We put so much thought and effort into eating to support health and wellness, weight management, and sports performance, but what about the other important things that can affect our appetite, motivation, food choices, and recovery? I'm not shy about the fact that I'm a huge advocate for sleep. Sleep can affect our ability to eat right as well as our athletic performance. Sleep deprivation is associated with an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, increased BMI, and has a direct affect on your daily food choices.
Sleep also affects our hormones and those hormones have an effect on your cravings. Those who are sleep deprived are also more likely to reach for foods as a means of comfort rather than nutrition (especially if you don't have nutritious meals already prepared). When you are sleep deprived it is also easier to overdose on caffeinated beverages that can be loaded with more carbs and/or fat than you might need in one sitting.
Inadequate sleep alters ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that are involved in the regulation of your appetite and body fat. Sleep deprivation can also increase your stress hormone, or cortisol, levels which will leave you with a blood sugar crash and cause you to be more likely to overdo it on high sugar foods.
Sleep affects what you eat and what you eat affects your ability to sleep. Choosing the correct foods is important, especially in the afternoon and evening. Choosing the wrong foods can make a huge difference in your ability to get a night of restful and restorative sleep.
- Limit caffeine in the afternoon. Everyone is different in how much/how late they can tolerate caffeine. Know what works for you and stick to it. It's also important to remember that as we age, our body's ability to process caffeine changes. While you might have been able to have your last cup of coffee at 3pm 5 years ago, if you suddenly find it challenging to sleep, you may want to reevaluate how late you get your last caffeine fix.
- Pay attention to food volume. For some, avoiding a large meal 3-4 hrs before lying down, especially when it comes to spicy, acidic foods or greasy fried foods can be helpful. Eating these foods then getting horizontally can increase your risk of heartburn and acid reflux, which can prevent you from getting restful sleep.
- Hydrate, but not too much! Make sure to hydrate well early on in the day and then slowly taper off towards the evening hours. There's nothing worse than having to get up every few hours to pee all. night. long.
- Consume foods with B6 and melatonin. Vitamin B6 is required to make melatonin, which is a hormone that induces sleep. Foods that are rich in B6/Melatonin include salmon, bananas, chickpeas, walnuts, as well fortified cereals and oatmeal (which I would not pick as my main source of these nutrients). Tart cherry juice is also rich in melatonin, so drink up and get some of the recovery benefits it offers as well!
- Get your omega-3's. Foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon and walnuts, chia and flaxseeds, will promote a better mood, less stress, and help prevent depression, all which can lead to a more restful night of sleep. Be careful with things like nuts though, you want to make sure that while you are getting your omega-3s, that you aren't getting too many omega-6s, which can have negative effects on health.
- Unwind with a cup of tea. Choose calming teas without caffeine such as lavender or chamomile to ease anxiety and prevent insomnia.
- Have a snack. Especially as an athlete, eating a small, protein-rich snack before bed can not only help you to meet daily caloric needs, but also keep your belly happy overnight and provides important fuel to your muscles to aid in the rebuilding and recovery process which happens while we sleep (another great reason to prioritize sleep).
Adequate rest and a consistent sleep pattern are both essential when it comes to eating right, optimizing recovery, and athletic performance. For adults, 7-9 hours of sleep pre night is idea. But as an athlete, you should be adding sleep hours for your weekly mileage (READ: Why Athletes Need More Sleep). Prioritizing sleep can be the missing link to eating better and having better athletic performance. It can be challenging to ensure adequate sleep, especially during the summer when it's light for longer, but unlike most things, when it comes to sleep, more IS better!