Everywhere in the world, sleep problems are on the rise. According to The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, 936 million individuals have sleep apnea, and 85% are undiagnosed cases. Meanwhile, local experts estimate that 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep-related problems. Why is the world struggling so much with sleep? The answer could be in the contents of your next meal.
Specialists have been closely observing the relationship between daily food intake and sleep patterns in recent years. “Eating healthy and allowing the body to absorb proper nutrients provides the brain with the chemical environment that it needs to produce the neurotransmitters that it needs to maintain adequate sleep,” explains Dr. Ana Krieger of the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian. It should come as no surprise that our food choices during the day affect the way we sleep. Thus, you are what you eat is more than just an old adage, it is a simple scientific fact.
While scientists admit that the research is relatively new, there have been enough consistent results across studies to determine what types of food can aid or derail sleep. For instance, carbohydrates, saturated fats, and sugars from candies, soda, and confectioneries are generally linked to lighter and less restorative sleep. Meanwhile, more fiber, fish, and vegetables are associated with deeper and better sleep quality. If all this sounds familiar, that's because it's rudimentary healthy eating advice that our own family doctors have been telling us for years. And now, as a nation, we're paying the price for years of unhealthy eating.
Here's the good news: optimizing your diet for better sleep is actually not that hard to do, especially today when there's a ton of information online about healthy eating trends that actually work. For instance, while the famed keto diet is associated with short-term insomnia, Insider reveals that long-term adherence to ketogenic eating habits actually leads to deeper sleep —and even less overall required sleep. Meanwhile, following the Mediterranean dietary profile, in women, is associated with less bouts of insomnia. Simply eating healthier leads to better sleep.
So why is it so hard to do? The answer lies in sleep deprivation. Dr. Tiffany Lester of Parsley Health details why the brain craves unhealthy food when we're sleep deprived. Glucose is the brain's primary fuel source. Partial or total lack of sleep can lead to impairments in the way we metabolize glucose. The result is that even though we're well aware of why gorging on chips and cookies is bad for us, our own brain tells us to go for it. Sleep deprivation significantly weakens our willpower to resist deliciously unhealthy food.
The more unhealthy food we eat, the worse our sleep quality gets. And the more our sleep quality worsens, the more we crave unhealthy food. It's a vicious cycle that's affecting not just Americans but also millions around the world. If you're suffering from insomnia, weight problems, or both, one of the most straightforward solutions is to take back control of your diet. After all, there is such a thing as eating your way to a good night's sleep.