We’ve all had those days when we feel like there is not enough time to get everything done. With school, work, and extracurriculars in college it can be difficult to balance it all. Often enough sleep is the first thing to go when life gets busy: we think that extra hour or two that we sacrifice won’t make much of a difference.
In fact, sleep is one of the most important aspects when it comes to staying healthy.
Cortisol is a hormone that regulates many body functions, and is a strong determinant in how rejuvenating sleep will be. Cortisol is produced in a cyclic fashion with the highest levels being released in the morning and the lowest at night. This 24-hour cycle is called the circadian rhythm, and an abnormal circadian rhythm can disrupt hormone levels and lead to inadequate sleep.
Exercise also affects sleep. A study published in the December 2011 Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity found that 150 minutes of physical activity a week provided a 65% improvement in sleep quality.
Here are a few changes you can make to your diet to improve sleep quality:
Avoid Sugar and Processed Food
The glycemic index of a food reflects how our blood sugar level is affected by the particular food. Foods containing high sugar and low fiber have a high glycemic index and result in wider fluctuations in insulin levels than foods with a low glycemic index. The glycemic index of a meal affects the cortisol level for approximately the upcoming five hours. High glycemic index foods, such as sugar and refined starches, cause cortisol levels to rise. The cortisol will likely remain elevated until night, making it difficult to get to sleep.
Maintain a Regular Meal Schedule
Having a high glycemic meal is worse than not having a meal at all. The cortisol level tends to rise whenever you do not eat within the first five hours of the previous meal or snack. A rise above the normal range during the day almost guarantees that the nighttime cortisol will be high, thus disrupting REM sleep.
A single late meal or skipped meal or high glycemic index meal during the day can result in a high cortisol during the early part of the night. A cortisol level higher than it should be during the night results in a disruption of REM sleep and with it non-refreshing sleep.
Eat Protein with Every Meal
Low glycemic index foods such as eggs, meats, poultry, fish, and most vegetables tend to lower the cortisol level. Try to eat foods from the low glycemic index category every five hours during the day to keep the cortisol on its normal downward track. The high glycemic index of sugar or starch, including whole grains, requires consumption of nearly an equal weight of animal protein to maintain glycemic balance. Vegetables usually balance themselves in terms of glycemic index, but vegetables are not of sufficiently low glycemic index to balance grains. To prevent the upward swing of cortisol, balance all sugars and grains, including whole grains, with animal protein.
Use Sprouted Whole Grains
According to the American Nutrition Association, grains have been hybridized to contain about half the protein that they contained in 1900. In addition, non-sprouted grains are now used in flour and many commercial bread products, so many people consume them on a daily basis. Non-sprouted grains result in an inflammatory response in the gut that causes the secretion of excess cortisol into the intestinal tract. Look for bread that contains sprouted whole grains in order to avoid these effects.
Select a calming herb tea such as chamomile.. This herbal tea lacks the caffeine found in traditional teas, and it has a calming effect on the body. Also, a warm liquid before bed can make you sleepy by raising body heat. In the evening, as you wind down, drink 1-2 cups. Calming herbs can help clear clogged or damaged neurotransmitter receptor sites, and increase the production of healthy neurotransmitters.