missed. Total calorie intake and carbohydrates.
The skinny on sleep, carbs and calories
Part of the reason is that one of our primary anabolic hormones, insulin is suppressed with low calorie intake. Insulin essentially allows more of the raw materials needed for the generation of sleep promoting molecules in the brain. Low calories = low insulin = no raw materials = trouble sleeping. In addition, the production of a molecule most of you know as the stress hormone cortisol is increased at the wrong times, which is associated with wakefulness.
The jury is still out on carbs. Carbs are the most insulinogenic of our three macronutrients, and whether or not folks have sufficient insulin signaling that supports good quality sleep on a low carb diet is uncertain. Some folks do well, others don’t.
Part of the reason for this uncertainty is because carbs aren’t just carbs, they’re also calories, and most people inadvertently restrict calorie intake on low carbohydrate diets.
Why does this matter for you?
What you need to know is that if you’ve been having sleep problems, oftentimes they can be remedied by the basics. Ditch the crap and eat whole, unprocessed foods. Healthy starches from tubers, seafood, organ meats once or twice a week, and plenty of vegetables.
If you’ve been having issues following a change in diet, you might want to check your total calorie and carbohydrate intake. I’m always a fan of tracking, weighing and measuring with apps like Cronometer for your most likely answer. It does a rough estimate of your calorie needs for you.
You might say, “well I need a calorie deficit to lose weight.” While that’s true, remember, poor sleep is going to cause you to be constantly swimming upstream and hurt your chances of long term success. Further, weight loss is a stress on the body, and if you’re not sleeping, you’re likely pretty stressed. Might not be the right time to lose weight!
Ugh I don’t want to track my food, Billy!
I encourage you to do this. Even if you’re consistent for just a week, you’ll have a better sense of exactly what and how much you’re eating. But if you don’t want to, fine. Less power to you, but I’ll simplify things for you here if you’re completely lost and just need a basic approach:
2-3 cups (about the size of first) servings size of starch (potato, yam, sweet potato, plantains, yucca) or fruits. Starches are a better way to go because they tend to be more nutrient dense, particularly potatoes.
3-6 (about the size/dimensions of a deck of cards) serving size of protein from chicken, fish, beef, turkey. Less if you’re a female, more if you’re a male, more if you’re active.
Fill in the rest of your calories from additional carbohydrate from the same sources of carbohydrate above or fats from avocados, nuts, seeds, dairy if tolerated and small amounts of added oil.
Manipulation of macronutrients and how they may impact sleep
Knowlden, Adam P., Christine L. Hackman, and Manoj Sharma. “Systematic Review of Dietary Interventions Targeting Sleep Behavior.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 22.5 (2016): 349-362
Sleep deprivation means you choose portion sizes and quality more poorly
Greer, Stephanie M., Andrea N. Goldstein, and Matthew P. Walker. “The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain.” Nature communications 4 (2013): ncomms3259
Sleep derivation and poor food selection again
Hogenkamp, Pleunie S., et al. “Acute sleep deprivation increases portion size and affects food choice in young men.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 38.9 (2013): 1668-1674
Billy Mitchell is a medical student wrapping up his 4th year at Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. His areas of interest include rheumatology and environmental medicine.