A Stress-Busting Eating Plan for Sleep Problems

Are you someone who values sleep, or do you burn the candle at both ends? Do you think that sleep is a waste of time and sleeping eight to 10 hours a night is a sign of laziness? In today's fast-paced, over-worked and over-stressed society, more and more of us are choosing to sacrifice our sleep. But going long periods with inadequate sleep is likely to backfire.

According to the National Sleep Foundation:

  • 50% of all Americans are sleep deprived
  • 60% of us sleep less than seven hours per night
  • 56% report daytime drowsiness
  • 37% of Americans are so sleepy that it interferes with daily activities
  • 16% of women between the ages of 30 and 60 sleep less than six hours per night

Sleep deprivation is the cause of many of our health issues, not to mention a safety issue on our roads — a drowsy driver is as dangerous as a drunken driver. (Keep in mind that "sleep deprivation" is not the same as a "sleep disorder." Sleep deprivation is the result of lack of sleep, whereas a sleep disorder is having difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or staying awake.)

Regardless of whether you are sleep deprived or have disordered sleep patterns, if your body doesn't get enough sleep, this can lead to stress, and the negative results are endless. Here are just a few:

  • Chronic Inflammatory Response
    With lack of sleep, the body senses it is under attack and stimulates a chronic inflammatory response. This is not an immediate response, but it is the body's response to protecting itself from injury. The body sends out white blood cells to clean up the debris, much like when you cut yourself or sprain an ankle, and the area becomes inflamed. When we are sick, this inflammatory response is essential for protecting tissues, but if it is chronic (as with chronic sleep deprivation), over the years it can damage healthy tissue. A chronic inflammatory response is linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis, to name a few.
  • Lower Metabolism
    In addition to feeling tired and exhausted, lack of sleep causes a decrease in metabolism, meaning fewer burned calories and a greater potential for weight gain. Feeling too tired and exhausted leads to lack of exercise and activity, which also fuels detrimental health effects, a lower metabolism and weight gain.
  • Hunger
    When you are sleep deprived, your body has trouble efficiently using carbohydrates and can confuse being tired with being hungry. As a result, blood sugar rises, causing overproduction of insulin, which also leads to an increase in body fat and weight. Because lack of sleep is a stressor, the stress hormone cortisol is also produced, causing you to eat more.
  • Reduction in Growth Hormone
    To further complicate the issue, sleep deprivation also leads to a reduction in growth hormone, a protein that regulates the body's proportions of fat and muscle. Even as adults this protein is necessary to help build the muscle. This is critical, since muscle burns calories. With a lack of growth hormone to help build muscle, metabolism slows.
  • Low Serotonin Levels
    The brain chemical serotonin enhances a general sense of calm and positive feelings; this hormone is recharged when the body rests. With a lack of sleep, low levels of serotonin result in cravings for foods that are rich in carbohydrates (and often full of fat).
  • Forgetfulness
    Between the sixth and eighth hour of sleep, the brain stores everything it learned during the day — habits, actions and skills. Your memory and learning ability suffer if you don't get continuous sleep for eight hours. With inadequate sleep, all the healthy behaviors you once practiced tend to be left behind.

Stress-Busting Eating Plan to Combat Sleep Deprivation

Now you know why you need eight to 10 hours of sleep to be efficient, reduce stress and prevent weight gain. But how can you make it happen? Follow this stress-busting eating plan to combat sleep deprivation:

  • Stay Hydrated
    An active female requires eight to 11 cups of water per day, and an active male needs approximately 16 cups.
  • Limit High-Fat Meals
    But don't completely eliminate fat from your diet. Avoid all fried foods; use skim milk products and lean meats; choose smart desserts that are low in fat; replace bad fats with good fats like canola oil and olive oil; sprinkle flaxseed on cereals and smoothies; and add healthy nuts like walnuts and almonds to your salads and in oatmeal.
  • Limit Carbohydrates and Sugars
    And include high-fiber carbohydrates almost always to assure a steady level of blood glucose.
  • Eat Fruit and Drink Water Every Four Hours
    This prevents sweet cravings.
  • Eat Protein for Muscle Repair and Growth
    Spread protein servings across all your meals. This also helps with blood sugar stabilization. Although protein is important, most of us get way too much. For most people, seven to 10 ounces per day is adequate.
  • Do Not Skip Meals
    Stressed people often do this because they do not have time to eat. Having breakfast, lunch and dinner with some snacks frequently throughout the day is important. Never go more than four hours without a meal or snack.
  • Make Sensible Choices about Caffeine
    Avoid drinking more than one to two cups of coffee per day, since caffeine is a stimulant and can keep you awake, and may also lead to dehydration, stress headaches and muscle fatigue (which are also caused by a lack of sleep).
  • Eat Lots of Deeply Colored Vegetables
    Look for carrots, sweet potatoes and broccoli, green and red peppers, cauliflower and cabbage, spinach and kale. These vegetables build the blood with nutrients and help combat the negative effects of stress, and provide phytochemicals and antioxidants that fight disease.
  • Take a Low-to-Moderate Dose Supplement
    Being stressed and sleep deprived makes it harder than ever to eat right. Studies have shown that people who take a supplement have significantly less illnesses, such as colds and flu.
  • Avoid Excessive Alcohol
    It is believed that alcohol suppresses REM (rapid eye movement) sleep that is crucial for a good night's sleep.
Cheryl Winter
Cheryl Winter, MS, RD, CDE, is a Houston-based ‎Integrative Nutritionist Nurse Practitioner.