Everything you put in your body affects your overall health. But, when you’re working to maintain a well-balanced diet, more than the food you eat influences your success. Sleep, that biological necessity none of us can do without, plays a large role in your appetite and metabolism. Without it, your efforts to eat healthy may be squashed before you’ve even started your day.
Sleep and Hunger
The average adult needs a full seven to nine hours of sleep for appetite control and overall health. When you get less, the body starts to change the release of hunger-related hormones. The release of ghrelin, a hunger hormone that originates in the stomach, goes up. At the same time, levels of the satiety hormone leptin go down. Essentially, lack of sleep makes you feel hungrier and less full. Even though your body is telling you to eat more, you don’t need those extra calories. Instead, they put you on the fast track to overeating and weight gain.
Sleep and Food Cravings
Hunger isn’t the only way that lack of sleep changes your appetite. Unhealthy foods feel better when you’re running low on sleep. A 2016 study found that when sleep was restricted to 4.5 hours, participants chose foods with 50 percent more calories and twice the fat in comparison to when they’d gotten 8.5 hours of sleep.
Participants reported their food cravings were much harder to resist. It was found that sleep loss activated the reward center of the brain, causing participants to get a “runner’s high” from eating high-fat, sugary foods. Unfortunately, like overeating, eating high-fat, sugary foods contributes to weight gain and poor health.
To keep appetite, metabolism, and cravings under control, sleep has to be an integral part of any healthy living plan. There are many of ways to improve your sleep environment and personal habits to get better sleep.
How to Get Better (and More) Sleep
Your daily habits, activities, and sleep environment influence your ability to sleep at night. To improve both the quality and the amount time you sleep, try:
Making the Bedroom Comfortable
It might be cliché to say the bedroom needs to be your sanctuary, but it really does. It should be dark, quiet, and a comfortably cool 60 to 68 degrees. Mattress comfort can also affect your ability to sleep. Your mattress should support your weight and preferred sleep style, as any lumps or sags may cause wakefulness due to aches and pains.
Eating Healthy, Evenly Spaced Meals
The food you eat and the timing of your meals can influence your sleep-wake cycle. Eating meals at regular intervals throughout the day maintains blood sugar levels and helps the body recognize when to start the release of sleep hormones. Avoiding high-fat, heavy foods and stimulants like caffeine close to bedtime also prevent indigestion and/or a delay in the effectiveness and release of sleep hormones.
Following a Consistent Sleep Schedule
The body uses circadian rhythms to control your sleep patterns. These rhythms rely on natural light exposure, meal timing, and a number of other factors to trigger the start of the sleep cycle. By following a consistent sleep schedule, that means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, you solidify and support your own circadian rhythms. The more consistently you respond to the release of sleep hormones the better able your body will be to time them in conjunction with your preferred sleep schedule.
Spending More Time Outside
Increasing your exposure to natural light helps solidify your circadian rhythms. Time spent outside can also be a natural stress and anxiety reliever. One study found that taking a 90-minute walk in nature reduces activity in the part of the brain that’s affected by depression. Not only will you be helping your brain recognize when to release sleep hormones, you can reduce stress so you can sleep better.
While you want to maintain evenly spaced meals, sometimes you might need a before bed snack to see you through to morning. Foods like dairy products, cherries, bananas, and walnuts of nutrients that are used in the production of sleep hormones. When eaten in moderate amounts close to bedtime, they can support a healthy sleep cycle.
While lack of sleep can get in the way of a healthy diet, you can take actionable steps to help yourself sleep better. By consistently working towards healthy sleep habits, you’ll feel better, more energized, and have more control over your food choices.
Sara Westgreen is a researcher for the sleep science hub Tuck.com. She sleeps on a king size bed in Texas, where she defends her territory against cats all night. A mother of three, she enjoys beer, board games, and getting as much sleep as she can get her hands on.