In the last blog we talked about two aspects of sleep: the circadian rhythm and the sympathetic response. The main idea of that blog was to understand that almost always, sleep issues are not about things you need to start doing, but rather about things you need to stop doing. You can review that blog HERE.
The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock and the sympathetic nervous system is part of your survival/alert system.
Another major insight is your body’s “sleep-wake clock” (the circadian rhythm) and the “sympathetic drive” (another term that describes how active your alert/wake system is), are impacted by environmental factors. The two most important of these are light and food.
I want you to think about that for just a second. What do light and food signal to the body?
Light signals daytime. It does not matter if that light is coming from the sun, a TV or your cellphone. Light to the brain says “Come on! Wake the up!” That can mess with your internal sleep clock.
Food, on the other hand, can say several different things depending on what the food is and when it is eaten. With food it is not so black & white. Eating carbohydrates works like this: Sugars/starches that are digested quickly give quick energy in the short run, and then relaxation and even tiredness over a longer period. Think of a kid you give candy to. They are jumping off the walls for a short time and then calm after the “high” wears off. This varies with the type of sugar/starch, but in general the more fiber the more balanced and even the energy response.
Cookies, for example? They give immediate energy and then a crash. Pasta gives some energy then a little less crash. Beans give less immediate energy, but this energy is sustained. Vegetables give even less immediate energy and the longest lasting burn. See how that works?
Protein is digested more slowly than starch (even starch with fiber); so it provides the most even and sustained energy.
If you add fat to starch or protein, the energy is sustained for even a longer period of time.
And alcohol is like starch in reverse. It sedates at first and then several hours later stimulates. We have a name for the tendency of alcohol to wake us up, it’s called “wine o’clock.”
So why am I telling you this? Because many people are unaware that their sleep issues are directly food or light related.
Let me cover this slowly so it makes sense. Bare with me, there will be some science involved.
Not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep…
Let’s say your issue is not being able to fall asleep. You may be inadvertently turning on your sympathetic drive.
Are you exposing yourself to bright lights from the TV or computer? Are you eating too much or too little sugar/starch?
I know the carb thing is confusing, but think of it this way. Your body needs some glucose. If it doesn’t get any, it sounds an alarm and releases stress hormones that help the body access stored sugar in your liver (called glycogen).
These same hormones, like adrenaline, are involved in the fear response. This is why some low carb and paleo dieters have issues going to sleep.
But if you eat too much glucose, the blood sugar can get too high, again causing the body to send off alarm bells. In this case, large amounts of insulin are released to lower blood sugar levels. In some, not all, this response can be too strong and lead to blood sugar levels that fall too low, too fast. This may also cause a release of adrenaline, which stimulates, keeps you awake, and/or wakes you up.
So there are two scenarios when it comes to carbs, sleep & blood sugar. One person eats no carbs at night and can’t fall asleep as a result. In the other case the person eats too many carbs. They then go to sleep fine, but end up wide awake within two to four hours due to this reactive adrenaline response.
High fiber carbs, and especially protein, can solve the issue for many because they deal with both issues.
So here are the things for you to try based on this discussion, plus a few other things I threw in to help:
- Avoid caffeine 6 hours before bed
- Avoid alcohol 2 hours before bed
- Difficulty going to sleep? Make sure you eat closer to bed and have enough, but not too many carbs
- Difficulty staying asleep? Make sure you eat closer to bed and focus on protein, fat and slow digesting carbs (like beans)
- Make sure when the sun goes down your lights go down as well. Dimmers and candles can help with this
Hope this was helpful and makes sense? I have one more blog on sleep I will release in a few days, and if you need more help with sleep, consider our new sleep program at the link below.
Need Guidance on Getting Back to Sleep?
Consider signing up for our 8-week Sleep Program. You will learn everything there is to know about how to solve your sleep issues.