Ah, sleep. While some slip between the sheets and easily fall into a sound slumber, many of us fail to get enough of those coveted zzz's. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 30 percent of American workers—about 40.6 million of us—average no more than six hours of sleep a day. The recommended amount of sleep is about seven to nine hours per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation, which says that any less than that is linked to increased risk of diabetes, heart problems, depression, and substance abuse. Lack of sleep can also increase appetite and the risk for future weight gain or obesity.
In fact, the findings of two small, unpublished studies presented at a recent meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggest that sleep deprivation could affect diet by increasing a preference for less healthy food and by dampening decision-making ability—especially in the face of fatty, caloric options.
Despite these serious consequences, why do so many Americans skimp on sleep? Many of us stay up (or out) late to socialize with friends, watch ball games, or catch up on favorite TV shows. But we also sleep less to meet important work deadlines or family obligations such as caring for our family members. (Incidentally, on the morning I had planned to submit this article, our 10-year-old climbed into our bed at 4 a.m. after a bad dream; since I couldn't fall back asleep, I used that "bonus time" to edit this blog post and catch up on other work!)
Before you shell out a portion of the billions of dollars Americans are expected to spend this year on pills, drinks, or medical devices that promise slumber, consider a few do-it-yourself remedies. Along with prioritizing your sleep and keeping your bedroom cool and distraction-free, make time to eat well and stay active, both key to helping you get the sleep you need. Toward that end, here are some of my "Stressipes"—food, fitness, and lifestyle strategies—to help you get back on track. If your problems persist, see your physician or a health professional.
• Be active. Exercise not only keeps your muscles, bones, and heart strong, but it may help you sleep. A recent article published in the Journal of Physiotherapy concluded that participating in an exercise training program had moderately positive effects on sleep quality in middle-aged and older adults. Althea Zanecosky, a fellow dietician of Lafayette Hill, Penn., credits her good sleep to frequent morning and after-dinner walks. Robin Plotkin, another dietician from Dallas, Tex., agrees that exercise is key to her sleeping success. "If I don't exercise for several days, I find it takes me longer to fall asleep," she says. Because the post-exercise body needs a few hours to cool down—and a cool body sleeps better—it's best to be active earlier in the day.
• Say yes to carbs. A steady dose of carbohydrate-rich foods can energize you by day, and hit your sweet spot by night. Tryptophan, an amino acid found in eggs, chickpeas, and turkey creates serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps you settle down. It's the carbohydrate, however, that carries tryptophan to the brain to work its magic. Aim for half of your daily calories to come from carbohydrates, and choose mainly oatmeal and other whole grains, fruits, vegetables (including potatoes), legumes, and low-fat dairy foods. (Keep dinners and bedtime snacks small, since large, late meals can adversely affect sleep.)
• Be careful with caffeine. A stimulant of the central nervous system, caffeine is known to delay sleepiness and cause sleep disturbances. It also inhibits some sleep-promoting hormones. Because caffeine stays in the body for several hours, it's wise to abstain at least several hours before you hit the sack.
• Nix the nightcap. Alcohol seems to encourage excess food intake. And while it may also help you fall asleep, studies suggest it promotes a restless sleep and increases daytime fatigue. Current dietary guidelines allow for one drink a day for women, and two for men (one drink equals 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits). But if it's a good sleep you're after, drink earlier in the day (that is, if your boss lets you!) or rethink that drink altogether.
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Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder and president of Zied Health Communications, LLC, based in New York City. She's an award-winning registered dietitian and author of three books including Nutrition At Your Fingertips. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, Zied inspires others to make more healthful food choices and find enjoyable ways to "move it or lose it" through writing, public speaking, and media appearances. You can connect with her on twitter (@elisazied) and through her new Stressipes forum on her website: www.elisazied.com.