|Gillian Goodfriend, NCHPAD Registered Dietician|
Unfortunately, sleep problems and disturbances are an all-too-common concern for many of us. From time to time, most people have some difficulty sleeping. For others, however, sleeping problems are a constant issue.
Sleep disorders or sleep disturbances are a very common secondary condition for many people with disabilities. There are many reasons for having trouble sleeping, including leg spasms, pain, immobility, medications, depression, anxiety, and frequent urination.
Regardless of the cause, having interrupted or inadequate sleep over time can have detrimental effects, including decreased reaction time, impaired judgment, lack of motivation and patience, and impaired memory. On the other hand, getting the proper amount of sleep can boost concentration, improve mood, enhance the immune system, and increase motivation.
While proper nutrition is not the fix-all cure for sleep disturbances, it can help improve sleep. There are many dietary factors that can make a difference when it comes to sleep.
Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it helps keep us awake and alert. While some people are more affected by caffeine than others, it is a good idea to avoid caffeine late in the day. Foods high in caffeine include coffee, soda, many energy drinks, and chocolate.
While alcohol is a relaxant and may initially help us fall asleep, alcohol will not promote a good night's sleep. Alcohol affects sleep patterns by interfering with the monoamine neurotransmitters which control the body's ability to sleep deeply and peacefully. Research has shown that even a small amount of alcohol can disrupt the second half of a person's sleep cycle, leading to waking in the middle of the night and an inability to fall back to sleep.
Avoid spicy foods just before bed. Spicy foods can interfere with sleep by causing heartburn and indigestion. Some research has also noted that, after eating a spicy meal, our body temperature rises, which can also account for poorer quality of sleep.
Especially for those who have problems with frequent urination, drinking liquids too close to bedtime can significantly exacerbate this problem. To promote better sleep, it is wise to limit liquids to at least 90 minutes before going to bed. If you take medications with water just before going to bed, try to take them 1 to 2 hours earlier.
If you go to bed hungry, you will inevitably wake up in the middle of night. While you should avoid large amounts of food right before bed, it's a good idea to have a light snack. Avoid foods high in sugar, as these will cause excitability and can interfere with sleep. Also, foods high in fat take longer to digest and can also affect sleep quality. Good bedtime snack choices are a small bowl of cereal with milk, yogurt, or crackers with low-fat cheese.
Tryptophan has long been known as something that helps us sleep. It has also been linked to the reason why we feel tired after a Thanksgiving dinner full of turkey. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning that the body cannot manufacture it. The body has to get tryptophan and other essential amino acids from food. Tryptophan helps the body produce niacin (vitamin B3) which, in turn, helps the body produce serotonin, a calming agent in the brain that plays a key role in sleep. Research, however, is not completely clear. There is some evidence that the effects of tryptophan can only be seen on an empty stomach. Food sources of tryptophan include turkey, red meat, dairy products, nuts, seeds, bananas, soybeans and soy products, tuna, and shellfish. The tolerable upper limit for tryptophan is 300-600mg in humans. Supplements should be avoided, as there is inconclusive evidence on the side effects of too much tryptophan.
Regular Physical Activity
In addition to nutrition, being physically active on a regular basis has been shown to lead to better, higher-quality sleep. While exercise is a very important part of a healthy lifestyle, it should be avoided close to bedtime. It can hinder sleep by making us more alert and increasing our body temperature.
It's important to remember that what you eat has an effect, not only on your weight and general health, but also on how well you sleep. Some foods improve sleep while others can make sleep difficult or even impossible. While certain nutrition factors can improve sleep, they cannot cure sleep problems. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you are experiencing sleep disturbances on a regular basis.
Please send any questions or comments to Gillian Goodfriend at firstname.lastname@example.org.