Struggling to sleep? You might not be eating enough
It’s not always easy to know if you’re undereating (especially when it’s hot and you don’t feel hungry). Here are some tips for managing undereating that go beyond “just eat more”.
Hands up who’s so warm right now that they’re surviving on ice lollies and salads rather than hearty meals. It’s a real summer conundrum –how to eat in a heatwave. But if you’re only grazing and finding it hard to sleep (even with a fan blasting), then it’s time to assess whether you’re eating enough.
Yep, being underfed can make it really hard to sleep, and that in turn can negatively affect your mood, relationships, daytime energy levels, sex drive, immune system and more.
If you’re not hungry, you might be sceptical that undereating could be the culprit, but it’s important to know that hunger isn’t always the most reliable way to tell how nourished you are. Other signs of undereating include tiredness, hair loss, irritability, anxiousness, constipation and constantly feeling cold (OK, that last one might seem unlikely right now but just wait until the temperatures drop back down to normal).
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We turned to experts to find out exactly what the connection between food and sleep is, and how not eating enough might be to blame for our wakefulness.
When you’re underfed, your body’s survival mechanism kicks in
While hunger can be annoying, remember that it’s just a way your body works to protect you. “When you are physically hungry, it is harder to sleep because your body won’t allow you to fully relax,” says Sophie Medlin, a Doctify-reviewed consultant dietitian and director of CityDietitians. “This is a survival mechanism. If evolving humans just slept when they were hungry instead of going to find food, we wouldn’t exist as a species.”
She explains that the same mechanism is still alive today, preventing us from experiencing deep sleep. “Of course it is possible to sleep through hunger, but the quality of your sleep is likely to be much worse,” she adds.
YOUR BLOOD SUGAR IS LOW, SO YOUR BRAIN TELLS YOU TO EAT
On that same note, when something is ‘going wrong’ in your body, your brain actively communicates that. “If you skip dinner or eat an energy-poor meal or one that doesn’t contain enough slow-release carbohydrates, your blood sugar level might be low when it is time for you to close your eyes and go to sleep,” says Wendy Lord, a registered dietitian and consultant for Sensible Digs. “When blood sugar levels drop below a certain level, hunger sets in, and your body sends you messages to eat. This is not supposed to happen at night, so if it does, it can affect your sleep and make it difficult to nod off.”
If you’re unsure what ‘slow-release carbohydrates’ are, they’re the carbs that generate energy gradually so it’s maintained over a longer period of time. Some examples of these foods are oats, sweet potatoes, quinoa, pasta, lentils and bananas.
UNDEREATING CAN PUT YOUR BODY IN A STATE OF STRESS
Low caloric intake can make you stressed. “Dieting to lose weight has been linked with increased stress levels, which can interfere with sleep,” says Sara Chatfield, a registered dietitian nutritionist at HealthCanal.com. She notes a 2010 study in Psychosomatic Medicine that found restricting your calories can increase cortisol production – aka more stress hormones. And when your body is stressed, sleep isn’t a major priority.
HOW TO EAT FOR BETTER SLEEP (AND OTHER TIPS)
If the problem behind your inability to fall asleep is undereating, you just need to eat more, right? Technically, yes… but there are some best practices to keep in mind.
AIM FOR SLEEP-FRIENDLY FOODS
Try to eat foods that have protein and/or calcium and magnesium (the latter two help with melatonin production, Chatfield says). Some examples she mentions are eggs, nuts, yoghurt and cherries.
“Food doesn’t just contain calories; it contains all the essential nutrients we need to live,” Medlin adds. “When you restrict your calories, you’re also restricting your vitamins and minerals.”
Make sure you eat enough, too. Eating foods high in tryptophan, an amino acid that aids sleep, can help – think milk, nuts, cheese, chicken, bananas, whole grains and leafy greens – but not if you aren’t eating enough otherwise. “Unless there’s enough energy for your body to keep working well, sleep is going to continue to be elusive,” Lord says.
EAT ENOUGH THROUGHOUT THE DAY AND HAVE A BALANCED DINNER
Saving yourself for dinner isn’t a great idea, and this is one reason why. “Avoid large meals right before bed, as this can also interfere with sleep,” Chatfield says. “Instead, try to boost your intake of food throughout the day at meals or add snacks.”
Lord agrees eating six small meals a day can be beneficial, especially if you tend to struggle with blood sugar drops or low blood sugar.
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And while eating enough throughout the day is important, Lord emphasises the importance of not neglecting a well-balanced dinner. She suggests combining whole grain carbs, such as brown rice, barley, quinoa or sweet potatoes, with a protein, fat and vegetable.
If that’s not enough food for you, that’s okay! “Some people need to eat a snack before going to bed to ensure they get a good night’s sleep and their blood sugar levels don’t drop too low,” Lord adds. “A glass of milk, cheese, whole wheat crackers, a banana or a peanut butter sandwich are good choices for a pre-bedtime snack.”
BE MINDFUL OF “HEALTHY” FOODS THAT DON’T HAVE ENOUGH CALORIES
You may think you’re eating enough, but a higher volume of food doesn’t always equal a higher amount of calories (aka energy). “A salad might seem like a ‘healthy’ meal. It can be if it is balanced, but if you are only eating leafy greens and low-calorie vegetables in your salad, you might not be including enough energy in your meal to stave off hunger for very long,” Lord says.
She suggests adding proteins and carbohydrates such as beans, lentils or chickpeas to your salad (or you could even have salad as a side rather than the main course).
And crucially, it’s important to remember that food doesn’t have a moral value. You’re not a “good person” for eating a salad or fewer calories, just like you aren’t a “bad person” for eating more food or more calories.
TALK TO A PROFESSIONAL
If you find that you’re constantly eating less than you need, it’s time to get support. It’s best to talk to your physician, therapist and/or a dietitian who can address your specific needs.
This route (and whatever else you’re struggling with) typically isn’t easy, but it is worth pushing ahead with. Not sure where to start? Begin with contacting Beat, the eating disorder charity, who can help direct you to professionals and resources that can help.
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