Sleep: it’s more important than you think

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We know that getting enough sleep is important. But why? And how much do we need? And the seemingly most elusive question: what exactly can we do to get a better good night’s sleep?

Oftentimes the day after we sleep poorly, we crave maybe a donut or bagel for breakfast (for the temporary energy boost), a ton of coffee, soda or tea to keep energized throughout the day, and it really sometimes feels unbearable, even stressful, as the day creeps by. But not getting enough sleep doesn’t just have temporary impacts. Chronic inadequate sleep is associated with serious health risks. It has been associated with increased risk for high blood pressure, insulin resistance and diabetes, obesity, as well as overall stress and inflammation within the body which we know increases our risk for these chronic diseases along with cancer.

Research shows that people who average less than six hours of sleep per night are more likely to develop obesity as compared to those people who average eight hours per night (note: that’s not more than eight hours, as averaging greater than nine hours per night actually may be associated with some of the above chronic conditions as well).

The main reason for this increased risk for obesity is related to hormone imbalance. As a result of inadequate sleep, more cortisol – often called the “stress hormone” – is produced, which promotes inflammation within the body and appears to be associated with an increased risk for insulin resistance and diabetes. It has been found that more insulin is secreted after a meal in those who don’t get enough sleep; this then promotes greater fat storage and an increased risk for insulin resistance and diabetes. It has even been shown that less leptin – the “satiety hormone” – and higher levels of ghrelin – the “hunger hormone” – are produced in those who don’t get enough sleep, which may be one reason why we tend to overeat and experience certain food cravings when we haven’t had enough sleep.

A super interesting study was done that looked at 11 healthy male participants who were restricted to 4 hours of sleep for 6 nights. Even in that short period of time, the participants developed impaired glucose tolerance (when chronic, leads to insulin resistance and then type 2 diabetes). When they increased their sleep hours, the impaired glucose tolerance resolved.

Review of the research even shows that averaging five hours or less at night raises risk of death from all causes by ~15%.


To get a better night sleep …


1.     Stay away from the greasy, fried types of foods. Because they take a long time to digest, they may impact sleep. Note: also be cautious of eating spicy foods and other reflux triggers (e.g. marinara sauce) as eating them too close to bed time may make it hard to fall asleep because of indigestion.

2.     Limit alcohol. You may think, “I’m going to have a couple glasses of wine tonight so I can fall asleep earlier.” And this may help you fall asleep initially, but it’s likely you’ll be up again soon and restless throughout the night. If you are going to have a drink, stick with 1 and choose low sugar options (i.e. tequila or vodka with club and lime instead of a sugary margarita or sangria).

3.     Limit your sugar. Sugar can definitely keep you up at night, so stay away from sugary beverages like juice, soda, sweetened tea. Instead, stick with water, seltzer, and unsweetened tea. Also, be cautious of added sugars like those in the obvious cookies, cakes and ice cream but also in foods like flavored yogurts (aim for <10gm sugar/serving; try plain Greek yogurt and mash your own berries in it). Don’t forget that foods like bread, rice, pasta and potatoes turn into sugar when you eat them too, so keep the portion small, especially at dinner. Aim to build your dinner around vegetables + lean protein (i.e. baked chicken, fish or tofu) and keep the carb portion small (i.e. ½ cup whole wheat pasta or sweet potato); maybe even sub in veggies for your starch – try zucchini noodles and spaghetti squash instead (see recipe below!).

4.     Avoid caffeine after 2PM, as it has been shown to lead to interrupted sleep. This includes chocolate people!! Stick with dark chocolate as an early afternoon snack instead of a post-dinner dessert. If you absolutely have to have chocolate after dinner, cut the portion in ¼ or ½.


And include the following…

1.     Build your meals around lean protein + fiber (primarily vegetables at dinner especially, as they’re lower in sugar than fruit and grains). Include healthy fat (i.e. avocado, olive/avocado/flaxseed oil, nuts/seeds).

2.     Sticking with a routine is crucial in order to sleep well – go to bed and wake up at around the same time most days. Reading before bed can be helpful to calm the mind by separating yourself from overly stimulating technology. Try to read something that’s not related to what you do for work J – look at it as a time to escape a bit from your busy day so you can relax into a comfortable sleep. You may also want to try meditation or stretching as part of your wind down routine. Just aim to get away from the TV and your phone for a bit before bed.

3.     Exercise. In my mind, if you’re eating all day and not expending that energy, you’re going to be restless in bed. Aim to move your body daily (even if that’s a long walk or 20 minutes of weights at home, preferably earlier in the day) to help you sleep better.

4.     Reduce stress. Stress can definitely impact our ability to fall asleep and to stay asleep. Whether that means taking up yoga, meditation or talking to a friend or specialist, getting stress under control is critical for getting out of that cycle of poor sleep.


Take Away

Aim to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night by sticking to a routine, managing stress and exercise, as well as eating a well-balanced diet rich in vegetables and limited in sugar, caffeine, alcohol and greasy/fried foods. That is best-case scenario – if you still have some progress to be made on your diet, start by focusing on these principles for at least the last meal of your day.



“Spaghetti” and meatballs!


Spaghetti squash*

Zoodles (zucchini noodles, can buy premade)

Ground turkey (cooked)

Broccoli (steamed)


Olive oil



Sauté all ingredients together, and enjoy! It’s best to have all of these ingredients made ahead in bulk for the week, and then mix together when you’re ready for a quick and easy meal.


*To make spaghetti squash, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut spaghetti squash in half, remove the seeds and drizzle with olive oil. Place facedown on pan and cook for 45 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when you can easily scrape the inside with a fork. Wait a few minutes for it to cool down a bit, and then scrape the insides out with a fork!

Lauren Kelly1 Comment