Aside from diet and exercise, getting enough sleep every night is one of the most important aspects of overall health and well-being. Not only does sleep aid you mentally — decreasing anxiety, depression, and irritability — but research shows that sleep deprivation can cause or be attributed to physical health issues including high blood pressure, heart disease, and even obesity. Yet, getting enough sleep is easier said than done.
Many of us struggle to fall asleep and then once we’re asleep we continuously wake throughout the night. While blue light from our televisions, computer screens, and phones play a role in our wakefulness, there are many other factors that can also cause us to be restless.
The Sleep-Brain Connection
We’ve always known that not getting enough sleep somehow negatively effects our ability to function at our best. Simply miss a few nights of good rest and you won’t be able to find your car keys or make quick decisions.
A recent study monitored the brains of 12 patients who were required to stay awake all night while also performing brain-stimulating tests such as categorizing “various images of faces, places, and animals as fast as possible.” These images caused “cells in areas of the brain to produce distinctive patterns of electrical activity… specifically, the researchers focused on cell activity in the temporal lobe, which regulates visual perception and memory.” The findings were alarming. As the participants “got tired, it became more challenging for them to categorize the images, and their cells began to slow down.”
In other words, sleep deprivation can stymie the communication between our brain cells, which can lead to “temporary mental lapses that affect memory and visual perception.”
Sleep Disturbing Agents
Now we know why it’s so important to get those precious hours of shut-eye, yet what if we don’t know what’s causing our restless nights? There is a slew of factors that may be messing with your circadian rhythm and, luckily, they are easy to change! Here are some of the top sleep-disrupting agents.
Even though fluids are essential for the human body, there are helpful and unhelpful ways to consume them. This is especially important when it comes to sleeping. If you drink too much of any fluid right before bed, then your body will naturally wake you up to use the restroom. Simply waking up is enough of a problem, but waking up, getting out of bed, and walking are all more triggers that will keep you awake. Therefore, give yourself a fluid intake cut off time a few hours before bed!
2. Dark Chocolate
This wonderful, decadent treat makes it on many plant-based healthy food lists and for good reason. Dark chocolate has been linked to lower stress and anxiety, reduce inflammation, lower blood glucose levels, and even lower LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, and higher HDL “good” cholesterol levels. With that said, dark chocolate also “contains theobromine, which causes the heart rate to increase and contributes to sleepless nights.”
Acid reflux — also referred to as heartburn or, there more aggravated state, Acid Reflux Disease or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) — can be caused by many different factors, yet it “occurs when stomach acid escapes through a small sphincter of muscle called the Lower Esophageal Sphincter (LES), which is located at the top of the stomach.” Unfortunately, for most heartburn sufferers, lying down simply makes the pain worse. Per Amy Meoli, M.D., director of Penn State Hershey Sleep Research and Treatment Center, “when you’re lying down, it’s easier for your stomach juices to flow back up.” In order to avoid nighttime heartburn finish eating within three to four hours before bed, sleep with a slightly raised backrest (a few pillows will do the trick!), and try avoiding triggers that will set off heartburn.
This one is a bit obvious, yet the quantities and timeframe around consuming caffeine in regards to disrupting our sleep are not as well known.
How does caffeine work?
Per Brent Furdyk of the Food Network, “Caffeine molecules are similar to a naturally occurring chemical in our bodies called adenosine, which builds up throughout the day and eventually makes us feel tired. Caffeine molecules bind to adenosine receptors in the brain, which prevents adenosine from building up, thus keeping us wide awake.”
How much caffeine should I drink and when should I stop?
This is a bit more controversial. It’s recommended for adults to stick to 500 milligrams per day (four eight-ounce cups). In order to get a good night’s sleep, it’s recommended to stop drinking or eating any caffeinated items “at least four to six hours before going to sleep.” Basically, it’s best not to consume any caffeinated items after lunch.
Experiencing stress is simply a natural part of being human, yet the levels in which humans are experiencing stress are unnatural. Per a 2011 report by the American Psychological Association, “most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress, with 44 percent reporting that their stress levels have increased over the past five years.” That’s nearly half of the country reporting stressful feelings, while there are many more unreported cases. Stress can also cause sleep disruption. In fact, an even higher number, 43 percent of adults, say “stress has caused them to lie awake at night.”
Therefore, it’s incredibly important to address any unwanted stress in your life and take action to reduce stress levels!
Strange, but true, your favorite tomato-rich recipe may be keeping you awake at night.
Tomatoes are rich in a substance called tyramine. What is tyramine? It’s a “compound produced by the breakdown of an amino acid called tyrosine [and] it’s naturally present in some foods, plants, and animals,” such as tomatoes.
How does tyramine keep you awake?
Tyramine has the habit of activating “catecholamines — flight-or-fight chemicals that act both as hormones and neurotransmitters” including dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. Basically, when you consume tyramine it “gives you a boost of energy and, in turn, elevates your blood pressure and heart rate.”
Not exactly what you’re looking for right before you lay down to go to sleep!
7. Sleeping Environment
Most human bodies are incredibly sensitive to environmental factors. This is especially true when it comes to sleep. For example, if your bedroom is too hot or too cold, you may lay awake or toss and turn. It’s been found that “most people sleep best in a slightly cool environment, around 60 to 67 degrees.”
On top of that, light plays a crucial role in sustained sleep.
Artificial light — basically referring to any light not created by the sun such as LED’s, fluorescent bulbs and incandescent bulbs — can completely confuse your normal circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is referring to the “body’s biological clock” which is “set by the amount of light and dark the body is exposed to.” A recent study found in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism “found that, when compared with dim light, exposure to room light during the night suppressed melatonin by around 85 percent in trials.”
It’s recommended to create a dimly lit environment (turn off a couple of those overheads!) and avoid any sort of artificial light — including television, cellular phones, tablets, or computers — at least 30 to 60 minutes before going to bed.
Alcohol is truly a trickster on your body. A glass of wine or beer with dinner helps some of us unwind, relax, and release pent up tension. With that said, alcohol has been linked to a worse night’s sleep.
Why is this?
Per Irshaad Ebrahim of the London Sleep Centre, alcohol “suppresses breathing and can precipitate sleep apnea.” Furthermore, while alcohol may help you fall asleep, it wears off quickly, which leaves a “stimulating effect.” This can cause you to toss and turn. Therefore, it’s recommended to “stop drinking alcohol at least 4 hours before bedtime.”
If you’re in pain, then you’re most likely not getting a good night’s rest. Whether it’s chronic pain or a healing injury, pain disrupts sleep.
Yet, it’s a bit more complicated than that. While pain itself will keep you up, it also affects our entire lives impacting the ability to get good sleep overall. In fact, per the National Sleep Foundation, it’s been found that “those with acute or chronic pain are more likely to have sleep problems impact their daily lives.” Plus, “people with pain also feel less control over their sleep, worry more about lack of sleep affecting their health and exhibit greater sleep sensitivity.”
Therefore, if you’re suffering from short-term or chronic pain, it’s incredibly important to speak with a medical provider! You can also incorporate natural pain remedies to help mitigate the pain.
10. Sugar-Rich Foods
The truly scary aspect regarding the relationship between sugar and sleep is the fact that it can disrupt your REM cycle without even waking you up. If you eat a sugar-heavy dinner or dessert before bed, the “sugar in your system can pull you out of a deep sleep.” Per the National Sleep Foundation, “consuming too much sugar during the day can lead to an energy crash. Eating lots of sugar reduces the activity of what are called orexin cells. As a result, you’re going to feel pretty sleepy.”
With that said, this one is pretty easy to avoid!
If you like a bit of sugar after dinner, choose natural sugars such as fruit. Try your best to avoid eating sugary foods three to four hours before bed. This includes being aware of sugary sauces in your dinner recipe and maybe avoiding dessert altogether. On top of choosing the right sugars and setting a sugar-bed time, it’s also important to keep your “blood sugar level steady” throughout the day. This means spreading out sugar intake in small, healthily sourced amounts.
For sleep-inducing foods and recipes, we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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