A Sleep-Friendly Diet, Part II

You wouldn’t think dietary choices would differentiate people who have trouble falling asleep from people who have trouble staying asleep. But apparently they do.

This is the conclusion of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who looked at data collected from over 4,500 participants in a national health survey. The diet of people with sleep-onset insomnia is different from the diet of people with sleep-maintenance insomnia, and both groups make different dietary choices than people who sleep well. It’s possible that making changes to your diet will improve your sleep.

Drinking coconut milkYou wouldn’t think dietary choices would differentiate people who have trouble falling asleep from people who have trouble staying asleep. But apparently they do.

This is the conclusion of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who looked at data collected from over 4,500 participants in a national health survey. The diet of people with sleep-onset insomnia is different from the diet of people with sleep-maintenance insomnia, and both groups make different dietary choices than people who sleep well. It’s possible that making changes to your diet will improve your sleep.

A Common Finding

Both types of insomnia sufferers have diets low in dodecanoic acid. This saturated fatty acid (a.k.a. lauric acid) is abundant in coconuts and coconut oil. Added to the diet, lauric acid increases high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) without affecting levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Not only is cooking with coconut oil a wise choice when it comes to protecting your heart; it may also improve your sleep. Palm kernel oil (not regular palm oil) is also high in lauric acid.

If You Have Trouble Falling Asleep

Insomnia at the beginning of the night is associated with eating fewer foods containing alpha carotene, selenium, and calcium. The U-Penn study doesn’t show that eating more of these nutrients will necessarily improve your sleep—but neither does it rule out the possibility. So if you’re prone to tossing and turning when you go to bed, try eating more of these foods:

  • Carrots, pumpkin, and squash. These orange vegetables contain lots of alpha carotene.
  • Fish and seafood, meat, Brazil nuts, and sunflower seeds. These foods are high in selenium, which enhances immune function, lowers the risk of chronic inflammation, and is likely beneficial to sleep.
  • Dairy products, dark leafy greens, and calcium-fortified cereals and beverages. These foods contain lots of calcium, which tends to lower blood pressure and may also improve sleep.

If You Have Trouble Staying Asleep

On average, according to this study, the diet of people who experience middle-of-the night awakenings is high in salt. If you’re aiming for fewer wake-ups, try cutting down on salt. A low sodium diet also helps prevent high blood pressure.

Middle-of-the-night awakenings are also associated with diets low in butyric acid, vitamin D, and lycopene, nutrients you can obtain by eating these foods:

  • Whole fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Eating these foods leads to increased production of butyric acid in the gut and guards against inflammation of the digestive tract and cancer.
  • Fish and vitamin D-fortified cereals and soy products. Your body also produces vitamin D when you’re exposed to sunlight.
  • Tomatoes, guava, watermelon, papaya, and grapefruit. These foods are high in lycopene. Low levels of lycopene are also associated with very short sleep (less than 5 hours a night).

These foods are nutritious and healthful for many reasons. Will eating more of them improve your sleep? You’ll never know unless you try them out.

(Part I of this two-part series was published on May 5.)

Sleep-Friendly Diet for Long-Term Health, Part I

Evidence for the sleep benefits of some foods—kiwi fruit, gelatin, and turkey, to name a few—is slim. It’s a stretch to believe that eating more of them would actually improve my sleep.

But I’m intrigued by findings published recently from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Those of us plagued by short sleep, and who have trouble falling or staying asleep, consume less of certain nutrients than do good sleepers, their data (based on two huge studies) show. For us, foods high in these nutrients may be golden.

Sleep-friendly dietI’ve always wondered how much of an impact my diet really has on my sleep. Sure, I know from experience that caffeine late in the day gives me insomnia at night. I avoid alcohol within a few hours of going to bed—otherwise, I wake up at 3 in the morning.

As for foods supposed to help with sleep, I’m not so convinced. Evidence for the sleep benefits of kiwi fruit, gelatin, and turkey—to name a few I’ve read about on the web—is slim, and the studies they’re based on are small. It’s a stretch to believe that eating more of these foods would actually improve my sleep.

But I’m intrigued by findings published recently from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Those of us plagued by short sleep, and who have trouble falling or staying asleep, consume less of certain nutrients than do good sleepers, their data (based on two huge studies) show. For us, foods high in these nutrients may be golden.

Dietary Nutrients and Sleep Length

Investigators looked at links between dietary nutrients and sleep length. Among the discoveries they made was that compared with normal sleepers, short sleepers—people who reported sleeping 5-6 hours a night—consumed less of three nutrients: vitamin C, lutein and zeaxanthin, and selenium. We’ll consider them one by one:

  • Vitamin C: Antioxidant found abundantly in citrus fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and sweet peppers. It cuts down on your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other diseases associated with the immune system.
  • Lutein and Zeaxanthin: Two antioxidants often found together in brightly colored vegetables—kale, spinach, broccoli, corn, and orange peppers–and fruits such as tangerines, oranges, and papaya. They’re protective of eye health and decrease your risk of macular degeneration.
  • Selenium: Antioxidant found in fish and seafood, meat, Brazil nuts, and sunflower seeds. It lowers your risk of heart disease and some cancers and has a key role in regulating inflammation and immunity.

Would eating more of these foods actually improve our sleep? The U-Penn study did not explore cause and effect so it doesn’t go as far as answering this question. But here’s why the information about dietary nutrients is important to us: as short sleepers, we’re more vulnerable than normal sleepers to a host of life-threatening illnesses, including hypertension, heart disease, type II diabetes, and, it now looks likely, cancer. If upping our intake of broccoli, kale, nuts, and citrus fruits might protect us from these diseases, what is there to lose by doing it? (And it’s possible that eating more of these foods could reduce our susceptibility to insomnia.)

Sleep Length, Food Variety and Water

Two other significant findings are these:

  • People who slept 7-8 hours a night had a more varied diet than people who slept less.
  • Short sleepers (5-6) drank less tap water than others.

Eating a more a varied diet and drinking more water just might improve our sleep and our long-term health. But take care to steer clear of water and other fluids after dinner to avoid having to get up to go to the bathroom at night.

A second study from this same group shows that people who have trouble falling asleep tend to consume less of certain nutrients while people who have trouble staying asleep tend to consume less of others. Look out for the findings later this month.

What foods seem to improve your sleep?

Art Museum an Rx for Insomnia

Last week I wrote about insomnia and ADHD, but my own bouts of insomnia tend to occur when my attention is too focused on what I’m doing. Take, for instance, the last two months. Trying to meet a slew of deadlines, I slaved away on work projects while also making lavish preparations for the holidays. At night I was often too keyed up to sleep.

But a trip to the Detroit Institute of Art chased away the gloom and the insomnia in one fell swoop.

DIALast week I wrote about insomnia and ADHD, but my own bouts of insomnia tend to occur when my attention is too focused on what I’m doing. Take, for instance, the last two months. Trying to meet a slew of deadlines, I slaved away on work projects while also making lavish preparations for the holidays. At night I was often too keyed up to sleep.

The short nights that resulted put a damper on my days. Every morning I woke up to that fatigued-but-racing feeling I get after insomniac nights. Every new challenge becomes a mountain to be scaled, and when I sit down to write (which I do most days) I have trouble finding words. A funk settles in and starts to feel permanent. Petty annoyances grow huge.

A Break from All That Work

But a trip to the Detroit Institute of Art chased away the gloom and the insomnia in one fell swoop. No single piece of artwork lifted me up and righted my sleep. It must have been the experience in toto.

A different city, a building whose every room and frame transported me into a different world. The abstract, colorful, off-kilter landscapes of John Marin. The play of light and shadow in the New York nightscapes of Martin Lewis. The photos of Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, one after another lifting me out of myself and into another time and place.

No less transporting were the people at the DIA. They exuded holiday spirit if I didn’t. Kresge Court was full of visitors chatting, sipping coffee, not anxious to be doing anything except relaxing and enjoying the day. The couple beside us silent but evidently taking pleasure in the scene, the man in suit, tie, and cufflinks and the woman in a shiny dress with a brooch on the collar. The family to our left speaking a foreign language. The little girl, on seeing the gigantic ice cream sundae her father set under her nose, diving into the whipped cream. A performer singing carols to piano accompaniment while others clapped and sang along.

Regrets? Not So Many

I don’t fault myself for putting on blinders when the going gets tough. My ability to focus enables me to move ahead with projects and get things done. But sustained too long, single-mindedness of purpose can become a prison. My body communicates this in so many ways, and insomnia, Old Faithful, is one.

The Rx is to stage a breakout. Flee the deadlines and the must-do’s and train my attention wholly on people and things outside myself. Even if only for a day, this can help me regain perspective and balance.

Anyway, a trip to the DIA sure beats weeks of talk therapy!

Do you have insomnia at times when you’re very focused on what you’re doing? What have you found that breaks the cycle?

Caffeine and Sleep: A Closer Look

A new study from Henry Ford Hospital shows that caffeine ingested 6 hours before bedtime has a disruptive effect on sleep and can cause insomnia.

For goodness sake, tell me something I don’t already know! Drinking coffee late in the day has always been a surefire summons to insomnia at my house.

But there’s a lot about caffeine I didn’t know—and that you might not know either—so I thought I’d pass along a few fascinating factoids.

Insomnia sufferers need not forego coffee completelyA new study from Henry Ford Hospital shows that caffeine ingested 6 hours before bedtime has a disruptive effect on sleep and can cause insomnia.

For goodness sake, tell me something I don’t already know! Drinking coffee late in the day has always been a surefire summons to insomnia at my house.

But there’s a lot about caffeine I didn’t know—and that you might not know either—so I thought I’d pass along a few fascinating factoids.

Who’s Sensitive, Who’s Not

When it comes to caffeine sensitivity, it’s all in the genes. Swiss researchers in 2007 published a paper linking self-rated caffeine sensitivity to differences in a particular adenosine receptor gene (adenosine is a neurochemical whose action is blocked by caffeine). The upshot is that some people can drink coffee after dinner with impunity; others can’t.

In 2012, Stanford researchers found that sensitivity to caffeine is also linked to chronotype—whether you’re a morning person or an evening person. In this study, caffeine had a strongly disruptive effect on the sleep of morning types, a moderately disruptive effect on the sleep of intermediate types, and virtually no effect at all on the sleep of night owls.

Does Caffeine Sensitivity Increase with Age?

Yes. In a paper published in April 2013, a group of Australian pharmacologists found that by the age of 65 or 70, adults experience a 33 percent decrease in the rate at which caffeine is metabolized and cleared from our bodies. This has practical implications for caffeine-sensitive baby boomers.

On average, caffeine has an elimination half-life of 5 to 6 hours. So 5 or 6 hours after you drink a cup of coffee, the amount of caffeine in your blood will have decreased by half. But as we age, our bodies take longer to clear most drugs, and caffeine is no exception. While at 35 we might have gotten away with an espresso at 3 p.m., at 55 we may need to fix the caffeine cut-off time just after lunch.

Beyond Timing

The other important factor to take into account is the amount of caffeine in your beverage of choice. You may be surprised at the caffeine content of some of these drinks:

Starbucks Venti 20 oz. 415 mg
Folgers Classic Roast Instant Coffee 12 oz. 148 mg
McDonald’s Coffee, large 16 oz. 133 mg
Black tea, brewed 3 minutes 8 oz. 30-80 mg
Snapple Lemon Tea 16 oz. 62 mg
Green tea, brewed 3 minutes 8 oz. 35-60 mg
Pepsi 12 oz. 38 mg
Coca-Cola, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi 12 oz. 35 mg
Jolt Energy Drink 23.5 oz. 280 mg
Red Bull 8.4 oz. 80 mg
Starbucks Hot Chocolate 16 oz. 25 mg

For a complete list of caffeinated beverages and the buzz they deliver, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Does caffeine affect your sleep? How? What’s your daily cut-off time?

Press Release 9-26-13

FOR RELEASE SEPTEMBER 26, 2013
CONTACT: Lois Maharg, 734-424-1088, loismaharg@thesavvyinsomniac.com
Tired of Keeping Vigil at Night? New Book Offers Insight into Insomnia and Tools to Improve Sleep
ANN ARBOR, MI—September 26, 2013—A new book draws on personal experience and science to shed light on chronic insomnia and help poor sleepers get a good night’s rest.

FOR RELEASE SEPTEMBER 26, 2013

CONTACT: Lois Maharg, 734-424-1088, loismaharg@thesavvyinsomniac.com

Tired of Keeping Vigil at Night? New Book Offers Insight
into Insomnia and Tools for Better Sleep

ANN ARBOR, MI—September 26, 2013—A new book draws on personal experience and science to shed light on chronic insomnia and help poor sleepers get a good night’s rest.

In The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep ($12.95, Fine Fettle Books, September 2013), journalist Lois Maharg tours the world of the sleepless—visiting sleep clinics, researchers, therapists, conferences, and fellow insomniacs—in a quest for better sleep and daytime stamina. This book documents her journey and offers an array of strategies aimed at helping insomnia sufferers improve their sleep.

Thirty million Americans struggle with persistent insomnia, compromising their quality of life and long-term health. In The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep, Maharg presents a state-of-the-art perspective on the causes and consequences of this frustrating and complex disorder, interweaving information about

  • The body systems that control sleep and waking
  • Cutting-edge research from leading sleep scientists
  • The history of insomnia and cultural attitudes toward it
  • The benefits—and risks—of sleeping pills
  • Insomnia treatments and new therapies in the pipeline.

“Many insomniacs have tried the sleep tips they see in magazines and on the web,” Maharg says. “They’re looking for solutions but haven’t found anything that works. Clearly they need more than quick answers. They also want to understand why, although they’re exhausted at night, they can’t turn off their brains. My book gives readers the knowledge base and the means to improve their nights and days.”

Lois Maharg has worked as a beat reporter and features writer in Pennsylvania and Michigan, writing on a variety of topics including health, exercise, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia gave rise to this book. Her blog, The Savvy Insomniac, is dedicated to sharing new information about insomnia and sleep.

The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep ($12.95, 320 pages, 5 ½ X 8 ½, paperback, ISBN 978-0-9894837-1-1) is available at http://www.thesavvyinsomniac.com and from online booksellers offering e-book versions as well ($3.99, ISBN 978-0-9894837-0-4).

###

CONTACT: Lois Maharg, 734-424-1088, loismaharg@thesavvyinsomniac.com

Download Press Release: PR 9-26-13

LED Screens Harm Sleep

Use your laptop, tablet, or iPhone at night?

Electric lighting–particularly sophisticated devices with LED lighting–can seriously interfere with your sleep, says Charles Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School.

laptop-nightUse your laptop, tablet, or iPhone at night? Electric lighting—particularly sophisticated devices with LED lighting—can seriously interfere with your sleep, said Charles Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School in an article in Saturday’s Huffington Post.

“Technology has effectively decoupled us from the natural 24-hour day to which our bodies evolved,” Czeisler wrote this month in the journal Nature, “driving us to go to bed later. And we use caffeine in the morning to rise as early as we ever did, putting the squeeze on sleep.”

For some years now, I’ve known that light suppresses melatonin, the hormone secreted by the pineal gland that helps us fall and stay asleep at night. So at 9 or 10 p.m., I walk around dimming all the lights in my house. I try to create a sleep-friendly environment that allows me to drop off at a reasonable hour.

But research in the past couple of years is showing that LED lighting, found in devices that connect us to the Internet, is particularly harmful to sleep when we’re exposed to it in the evening and at night.

What’s So Bad about LEDs?

The human eye is composed of cells that enable vision but also has cells whose sole purpose is to detect light. These cells contain melanopsin, which is extremely responsive to the blue and blue-green light found abundantly in daylight and in LEDs. Blue light striking these melanopsin-containing cells suppresses the secretion of melatonin and sends a message to the brain that it’s still daytime, making it harder to fall asleep.

But LED screens on phones and laptops are fairly small, so you might wonder how they could have the same effect on the brain as daylight. After all, TV screens also emit blue light, yet Americans have been nodding off to late-night movies and comedy shows for decades.

Proximity is the critical difference here, according to Harvard Medical School sleep researcher Steven Lockley, quoted last year in an article written for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

“The closer you have a light source to the face, the more intense it is,” said Lockley, co-author of Sleep: A Very Short Introduction, “And the further you go away, it falls off quite quickly. So having things [laptops, tablets, and iPhones] close to the face is much worse than having a TV that’s 10 feet away.”

Quick Fixes

Minor changes can help you avoid the harmful effects of blue and blue-green lighting at night:

  • If devices have a “settings” feature, adjust the brightness of the screen and switch to the “white on black” mode in the evening
  • Purchase an app that automatically lowers the color temperature on your computer screen at night
  • Wear amber glasses that filter out blue light.

But the best solution is to turn all such devices off two hours before bedtime, when melatonin secretion normally begins. If you’re an insomniac like me, you’ll want to remove as many barriers to sound sleep as you can.

Do you use LED lighting and, if so, have you noticed it has an impact on your sleep?

Parsing the Sleep of Twins

We’d all like to sleep like babies.

But not all babies sleep the same amount, say researchers at Laval University, whose study of nearly 500 pairs of Canadian twins published yesterday found that genes are a stronger determinant than the environment of how long babies and toddlers sleep at night.

We’d all like to sleep like babies. But not all babies sleep the same amount, say researchers at Laval University in Quebec, whose study of nearly 500 pairs of Canadian twins published online yesterday in the journal Pediatrics found that genes are a stronger determinant than the environment of how long babies and toddlers sleep at night.

twins-sleep

In this study, mothers reported on their children’s day- and nighttime sleep patterns at 6, 18, 30, and 48 months. A majority of the children slept 10 to 11 hours a night, but the outliers did not. Except in twins of 18 months, when environmental factors were found to play a stronger role in determining sleep length at night, genetic factors accounted for up to 58 percent of the variation in nighttime sleep duration. Environmental factors had a more important effect on the length of daytime naps.

This study adds to a growing body of literature suggesting that aspects of sleep such as sleep length and sleep quality are part of a genetic blueprint inherited at birth. As such, while they can be altered by changes in habit and environment, there are limits on the modifications we can achieve.

Taking Control of Sleep

In my book I argue that there’s a lot people can do to improve their sleep by changing their environment, habits, and thoughts. And the researchers who conducted this study maintain that parents can be proactive in shaping an environment conducive to children’s sleep.

“[Parents] should not give up on trying to correct inadequate sleep duration or bad sleep habits early in childhood,” lead researcher Evelyne Touchette said in an article in usnews.com.* Setting consistent bed- and naptimes and doing a quiet activity such as reading a story are two things parents can do to establish optimum conditions for children to sleep.

Giving Nature Its Due

But to discount the constitutional factors that affect sleep ability seems foolish in light of emerging genetic research. In 2009, for example, investigators found a genetic mutation in a mother and daughter who normally wake up feeling fine after sleeping an average of six and a quarter hours. Other members of the same family, who average eight hours’ sleep, do not have this rare mutation.**

A more common genetic factor affecting sleep length came to light in 2011. Scientists studying a large pool of Europeans identified a genetic variant which they claim accounts for about 5 percent of the variation in sleep duration. Their data show that people who possessed two copies of a common variant of a gene slept significantly less than people with two copies of another version.***

If you or your child isn’t getting enough sleep, do all you can to set up ideal conditions for slumber at night. Yet past a certain point, some things may be beyond our control, and how long we sleep is one.

How much sleep do you get at night? Has this changed over time?

*    Tots’ Sleep Differences Due to Genes

**   Sleep Length in Mammals

*** Gene Effect on Sleep Duration

Snacking? Get a Bigger Bang for Your Buck

I crave snack food when I’m short on sleep. Cheese, corn chips, salted almonds: these guys are my friends when I’m looking for something to pep me up and fire up the synapses in my brain.

Or so I thought. New research to be presented at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies next month suggests that fatty foods, far from increasing alertness, actually make us sleepy instead.

Girl eating snackI crave snack food when I’m short on sleep. Cheese, corn chips, salted almonds: these guys are my friends when I’m looking for something to pep me up and fire up the synapses in my brain.

Or so I thought. New research to be presented at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies next month suggests that fatty foods, far from increasing alertness, actually make us sleepy instead.

“Increased fat consumption has an acute adverse effect on alertness of otherwise healthy, non-obese adults,” said lead investigator Alexandros Vgontzas, MD and professor of psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA, quoted in usnew.com.

Who knew? Not me. I try to keep a lid on my consumption of fatty foods for health reasons and to avoid gaining weight. (I’m a member of the “Thinks They’re Always Gaining Weight Club”—never mind if it’s really true. How could I be otherwise when my role model growing up was Twiggy?) But I let my guard down when I’m exhausted and in need of an energy boost. So discovering that foods I’ve relied on to increase my alertness might actually be making me sleepier and duller feels like a betrayal. What gives?

New Research on Food and Alertness

Thirty-one healthy normal sleepers participated in this study, aimed at ascertaining if people’s food intake has an immediate effect on their actual sleepiness. The subjects spent four nights and a day in a sleep lab hooked up to a machine that recorded their brainwaves.

On day 4 of the experiment, subjects were told to take a nap five times during the day. They ate a meal after each nap and, when it came time for the next nap, investigators recorded how long it took them to fall asleep to see if there was a relationship between the type of food eaten and how quickly the subjects fell asleep.

Results

Adjusting for several factors, investigators found that

  • Meals high in fatty foods caused people to fall asleep more quickly
  • Meals high in carbohydrates kept them alert longer
  • Meals high in protein did not appear to impact sleepiness one way or the other.

In light of these results, I’m going to have to rethink this quick energy thing. Can I steer clear of the Gorgonzola and the corn chips in favor of an apple or a slice of bread? The idea isn’t so appealing, and who knows what I’ll be inclined to do the next time I’m slogging along after a bad night.

Still, if energy and alertness is what we’re after (and most of the time, this is the main sleep-related issue for me), then maybe it’s time to come up with a few new options for that mid-afternoon pick-me-up after all.

What foods help the most when you need quick energy?