The quality of your sleep heavily influences the health of your immune system. It is unlikely you will have strong immunity if you are in a chronic sleep deficit. Our immune systems are repaired during the time window of 10 PM - 2 AM every 24 hours. If you usually don’t go to bed until 11 PM (or later) or you wake up throughout the night, your immune system is not receiving the proper rest it needs to naturally repair so it can protect your body from unwanted pathogens. Subsequently, if you are chronically sleep deprived, your risk for becoming sick or developing food sensitivities is increased.
Short sleep can influence body weight in several different ways. First of all, inadequate sleep influences appetite hormone secretion. When a person is sleep deprived, leptin (the hormone that promotes satiety) is decreased and ghrelin (the hormone that increases appetite) is increased. Also, the reward center in the brain responds more strongly to images of high-calorie, nutrient-devoid foods. The brain can easily mistakingly identify calorie-dense foods as a way to increase energy quickly. Sleep deprivation increases the appeal of processed foods over nutrient-dense foods, while dulling our inhibition to know when to stop eating!
Exercise recovery is expedited during rest. If you are an athlete, you are probably aware of the importance of human growth hormone that is secreted during sleep and its important role with post-workout recovery. If you are putting in work on the track or in the gym and your overall nutrition is adequate for your metabolic demands, but your post-workout recovery is subpar, then inadequate sleep could be to blame (lack of human growth hormone). If this is the case, focusing on improving your rest at night, rather than training harder, might be the solution for improved performance!
Another factor to consider when focusing on improving sleep quality is the body’s natural circadian rhythm and how it helps us maintain a normal sleep-wake cycle. If you have ever flown from the west coast to the east coast or changed multiple time zones in one day, you are aware that the body’s response to sunlight exposure is key in maintaining a consistent circadian rhythm. However, you may not be aware that artificial light exposure can disrupt this rhythm since it is stimulating, particularly screen exposure such as a smartphone, TV, computer monitor, tablet, or other electronic light display. Bright light from electronic screens decreases the release of melatonin in the body, an important sleep hormone, so minimizing "screen time" 1 hour before going to bed can help promote a more restful night's sleep. I make a point to turn off my cell phone 30-60 minutes before my bedtime so I set myself up for a good sleep.
1. Since good sleep starts with a healthy brain, let’s briefly review foundational nutrients for brain health. For optimal brain functioning, make sure your diet includes a balance of fiber-rich carbohydrates, heart-healthy fat, and lean protein. Most people are unaware that optimal brain processing requires adequate glucose from nutrient-dense carbohydrates. Quality sources include: potatoes (with skin), whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and legumes. Often, people who follow carbohydrate-restricted diets have difficulty with mental processing, which can also prevent restful sleep at night. If you usually eat an early dinner and then fast 3+ hours before going to bed, you might consider adding a small snack that provides some carbohydrates and a bit of protein before going to bed for enhanced sleep. Examples could include: yogurt + fruit, natural protein supplement + almond milk, or sweet potato + low-fat cottage cheese or kefir.
2. Magnesium is a vital mineral that doesn’t get as much attention as it should since stress, exercise, coffee, and soda decrease magnesium levels in the body. Magnesium offsets the excitatory circuits in the brain, creating a sedative effect. Rich food sources of magnesium include: green leafy vegetables, nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts, pumpkin seeds), legumes (lentils, peanuts, soybeans), and whole grains. If you choose to use a magnesium supplement, start off conservatively with the dosage since certain forms of supplementary magnesium can induce diarrhea in some individuals (this is why Milk of Magnesia is used for constipation).
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