The biggest reason your healthy diet isn’t working for you

Your fridge is full of salads; you’re spending a significant portion of your paycheck on all things organic, grass-fed and wild; and you’re reading food labels like your life depends on it. So, why are your scale and your blood sugar readings moving in the wrong direction? And what’s with that late night craving for carbs? If that sounds at all like you, it might not be what you’re eating that’s sabotaging your efforts.

The problem might lie with your sleep habits

Sleep deprivation is turning into an epidemic. According to a National Sleep Foundation study, 35% of adults rate their sleep as “poor” or “only fair” (1). As many as 70 million people in the U.S. don’t get enough sleep, (1) and it impacts so much more than your coffee bill.

You’re probably aware that you pay the price for a poor night’s sleep with concentration, memory and mood problems. But you might be surprised to learn that a sleep deprivation, or poor quality sleep – as in tossing and turning and waking up through the night, can have a negative effect on your food cravings, metabolism, and weight. And in the long run, it can even impact your body’s metabolic functions, like blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels – even if you’re eating like Tom Brady.

Your body, brain, and hormones on sleep

Sleeping is every bit as essential for your body’s survival and proper function as eating and drinking. However, if you’re used to staying up late, working through the night, or if you’ve got little ones that keep you from getting a full night’s sleep, you may have forgotten how good it feels to unplug your body and mind for 8 hours. That rested and recharged feeling after a full night of uninterrupted sleep doesn’t happen because your body powers down though. When you sleep, your body and brain do their hardest work to keep you healthy and balanced.

  • During sleep, your immune system is active, fighting the inflammation that contributes to illness and disease. When you’re lacking sleep, those inflammatory markers increase, so yes, there really is such a thing as being “sick and tired.” (2)
  • While you sleep, and especially during deep sleep, your brain undergoes a major detox. It rids itself of cellular waste products toxic proteins that can build up over time.
  • During the sleep cycle, your pituitary gland kicks into high gear. It regulates an incredible number of other hormones that affect almost every system in your body. (3) sleep deprivation has been shown to negatively impact hormones like cortisol, insulin, thyroid hormone, appetite regulating hormones, and so many more.

If you’re struggling with cravings, metabolism, weight, or insulin resistance, your hormones might be suffering from sleep deprivation.

The link between sleep and diet

You already know that what and when you eat or drink can absolutely affect your ability to fall asleep. We’ve all had those nights after a large and late dinner when we toss and turn but can’t get to sleep. Or, we wake up throughout the night. It’s usually due to a stomach that’s having problems digesting, or that decadent slice of caffeine-rich dark chocolate cake, or a few too many glasses of wine.

Because of the hormonal effects associated with sleep deprivation, the opposite is also true. The length and quality of our sleep night after night can also affect our eating habits, food choices, and the way our body uses the protein, fat and carbs from food. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all recommendation for sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation, most adults need between 7-9 hours each night.

Even a few nights with less than 6 hours of sleep can have a negative impact on your diet and health. Here’s what happens when your sleep is less than adequate:

You lose the ability to regulate your appetite

The hormone leptin controls your feeling of satiety, or fullness. It’s extremely sensitive to sleep duration. When you’re rested and everything is working the way it should, your fat cells release leptin after a meal. It tells your brain you’re full, so you stop eating. When you don’t get enough sleep, your leptin starts slacking off so you never feel quite full. Researchers have found that when sleep is restricted to four hours per night for less than a week, leptin levels decrease significantly, especially at night. (3)

Ghrelin is another appetite-regulating hormone that’s influenced by sleep. It works the opposite of leptin. Ghrelin stimulates your appetite, makes you feel hungry, and it promotes fat storage. Ghrelin is the gremlin that makes you feel like your appetite has a mind of its own. In fact, studies on sleep and appetite show that after just two days of sleep restriction, ghrelin levels increase, and people report that they’re hungrier – and they crave more carbohydrate-rich foods. (3)

You have more time to eat

Nothing soothes an insomniac better than cookies and milk. Or a bowl of ice cream. Or a few slices of leftover pizza, right? It’s no secret – staying up late means more time to eat, and there’s a good bet you’re not eating salad in the middle of the night. For many people, staying up late to work, to watch TV, or just because you can’t fall asleep, goes hand in hand with snacking. (4) Not only does that add extra calories, but that full belly also makes it harder for many people to fall asleep.

No matter how carefully you eat during the day, if you’re if you’re a night-owl, those late nights are probably sabotaging your efforts by making you feel hungry and crave sweets or other carbs later in the day, and especially at night. 

Your metabolism slows down

As you get older (as in after 35), your metabolism naturally begins to slow down. It happens to everyone, but the effects might be especially pronounced if you’re sleep deprived, or even if your sleep happens at the wrong time of day. 

Sleep researchers have noted a pattern of easier weight gain in people who work the night shift, as well as those with chronic insomnia, and even in people who just tend to stay up later.

In a recent study, scientists examined changes in DNA in test subjects after one night with, and one night without sleep. After just one night of lost sleep, they saw cellular changes that are associated with more muscle breakdown, and more fat deposit. (5) Above all, these same changes are seen in those with obesity and diabetes. It’s thought that with chronic sleep loss, your cells reprogram themselves to promote muscle loss and fat gain – the ultimate recipe for a slow metabolism.

Your cortisol levels increase

You might not know its name, but you’re familiar with cortisol. It’s one of the stress, or “fight or flight” hormones that’s regulated by your pituitary gland. A balanced level of cortisol is needed to help regulate your blood sugar, blood pressure, and overall metabolism. When you’re not sleeping well, you run the risk of producing too much cortisol.

Extra cortisol is produced in response to chronic stress, as well as daylight or blue light. In the morning, that extra cortisol helps to get you out of bed, but at night, too much cortisol from blue light exposure (think cell phones, iPads, or television)  makes it harder to fall asleep. Chronically high cortisol levels cause your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels to creep up over time. (6) It also promotes storage of “abdominal obesity”. You might recognize that as the growing layer of stubborn belly fat that appears despite your healthy diet and exercise.

You become insulin resistant

Insulin resistance is a metabolic condition that precedes diabetes, and it often happens because of excess cortisol production. Insulin’s job is to take glucose (the digested form of the carbs you eat) from your blood, and feed it to your cells. When your insulin is overworked, it becomes less efficient, and glucose isn’t cleared out of your blood as quickly as it should be.

Even if you’re limiting your carbs during the day, you can still develop insulin resistance because of extra cortisol at night. (3) High cortisol levels trigger your liver to release some of the glucose (and fat) it’s storing for emergencies, into your blood. Remember – cortisol is a fight or flight hormone, so your body thinks there’s some danger that you have to run away from. As a result, it’s providing you with extra sugar and fat for fuel. Likewise, it doesn’t realize you’re just staying up late and on your computer.

How to eat for better sleep

If you’re in the habit of staying up late every night, or if you have trouble getting to sleep, make sure you practice good sleep hygiene. That includes setting a goal to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, powering down all electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and limiting any late night meals or heavy, rich snacks. Ideally, try to stop eating at least two to three hours before bedtime, to give your stomach time to digest. If you do eat a later dinner, or need a bedtime snack, try adding or limiting the following foods. They may help you to fall asleep faster.

ADD melatonin-rich foods

Melatonin (7,8) is the sleep-promoting hormone that’s produced when it’s dark (but not when you’re exposed to blue light!), The melatonin in these foods can travel from your gut to your brain, and may help you to fall asleep faster:

  • Tart cherries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Goji berries
  • Almonds
  • Pistachios
  • Mushrooms
  • Salmon
  • Milk

ADD tryptophan-rich foods

Especially if your bedtime snack is rich in carbohydrates. For example, tryptophan is an amino acid found in protein foods. It acts as a precursor to serotonin, the feel-good hormone that helps you feel more relaxed. Tryptophan gets into your brain easier and is more effective when you add some carbohydrate. Tryptophan-rich foods (and some carbohydrate partners) include:

  • Chicken or turkey (on a slice of toast)
  • Eggs (a slice of French toast)
  • Nuts or nut butter (almond butter with an apple)
  • Seeds (with some dried fruit)

STEER CLEAR of sleep-disrupting foods like:

  • Coffee or caffeinated beverages
  • Chocolate, which also contains caffeine
  • Alcohol which initially might relax you but is associated with more disrupted sleep
  • Spicy foods which may trigger heartburn when you lie down
  • High-fat foods like ice cream, or those with cheese, cream sauces, or lots of butter because they’re hard to digest
  • Any foods that you know will trigger heartburn or indigestion

In addition to these late night eating tips, pay attention to your eating habits during the day. In fact, some research suggests your diet patterns throughout the day can also make it easier (or harder) to fall asleep at night (8). Skipping breakfast, having more irregular eating patterns, and eating or drinking more sugary foods can all result in a less restful sleep. And chalk up another point for the Mediterranean diet – it seems to promote better sleep habits, while the keto diet, not so much.

The bottom line:

In conclusion, your nighttime and sleep routine is just as important to your overall health and wellness as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and staying on top of your health screenings. If your sleep is suffering, either because of your work schedule, your life schedule, or just because it’s a habit, your diet, weight and health will eventually pay a price. Treat this important part of your lifestyle as a nonnegotiable. Better sleep makes your diet, and your entire body work so much more efficiently, and it will pay big dividends in your health in the long run.