Sleep is a subject that I’m really interested in because there’s a powerful connection between how well you sleep and your health and weight status. You already know that when you don’t get enough sleep, you feel crummy and sluggish, your patience may be low, and your work may suffer. But did you also know that insufficient sleep or poor sleep quality leaves you more susceptible to colds and flus, can up your risk of injury during a tough workout, and impair on the job performance (beyond just feeling sluggish)? Plus, not sleeping enough increases hunger and drive up cravings, especially for high sugar, high carb fare that can make it hard to lose or maintain weight. And if you’re staying up past your body’s biological bedtime, it can also reduce the normal calorie-burning process, which influences weight loss (and prompts weight gain). Obviously, this is not ideal. However, there are some easy, natural things you can do to start sleeping better ASAP.
Eat more fiber and less saturated fats. In one small study, eating more saturated fat (which is found in red meats and full fat dairy products)—especially at dinner—and consuming too little fiber (an eating pattern common among Americans) resulted in trouble falling asleep and less restorative sleep. Aim to get 25 to 35 grams of fiber each day (taller men are at the higher end of the range), which you can easily do if you’re embracing fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and beans. At dinner, favor chicken, fish, or a bean-based main dish instead of beef. And perhaps skip the ice cream or gelato dessert!
Stick to the daily sugar caps. The same study showed that higher sugar consumers had more disturbed sleep. The American Heart Association suggests limiting sugar to six teaspoons a day for women, nine for men. Besides the obvious sources, read food labels to spot added sugars in seemingly healthy products like granola and granola bars, whole grain cereals, Greek yogurt, salad dressings, soups, and other condiments.
· Follow the alcohol recommendations. While a couple of drinks might prompt you to fall asleep more quickly, alcohol interferes with the quality of sleep, which can cause hormone disturbances that prompt overeating. Women should follow the one drink a day rule; men can go up to two drinks. I’d be lying if I said I always abide by this rule so as a backup plan, drink plenty of water if you are going above the limits and make sure never to drink on an empty stomach. When I go out to dinner, I’ve also found it helpful to wait until my dinner arrives to order my glass of wine instead of ordering it at the get go. This helps me stick to the limits.
Curb nighttime eating.When your body is busy digesting, it can’t properly do its nighttime job of clearing out toxins and restoring our brains and bodies for another day. When possible stop eating at least two hours (and preferably three) hours before bedtime. It has an added benefit of reducing the likelihood of acid reflux, which worsens when you lie down shortly after eating. And of course, when reflux is painful, it can cause restlessness.
· Meditate. A mindfulness practices helps reduce stress, build awareness, and develop clarity and focus. It also helps improve sleep quality. If you’re skeptical about meditation, consider that it can be practiced in as few as one minute, and it can also be practiced in many different settings, such as your desk, while walking, during your morning commute (if you’re on a train or bus) or at home. There are free apps like Insight Timer to guide you through simple breathing exercises as well as longer visualization techniques.
Download a white noise app.Even if you’re able to fall asleep, studies show that traffic and other outside noises can have a dramatic impact on restful and restorative sleep, resulting in impaired performance the next day. White noise works to drown out these environmental sounds to help you sleep more peacefully.
Put your phone on do not disturb an hour before bed. Your phone (and ipad) emit light that interferes with the production of melatonin, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Plus, your brain can’t really tell whether you’re doing something “relaxing,” like checking your social feeds or more “intense,” like answering a work email. In both cases, your brain thinks it needs to stay alert. That makes it harder to settle in to sleep at bedtime. Finally, unsilenced phones can buzz or ring during the night, interfering with a good night’s rest.
Supplement smartly. Consider melatonin or magnesium glycinate, which can help promote relaxation and lead to better sleep. If you do take supplements, make sure you’re not supplementing in lieu of practicing other sleep-promoting behaviors. Also, check with your doctor or dietitian to make sure these natural sleep remedies don’t interfere with other medications you may be taking. Finally, melatonin is only meant to be taken on a short-term basis so make sure to curtail use within six months.