A major study by researchers at Stanford University in California found that the length of time spent sleeping is directly related to weight and dietary habits, and uncovered the way in which food affects sleep. The fifteen-year investigation, which was concluded in 2004, involved 1024 participants, each with a sleep disorder, and discovered that those who regularly slept less than four hours a night had a 73% greater chance of being overweight compared to those who managed regular eight hour sleep sessions.
The study found that one of the ways that the human body naturally responds to a lack of sleep is to trigger hormonal activity relating to three key hormones – leptin, ghrelin and cortisol. Eating before going to sleep forces the body to digest throughout the night, causing disturbance and affecting sleep quality. The body’s response to poor sleep involves dropping the levels of leptin – the hormone that controls appetite and energy expenditure – meaning that you eat more the following day without feeling full. At the same time, levels of ghrelin – the hunger hormone – increase, forcing you to feel ready for a larger than necessary meal. Finally, the amount of cortisol – the stress hormone – changes, which affects metabolism and the so-called ‘circadian rhythm’, critical factors in sleep quality.
Since the seminal Stanford research was published back in 2004 there have been several similar scientific investigations on the issue, each backing up the initial findings that sleep length and quality is closely linked to diet.
So, besides avoiding food shortly before bedtime, how else can you get better quality sleep?
· Keep it regular – avoid letting your bedtime and waking up time vary a lot, even on weekends! The body responds to regularity, and you’ll find that you’re ready to go to sleep and wake up at the usual times if the routine is continued.
· Cut out the naps - If you’re the type of person who likes to sleep at various points during the day (typically the mid-afternoon) then you’re effectively recharging your body to go further and do more later into the night. Try and avoid napping and you’ll get through to bedtime feeling ready to sleep.
· Watch what you drink in the evening – drinks, particularly when containing caffeine and alcohol, play a large part in how long it takes you to get to sleep as well as the quality of your sleep in general. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that encourages the mind to become more active, precisely the opposite function required for a restful slide into sleep. Alcohol, while sometimes encouraging tiredness, leads to poor quality sleep with regular disturbance.
· Avoid intensive activities before bedtime – watching television, playing video games, using a computer and exercising can all stimulate the mind and have a lasting effect that can lengthen the amount of time needed to get to sleep. Try and limit your exposure to these kinds of activities in the hours before bedtime and get into a more calmed frame of mind with a routine that includes a bath, reading or relaxing music.
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