Do you find that after a good night’s sleep, not only do your run seems smoother, you also tend to make wiser, more nutritious food choices? It turns out sleep affects the body’s muscle and body fat levels. Inadequate sleep can lower the body’s muscle mass and can result in extra visceral fat around the middle because during sleep, particularly REM sleep, the body repairs and builds muscle while also breaking down fat for energy. Without enough quality sleep, the body might not be able to build as much of muscle or burn as much fat. Moreover, it causes hormone imbalances that negatively influence our dietary choices.
Studies have found that lack of sleep can cause leptin (the fullness hormone) levels in the body to drop, while increasing the ghrelin (the hunger hormone) levels. Given the hormone imbalance, it’s not surprising that we are more prone to food cravings and tend to consume higher fat foods when we are sleep deprived and thereby increasing the number of calories we consume. In addition, sleep is known to affect concentration, decision-making, and mood, all of which can play into the types of foods we incorporate into our daily diet. What's more? Stress hormones are also influenced by sleep habits. While deep sleep neutralizes stress hormones, lack of sleep triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol, increasing the risk of heart disease, midsection fat accumulation, and muscle breakdown.
Sleep and nutrition in athletes is an often overlooked aspect of recovery and performance. Chronic sleep loss can negatively impact glucose metabolism, leading to increased risk of obesity and insulin resistance. Moreover, glucose metabolism also affects glycogen synthesis, which is important for sports such as running. Sleep deprivation can also affect the secretion of hormones, an increase in catabolic hormone and a decrease in anabolic hormones, that play a role in protein synthesis, resulting in impaired recovery, training adaptations, and body composition. While quality sleep has positive effects specifically on athletic performance, a lack of sleep is detrimental to performance. Mentally, sleep deprivation reduces the ability to react quickly and think clearly, increases risk of injury and negative performance.
Nourish for Better Sleep
Did you know? You don’t necessarily need to pop a pill to get a dose of melatonin? Melatonin is a hormone that our bodies make naturally to help us regulate day and night. When melatonin rises in the body, we start to feel sleepy. We can get a boost of this sleep inducer by eating a variety of plant foods like walnuts, tart cherries, grapes, tomatoes, and oats.
Not only does magnesium regulate muscle and nerve function, it also plays a large role in sleep regulation. It is a natural relaxant that helps our brain and body relax and prime us to sleep as it acts on a similar pathway in our brain as anti-anxiety drugs. This essential mineral is found naturally in many foods such as leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, whole grains, pulses, and dark chocolate.
Tryptophan is an amino acid – one of the building blocks of protein. It's the precursor to our body’s serotonin production and the neurotransmitter serotonin is a precursor to the hormone melatonin, which is important for the body’s internal clock to regulate our sleep wake cycles. This nutrient can be found in turkey, chicken, eggs, sweet potatoes, chia seeds, hemp seeds, bananas, and dairy products (low fat, please!).
Vitamin B (B6)
This essential vitamin helps to modulate our body’s stress response and relax our nervous system. It helps in converting tryptophan into serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates the sleep/ wake cycle. Good sources of vitamin B6 include bananas, yogurt (sugar-free, please!), avocados, fish, tomatoes, spinach, and eggs.
Carbohydrate intake can increase the amount of the amino acid tryptophan and, therefore, can promote a better night of sleep. Moreover, carbohydrate-containing foods, complex carbohydrate in particular, are a great source of fiber. The fiber content of plant based foods, which, in addition to benefits like improving digestion to help prevent heart disease, is also a major player in stepping up sleep quality - studies show that greater fibre intake led to more time spent in the stage of deep, slow wave sleep. Aim to fill at least half of your plate with plant-based foods like fruits, veggies, nuts, whole grains, and pulses.
Healthy Snacks for Snooze and Pre/Post Run:
- a banana with low-fat yogurt
- low-fat cottage cheese with a few 100% whole-grain pita chips
- peanut butter smear on 100% whole-grain crackers
- apple slices with mozzarella string cheese
- A glass of tart cherries juice (studies show that consuming tart cherry juice causes an increase in melatonin production)
Last but not least, the basis of a balanced diet go hand-in-hand with general tips for avoiding sleep disruptions related to food and drink:
- Limit caffeine intake, especially in the evening when its stimulant effects can keep you up at night.
- Limit alcohol consumption since it can dehydrate you and throw off your sleep cycles even if it makes you sleepy and fall asleep at first.
- Try not to eat too late so that you aren’t still digesting at bedtime and are at less risk of acid reflux.
- Limit sugary treats before bedtime as sugar-rich foods can quickly spike up our insulin levels and mess up our natural sleep cycle.
Beyond a healthy, sleep-friendly diet, there are other ways to help support better sleep:
- Create an environment that is ideal for sleeping by making sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool.
- “Wind-down” 30 minutes before bed. Build a relaxing bedtime routine with calming practices like dimming the lights, listening to soothing music, meditating, or reading. Find what makes you feel the most relaxed and stick with it!
- Go for a run and get a dose of natural sunlight first thing in the morning and limit exposure to bright light in the evening to help normalize your circadian rhythm.
Hands off any electronics and screens at least 30 minutes before bed as blue light is believed to reduce melatonin production.