Eating Healthy and Sleeping Well
This is your guide to using timing to sleep well and staying healthy.
Posted December 21, 2020
We’re all doing our best to eat healthfully and sleep well, to have more energy, increase our focus and performance during the day, and protect our health over the short- and long-term. There are really powerful links between how we sleep and how we eat. Our food choices affect sleep quality and sleep amounts. And the quality and duration of our nightly rest have a big impact on eating habits. Staying rested helps keep weight and metabolism on track, and enhances our ability to make healthful choices about the foods we eat. On the other hand, when we’re tired and sleep-deprived, maintaining a healthful diet (and a healthy weight) gets a lot harder.
There’s empirical research that now shows that different personality traits are associated with having an easier—or a harder—time sticking with a consistent eating schedule. Different chronotypes have different temperaments and personality traits that have a direct impact on eating, nutrition, and sleep. A just-released research analysis found that conscientiousness is the trait most closely associated with the ability to maintain a consistently timed eating schedule. Conscientious types also have the most success in controlling emotional eating and practicing restraint with their diets.
Early types—the Lions of the world—tend to conscientious by nature. This chronotype is, to a degree, set up by chronobiology to be naturally adept at sticking to a regular eating schedule and eating healthfully. Impulsive Wolves (evening types) and restless Dolphins (short, irregular sleepers), tend to be less primed by their personality traits to maintain consistency in their eating routines. Bears, as they always do, fall somewhere in the middle. Bears tend to be comfort seekers and may find it challenging not to over-eat (especially those comforting, rich carbohydrates) and to limit their food intake to certain windows of the day.
All types can adopt and maintain a consistent eating routine that aligns with their chronotype. Depending on personality, some types may find it takes a little more effort to establish the habit. It’s worth the extra work to get there.
The timing of eating affects gut health
Regular readers know I talk a lot about the microbiome, and its relationship to sleep and overall health.
The composition of the microbiome—both the types of organisms and how abundant they are—directly affects our mental and physical health, influencing mood, metabolism, cardiovascular and circulatory health, as well as the immune system, and our risk for chronic disease.
The gut microbiome is often referred to as the “second brain.” That’s because the gut is home to a nervous system and about 100 million neurons. The nervous system of the microbiome is in constant communication with the brain and our central nervous system. The microbiome is responsible for producing some of the body’s melatonin supply, as well as other hormones and neurotransmitters involved with sleep, including dopamine, serotonin, and GABA.
Our microbiome is regulated by circadian rhythms. We know from scientific research that when circadian rhythms are disrupted and sleep is irregular, the health and functioning of the microbiome suffer: We have more unhealthful microorganisms and fewer healthful ones. And recent research suggests that the timing of daily food consumption has effects on both the composition and functioning of the gut microbiome.
Establishing regular times for eating, optimizing those times to align with your circadian biology (aka using your chronotype to set your daily eating schedule) and allowing sufficient time for the body to fast overnight (by not eating late at night and close to bedtime) may help you keep your gut stocked with more health-promoting bacteria.
Here’s some guidance about the prebiotic foods that support beneficial bacteria in the gut and give a boost to sleep.
Short sleepers have distinct eating patterns
Not getting enough sleep alters the hormones in the body that regulate appetite, increases cravings for salty, fatty, sugary foods, and increases overall daily calorie intake. People who don’t sleep enough get more of their calories from fat, and do more snacking than longer sleepers do. Short sleepers have been shown to eat a narrower range of foods than people who get sufficient nightly rest.
They also spend more time eating during the windows of time when they would otherwise be sleeping, if their sleep weren’t restricted. For many people who don’t get enough sleep, that means eating late at night, which is associated with risks for weight gain and metabolic dysfunction, acid reflux (GERD), and trouble sleeping.
What defines a short sleeper? Different studies will define this category differently. Many studies define short sleep as getting less than seven hours a night. Nightly sleep needs vary from individual to individual. Not everyone needs eight hours of sleep a night, or even seven. Most adults do need somewhere in the range of seven to nine hours nightly to feel rested and function at their best. Some of the hallmark symptoms of insufficient rest are:
- having trouble waking up in the morning
- feeling tired and lacking energy during the day
- having trouble focusing and with memory
- experiencing ups and downs with mood
In addition, eating habits like the ones I’ve described above can be a sign you’re not getting enough rest.
The when of sleeping and of eating is so important to your ability to function and feel at your best. Paying attention to the timing of your daily dietary habits can make it easier to stick to a healthful diet and boost your sleep, too.
Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., DABSM