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Mattress News Study Finds Diet May Affect Sleep

Published on April 19th, 2014 | by Mattress Journal


Study Finds Diet May Affect Sleep

Want better sleep? A recent study published February 2014 in the Journal of Sleep Research says one way to more restful nights is through your stomach. While there are several factors that can affect your ability to doze off,  researchers focused on the link between foods and rest quality to see what impact a person’s diet has on sleep. If you have the occasional restless night or simply want to give yourself the best chances for good sleep, keep reading to see what you should be eating.

Can You Eat Your Way to Better Sleep?

The study, titled “Sleep symptoms associated with intake of specific dietary nutrients,” was conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania University, led by Michael Grandner, PhD. It assessed data from the Centers for Disease Control’s 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which surveyed over 4500 U.S. adults, gathering both self-report and medical data about health, nutrition, lifestyle and sleep. The Pennsylvania University study statistically analyzed this data to determine if any correlations and patterns might exist between diet and sleep. What they found were apparent associations between certain nutrients and better sleep, offering interesting information for both individuals and the medical community.

Here’s an overview of the study’s findings, organized by sleep symptoms. First we will discuss the nutrients, and then look at which foods might offer the best bets for better rest.

Difficulty Falling Asleep

Difficulty falling asleep can be very frustrating, and when it happens with regularity it can become insomnia. Researchers found several significant nutrients linked to this complaint.

  • Those who consumed less calories were more likely to report difficulty falling asleep.
  • Those whose diets contained less alpha carotene, selenium, dodecanoic acid and calcium were more likely to have difficulty falling asleep.
  • Those who consumed more hexadecanoic acid were more likely to report difficulty falling asleep.

Difficulty Staying Asleep

Difficulty maintaining sleep, or waking frequently during the night, can significantly reduce sleep quality and overall sleep duration. Researchers found a several nutrients that might affect one’s ability to stay asleep.

  • People whose diet had fewer foods or who were on a special diet were more likely to have difficulty staying asleep.
  • Higher salt use was linked with greater difficulty staying asleep.
  • Diets low in carbohydrates, butanoic acid, dodecanoic acid, vitamin D, and lycopene were all linked with difficulty maintaining sleep.
  • Diets high in hexanoic acid and overall moisture were also linked with difficulty staying asleep.

Non-Restorative Sleep

Non-restorative sleep occurs when you get rest, but do not wake up feeling well-rested or energized. The study found a few potential dietary links that might affect rest quality.

  • Diets high in fat/cholesterol, butanoic acid, and moisture were linked with less restorative sleep.
  • Diets low in calcium, vitamin C and plain water were also linked to less restorative sleep.

Greater Daytime Sleepiness

The final sleep symptom discussed in the study was daytime sleepiness, or feeling drowsy during the day. A few potential dietary causes were identified in the study.

  • Both diets high in calories or low in fat/cholesterol were associated with more daytime sleepiness, as was being on a special diet.
  • Diets high in overall moisture and theobromine were associated with greater daytime sleepiness.
  • Diets low in potassium and plain water were also associated with more daytime sleepiness.

What to Eat for Better Sleep

Overall, this study largely supported mainstream nutritional advice, which calls for getting a balanced diet with a wide variety of fresh fruit, vegetables and grains, with meat, dairy, and fats in moderation. People with less varied diets, special diets, restricted diets, or excess diets seemed to be more likely to have sleep problems or abnormal sleeping patterns. While this study is not conclusive and more research will be required to make definitive claims about specific effects of foods on sleep, there is no harm in improving your diet and adopting healthier habits.

Below is an overview of potentially helpful habits and foods based on the Pennsylvania University study’s nutritional information and analysis. You should always consult with your physician if you suspect sleep problems or other health issues, and the tips below are not medical advice.

1) Eat a Balanced Diet

Although this is well-worn advice, it seemed to ring true in the findings of this study. Diets high in fat, low in fat, low in carbohydrates, high in salt and which skimped in other important areas were more likely to be associated with sleep issues. The results of this study suggest you may also want to make sure your calorie intake is within  a healthy range for your age, body type, and activity level, as less calories were associated with difficulty falling asleep and higher calories were associated with daytime sleepiness. Those who consumed the most calories were also most likely to be short sleepers. Very short sleepers also consumed less protein and less carbohydrates than normal sleepers.

2) Eat Plenty of Vitamin & Mineral-Rich Foods

Several vitamins and minerals found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and animal sources may be associated with how well you rest. Try to eat a wide variety of fresh produce and get several servings per day. In addition to vitamins, minerals also play an important role in health. Several were specifically linked with sleep in this study, and many minerals can be found in both plant and animal sources. The major ones most associated with rest appear to be alpha carotene, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, lycopene, calcium, potassium, and selenium.

  • Alpha Carotene: Yellow-orange and dark green vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, broccoli, green beans, spinach and avocado are good sources.
  • Vitamin C: Can be found in most fresh fruits and vegetables. Papaya, bell peppers, broccoli, berries, citrus, melons and cauliflower are all good sources.
  • Vitamin D: The number one source of Vitamin D is direct sunlight, though fortified milk, fish, eggs, and mushrooms are also good sources.
  • Lycopene: Tomatoes (cooked), guavas, watermelons, grapefruits, and red peppers are good sources.
  • Calcium: Dark leafy greens, fortified milk and dairy products, sardines, fortified grains, fortified non-dairy milk, tofu, sesame seeds and soybeans are good sources.
  • Potassium: Sweet potatoes, tomato sauces, leafy greens, beans, yogurt , seafood and prunes are also rich in potassium.
  • Selenium: Fish, shrimp, turkey, chicken, lamb, beef, sunflower seeds, mushrooms, milk and brazil nuts are rich in selenium.

3) Keep Fats in Balance

Overall fat in one’s diet specific acids in fats were associated both positively and negatively with sleep. Fats can come from a variety of sources including meat and dairy, as well as from nuts, avocados, and vegetable/seed oils.

  • Palm kernel oil, coconut oil, powdered coconut and coconut milk are rich in dodecanoic acid (aka lauric acid), which may improve ability to fall asleep. Dodecanoic acid can also be found in smaller amounts in butter, cream and cheese.
  • Fats to limit may include butter, cheese, palm oil, lard and red meat (high in hexadecanoic acid). Both cow and goat milk butter are also high in hexanoic acid. Diets higher in both of these were associated with greater sleep problems.
  • Cow’s milk butter, cream and cheese is also high in butanoic acid. Diets high in butanoic acid were linked with more non-restorative sleep, but diets low in this also were associated with greater difficulty falling asleep.
  • Keeping overall fat and cholesterol levels in a moderate range may also be helpful, as both diets low and high in fat seemed to affect sleep.

4) Get Plenty of Pure Water

Not drinking enough water was associated with a couple of the sleep complaints analyzed in study, suggesting it may be important to overall sleep quality. The study specifically mentions plain water, and common guidelines suggest adults should consume around 48-80 ounces per day depending on size and activity level. If you tend to get up often at night to use the bathroom, try balancing your water intake to consume more earlier in the day and less close to bedtime.

While this study is not entirely conclusive as it relied on survey data to show associations (rather than causations), it does pose interesting information for individuals seeking better sleep and for future research. Most of the findings mirror current nutritional advice and dietary guidelines, meaning eating for better sleep may be as simple as eating a diverse and balanced diet rich in whole foods. Following healthy sleep hygiene practices can also help you get the best sleep possible. These include sticking to a regular sleep schedule, limiting noise and light disturbances, unplugging from electronics, and getting regular exercise. While sleep research still has a long ways to go in identifying what causes sleep problems and how to prevent them, eating a healthy diet may be one important (and simple) part of getting better sleep.

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