Nutrition for Better Sleep

January 19, 2024

Many athletes have Type-A personalities and are always striving to achieve more. Sometimes that drive for more can come at the expense of sleep. There was a time when it was trendy to sleep as little as possible, but that time has passed. Think of sleep as a reset button for your body. It clears away the gunk of that day, does some filing, and renews you for another productive day ahead. Both the length of time asleep and the quality of that sleep matter, so let’s do a quick review of what that looks like.

Sleep cycles:

Your brain naturally needs four to six 90- to 110-minute cycles that include Non-REM and REM sleep.

Sleep phases:

Non-REM is the first phase of sleep which has 3 distinct subphases – light sleep, deeper sleep, and deepest sleep. During this phase the heart rate and body temperature drop as the body transitions into deep sleep. If you are aroused during this phase, you often feel like you haven’t slept, groggy, or disoriented. The brain waves produced during this phase are critical for memory consolidation, repairing tissue, building bones and muscle, growth hormone secretion, and strengthening the immune system. 

The REM phase is associated with dreaming, rapid eye movement, increased brain activity, and the inability to move large muscle groups. REM facilitates learning processes and overcoming stress.

What are the consequences of poor sleep?

Sleep loss can negatively affect the metabolism in the following ways:

  • It reduces the ability of the muscles to reload carbohydrate stores, which are your major fuel source during exercise. 
  • It alters hunger and fullness signals during the day, leading to craving less nutritious food and eating more empty calories  
  • It limits muscle recovery by reducing growth hormone production for muscle building and increasing cortisol and inflammatory markers consistent with muscle breakdown. This impacts training adaptations! 

Sleep loss also impairs the immune system, increasing the likelihood of getting sick. It can alter gut health negatively and reduce the good bacteria. If you follow this space, you might know that a diverse gut microbiota is correlated to overall health, not to mention that altered gut bacteria can lead to increased GI distress during training and racing. Poor sleep also increases anxiety and decreases the ability to handle stress.

Using nutrition to help promote better sleep:

Melatonin is a hormone associated with sleepiness due to its ability to lower the body temperature at night. It is secreted in the body with the help of other substances (Tryptophan → serotonin → melatonin). Choosing foods rich in melatonin, tryptophan, and magnesium can help with the production of melatonin.

    Melatonin:  tart cherry juice, pistachios, oats, red grapes

    Tryptophan: chicken, turkey, salmon, dairy, tofu/soy, chia, eggs, nuts, kiwi, banana

    Magnesium: pepitas, almonds, chia, spinach, avocado

The size and timing of food before bed can also impact sleep quality.  A higher carbohydrate meal 4 hours before bedtime can improve how quickly you fall asleep, but a high carbohydrate meal within 1 hour of bedtime will inhibit your sleep and growth hormone production.   When having a meal or snack close to bedtime, it’s best to choose a whole-grain and protein combination to increase deep sleep.

And now some bad news

Just as certain foods help with sleep, other foods and drinks will impair your sleep:

  • Alcohol reduces REM sleep and overall sleep quality
  • Caffeine after 3pm lengthens the time it takes you to fall asleep, reduces total sleep duration, and reduces sleep quality
  • Large meals close to bedtime can increase body temperature making falling asleep more difficult 
  • Drinking large amounts of fluid close to bedtime impair sleep
  • General under-fueling can reduce sleep quality

Here are a few bedtime snack ideas to sleep on:

Oatmeal or overnight oats: dried tart cherries, chia, pepitas

Trail mix: chex, dried tart cherries, pistachios, dark chocolate chips

Parfait: greek yogurt, kiwi, chia

Chia pudding: milk, chia, dark cocoa

Avocado toast

Whole grain Cereal/milk, banana

Tart cherry juice & banana/peanut butter toast

Hopefully the message has landed that skimping on sleep has negative short- and long-term impacts for your brain, body, and health. What will you try to help your sleep quality?