Too little or too much sleep (much rarer) is a risk factor for many diseases. Too little sleep on a regular basis has been linked to a risk of developing obesity. If there were a specific diet or set of guidelines that would encourage sleep that might be helpful, right? Well we’re not quite there yet, but a small pilot study observed that getting more sleep, seemed to reduce intake of free sugars. That may offer another tool in the treatment or prevention of obesity.
The term free sugars in this case refers to added refined sugars in the manufacturing or home cooking process, and the sugars found in syrups, honey and fruit juice.
Current recommendations suggest that most of us need between seven and nine hours of deep, restorative sleep nightly. According to current Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics, one in three Americans do not get enough sleep. Another CDC statistic suggests that more than one third or 36.5 percent of adults in the U.S. have obesity. Lack of sleep is associated with an increased risk of cardio-metabolic conditions like impaired glucose tolerance. This study, though, indicates a pattern of higher calorie intake, specifically from sugars and carbohydrates when individuals get too little sleep.
The randomized controlled study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at how extending sleep in subjects would impact nutrient intake. Twenty one participants had a 45 minute sleep consultation that aimed to extend their current sleep time by one and a half hours per night (sleep extension group). The counseling highlighted four sleep hygiene habits: Avoiding caffeine close to bedtime, establishing a pre-sleep relaxation routine, not going to bed too full or too hungry, and keeping to a set bedtime. A separate control group of twenty one subjects received no counseling.
For seven consecutive days, the sleep extension group kept sleep and estimated food diaries while wearing a motion sensor monitor on the wrist that measured “before falling asleep time once in bed,” and actual sleep time. Among the intervention group, 86 percent of the subjects had increased overall time in bed and showed sleep increase durations between 52 and 90 minutes. Three of the 21 intervention subjects achieved sleep ranges between seven and nine hours. The control group showed no such changes.
Researchers did note that some of the extended sleep may have been “lesser quality” sleep which they believe was due to an adjustment period individuals need to experience as they attempt to change sleep habits.
Extending sleep duration was also noted to have an impact on nutrition. The sleep extension group showed a ten gram reduction in reported intake of free sugars and an overall lower consumption of carbohydrates. This finding was not noted in the control group.
Experts have identified almost 90 contributors to obesity. “Increased intake of food” is identified as a significant consideration.
Though this is clearly a small study, the researchers suggest that sleep needs to be regarded as a modifiable risk factor and habit for achieving healthier food intake, and possibly for weight reduction and avoidance of obesity. Increasing time in bed and overall sleep time by an hour or so appears to have the potential to lead to reduced calorie intake. The researchers also suggest that subjects established this habit change with relative ease – a factor to consider since so many lifestyle habits can be difficult to modify.
There are diet considerations that can help to support sleep:
- Avoid caffeine after lunchtime
- Don’t eat a heavy meal within a few hours of bedtime
- Avoid spicy foods which can cause reflux
- Stop drinking liquids within two hours of bedtime (to limit waking up to use the bathroom during the night)
There are foods that have been identified as sleep-supportive. Eating these foods on a regular basis can possibly help to enhance sleep quality thanks to compounds they contain which may influence sleep. If you do have a pre-bedtime snack, choosing from this list:
- Almonds, bananas – Magnesium helps to calm inflammation which may support better sleep
- Turkey, milk – Tryptophan increases levels of melatonin
- Chamomile tea – Apigenin binds to certain receptors in the brain that may promote sleep
- Passion flower tea – May increase GABA which can help to inhibit brain chemicals like glutamate that induce stress
- Kiwis – May nudge levels of serotonin which helps to regulate sleep
- Tart cherry juice – Contains melatonin
- Fatty fish – Vitamin D may enhance sleep by raising levels of serotonin
Instead of just focusing on dietary changes that can support better sleep patterns, consider an overall sleep-supportive program that includes some of the dietary recommendations mentioned as well as good sleep hygiene habits. What is clear that we all need to start valuing sleep as a priority and as a tool to battle obesity.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”