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BLOG: Sleep: How to Fuel for Slumber

Author: Max Walker
Published: Tuesday, May 21, 2013

After a taxing couple of weeks and an especially lethargic weekend, I thought about how difficult fatigue makes optimal functioning. But those living life in the fast-lane have little time for rest and relaxation. My mid-week remedy typically consists of four cups of coffee and a bit of intense exercise. This does me over until about 10; usually the time I muster up enough will-power to start working on projects or studying. Shortly thereafter I end up crashing faster than mid-90's Macintosh.

Saint Louis University dietetic internship tired
Animals listen to their sleep cues

By the weekend I'm left feeling like butter spread over too much toast.

This doesn't fare well when projects, homework, articles, friends and family, and chores pile up on my two days off. So in order to get the most out of what little sleep I get, I went to the world wide web for some answers.

The overwhelming theme from my initial research: American's don't sleep enough.

According to the CDC, there are an estimated 50-70 million US adults who have sleep or wakefulness disorders [1]. This includes dyssomnias, or disorders of either hypersomnolence or insomnia, parasomnias, which involve abnormal behaviors, emotions, movements, and dreams, and medical or psychiatric conditions affecting sleep [2].

The National Institute of Health also claims 70% of US adolescents aren't getting the recommended amount of zzz's. Without those 8-9 hours of restoration, it may have a direct effect on the children's development, behavior, and current and future health [3].

Why, exactly, is sleep so darn important?

Well, while sleeping, your body is doing more than just recharging energy. While snoozing, our bodies are hard at work, forming new pathways vital to learning, creativeness, storing memories, and weight management [2,4]. Skimping out on such valuable regeneration can lead to some rather serious health issues.

Mentally and emotionally, sleep does wonders to clear the mind and bring about new perspectives.

Consider the adage "let me sleep on it". When considering important life decisions, I consider it a must to put at least one good night of sleep between first consideration and final decision. Our REM sleep is full of new, creative problem solving. Some of my greatest revelations in life have come from dreams I've had the night I am thinking of a big issue.

Physically, sleep is just as vital as nutrition and exercise. When we don't get enough sleep, levels of leptin, the hormone telling us we are full, decrease, and levels of ghrelin, the hormone telling us we are hungry, increase [5]. This imbalance leads to increased eating and diseases that accompany such behavior, like diabetes type II, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

Just shout out to those looking to lose some weight, the answer could be in your nice, comfy bed.

So then, what do we need to do to get a better night’s sleep?

Let's first look at some foods/drinks which shouldn't be consumed before sleep.

  • Caffeine - A natural stimulant, caffeine may take up to 8 hours to completely wear off depending on how often you consume it. Caffeine creates a situation in the brain similar to that in the intestine when calcium and iron are consumed simultaneously; adenosine receptors have similar affinities for both caffeine and adenosine molecules. When caffeine is present, the receptors uptake the caffeine, and the adenosine isn't able to create drowsiness and slow nerve activity like it should [6]. The brain also produces adrenaline when caffeine is present, the hormone responsible for things like this dunk: try sleeping while feeling like you can do that.
  • Alcohol - No way! On the weekend this is many of my friends' go to for sleeping on a random person's couch or while watching P.S. I Love You for the 15th time (I'm a guy in dietetics, all my friends are girls). But it is true! In a study released in 2011, it was found that alcohol decreased sleep duration and efficiency, especially in women [8]. While the first half of the night's sleep may be deep, the second half tends to be very disrupted [8]. A sad day in the college kid's life.
  • Nicotine - in addition to being loaded in cigarettes, which already cause a plethora of health and sleep issues, nicotine leads to the activation of nicotinic receptors, which then release several neurotransmitters, including actelycholine, dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and gamma-amino butyric acid [7]. It is believed that the combination of these hormones causes disrupted sleep patterns.
  • High Fat/Large Meals - The more you put into your stomach, especially when it's high fat, the longer is takes to empty. If you go to bed on a very full stomach, there's chance for the contents of your over-indulged belly to move the wrong direction, back up into your esophagus. This leads to acid reflux, or heart burn. It's not easy to sleep with a ball of fire in your chest.
  • Simple Carbohydrates - From personal experience, I've learned to avoid these foods two hours before bed. Simple carbs include foods/drinks like ice cream, cookies, cake, candy, crackers, Chocolate milk/hot chocolate, soda, juice, kid cereal, and dried fruit. These foods all give you a "sugar rush", and provide virtually no nutrients for their calories. The energy you get from these foods may make you hyper and active, or lead to feeling bad about what was consumed, so you exercise. But exercising too soon before bed can also delay sleep due to that aforementioned adrenaline and some other hormones.

All these things off-limits? Gosh, what the heck CAN I do then? I know, it sounds like I'm being a Mr. Scrooge on your slumber party, but I just want the best night's sleep for you and me both.

What CAN we do?

  • Exercise - As long as exercise is taking place a few hours before bed, it actually helps you to get a better night of sleep. A vigorous cardiovascular workout (running, swimming, basketball, biking) 5-6 hours before sleep has been linked with a higher quality slumber [9]. This is because when you perform the intense activity, you internal temperature, along with the release various energy enhancing hormones are increased. Then, 5-6 hours later, your body temperature and levels of those hormones begin decreasing. A lower body temperature and the release of "sleep hormones" melatonin and adenosine. Exercising in the morning has been shown to relieve stress and improve mood for the day [9].
  • Evening Snack - Eaten 2 hours or more before bed, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and fruits or vegetables make up good snack choices. A cup of non-fat Greek yogurt with some blueberries can leave you feeling full until it's time for breakfast, and your body will use the whey and casein protein to help regenerate muscles over night. Or maybe a cup of cubed watermelon. Or my own specialty -Banana Ice Cream. These are just a couple examples of low-fat, lower calorie snacks to help with sleep.
  • Evenly Distribute Meals - This is especially for those with diabetes. Not getting too high or low during the night is very important. If the end of your day is loaded on carbohydrates, blood sugars are going to stay elevated longer than they should. On the flipside, low blood sugars while sleeping can be dangerous. Symptoms can include sweating, elevated heart rate, poor sleep quality, and headache upon waking. One of the snacks mentioned before, eaten a few hours before bed, should stave off an issue like this.
  • Relax - Life today is stressful. Everywhere we turn there are things to get our panties all in a bunch, but learning to brush it off and accept life as it comes can be incredibly beneficial to overall health and sleep. Elevated stress levels lead to Heart Rate Variability, which is the time between beats of the heart [10]. Some data indicates a decreased HRV is predicative of myocardial infarction (heart attack) [10]. Personally, reading is my favorite bedtime activity. It not only takes your mind off the day, it stimulates the imagination and helps with creative problem solving. So finding something that works for you to help release the day's troubles may be a huge step towards great sleep.

Sleep is almost a novel treat in the age we live in. People convince themselves they can get by on 5 hours a night, yet end up a psychological mess and overweight.

Try ending your day an hour earlier than planned. If you normally go to bed at 11, then tomorrow at 9:30, drop everything you're doing and get ready to be in bed by 10. You may be amazed at how great you feel the next morning.

In the never ending pursuit of self-betterment, there is no better place to start than the most comfortable place in your house: that warm, cozy bed.

Nighty night.


  1. Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic
  2. nlm.nih.gox. Are You Sleep-Deprived? Learn More About Healthy Sleep.
  3. The Importance of Sleep.
  4. The Link Between Sleep and Weight Gain — Research Shows Poor Sleep Quality Raises Obesity and Chronic Disease Risk. By Nancy L. Kondracki, MS, RD, LDN. Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 14 No. 6 P. 48
  5. Shi Z, Taylor A, Gill T, Tuckerman J, Adams R, Martin J. Short sleep duration and obesity among Australian children. BMC Public Health[serial online]. January 2010;10:609-614. Available from: Public Affairs Index, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 11, 2012.
  6. How Caffeine Works. by Marshall Brain, Charles W. Bryant and Matt Cunningham.
  7. Zhang L, Samet J, Caffo B, Punjabi N. Cigarette smoking and nocturnal sleep architecture. American Journal Of Epidemiology [serial online]. 2006;164(6):529-537. Available from: Global Health, Ipswich, MA. Accessed November 12, 2012.
  8. Alcohol at Bedtime May Not Help Your Sleep: Study Finds Fault With Popular Notion That a Drink Before Bed Will Help You Sleep Better. By Courtney Ware.
  9. How to Fall Asleep. By Virgil D. Wooten, MD.
  10. Hall M, Vasko R, Buysse D. Et all. Acute Stress Affects Heart Rate Variability During Sleep. doi: 10.1097/ 01.PSY.0000106884.58744.09Psychosomatic MedicineJanuary 1, 2004 vol. 66no. 1 56-62
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