I think it’s safe to say, we all know how important eating the right things and exercising are for our health, but did you know that sleep is just as important for helping us live a healthy life? If we’re sleep deprived it can feel almost impossible to make the ‘right’ food choices.
I’m pretty sure, if you’re reading this, that you are no stranger to feeling sleep deprived, regardless of why you have difficulty with your sleep. So it won’t surprise you when I tell you that when we’re tired we automatically reach for unhealthy food choices, naturally choosing comfort food, which is usually high in sugar and/or fat.
When we’re tired, it’s like our bodies are telling us what to eat. And who are we to deny our bodies what they ‘need’? So we reach for chips, donuts, and other quick snacks for that much-needed boost of energy.
Of course, fat and sugar do give us that burst of energy we need, but, their effects won’t last for long. Did you know that when we’re not getting enough sleep, our hormones, including our hunger hormones are out of alignment too? The two most important are ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin is the one that tells us we’re hungry and leptin is the one that tells us we’ve eaten enough.
When we’ve had enough sleep, we have just the right amount of each of these in our system, so we eat until we are genuinely full, then stop. We’re also more likely to make better food choices because we’re not craving that sugary ‘high’ to help power us through. BUT, when we’re tired, our ghrelin levels are high and our leptin levels are low, meaning we’re more likely to overeat because our body isn’t giving us the cues to stop.
It’s not just our hunger hormones that have us reaching for sugary snacks either! Our stress hormone, cortisol (which is also the hormone that wakes us up) is higher when we don’t get enough sleep.
Cortisol also helps balance our blood sugar levels as well as regulating our energy levels. If our cortisol is too high, we are more likely to turn our less than ideal food choices into fat, particularly around our mid-section (also known as our spare tyre or stress belly). It’s made up of visceral fat – the bad kind that wraps around our internal organs, rather than just lying under the surface of our skin.
Of course, if we’re eating higher fat or sugary food later in the day (when we’re likely to be most tired), we have less time to wear off the calories too, not to mention that sugar and fat can interrupt our sleep too if we eat them too close to bedtime.
Are you really hungry?
A simple tip (which will involve some self-discipline I’m afraid!) is to try to analyze why you’re feeling hungry. If you are physiologically hungry (a growling stomach etc), then go ahead and eat, trying to stick to healthier choices. If you’re psychologically hungry (you just fancy a snack), step away from the pantry! Maybe try sipping some water instead and see if that helps? Because it’s very easy for us to confuse thirst with hunger, especially when we’re tired.
It may surprise you to know, that sticking to regular mealtimes can also help our sleep as well. That’s because it helps regulate our internal body clock (also known as our circadian rhythm). Trying not to eat large meals too close to bedtime (when we can avoid it) also makes a big difference so our bodies have chance to rest and recuperate the way they should, rather than digesting our meal. Let’s face it, lying down when you’re full isn’t a great sensation either, and can cause us to feel uncomfortable meaning we’re less likely to drop off to sleep easily.
Now, I’m not telling you not to have the occasional treat, that’s obviously entirely up to you. But, I’m a believer that knowledge is power.
Now you know how what you eat and when you eat it can impact your sleep and why you might make poorer food choices when you’re tired, you can start to address what’s potentially the real issue. Not your willpower, but your lack of sleep!
Sam Sadighi is a certified sleep practitioner who coaches families and adults to regain the sleep they need using research and evidence-based techniques. Sam uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia for older children and adults to help ‘retrain their brains for sleep’. Available for both adult and child clients for between 4 – 6 weeks, she provides the individuals she works with the tools to help them rectify their difficulties, as well as providing them with techniques they can use at a later date should the need ever arise. Although based in London, England, she happily helps clients worldwide.