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  • Alison Acerra MS, RDN

Diet and Sleep - 2 Vital Signs We Should Be Talking About More Often

As a nutritionist, I love talking about food, and feel inspired to help others consider how it can help them live healthy and happy - and yet I know what a challenge it can be to sustain lasting nourishing habits for the long-haul. Of course, Covid has made the critical role of nutrition even more clear given the association between Covid complications and diet-related disease. Incorporating nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods, quality proteins and lots of vibrantly colored fruits and veggies, keeps us energized, balances the ‘good gut,’ supports immunity and reduces inflammation - all necessary to keep a healthy body and mind so we can be our best for ourselves, our relationships and our communities.


So why should we also be talking about sleep?


What if the root cause of sub-optimal food choice and food cravings has nothing to do with willpower and more to do with physiological drivers related specifically to sleep?


Sleep is on par, and some might say even more important, than diet when it comes to health. Besides the strong link with mental health, resilience and stress management, what we eat can impact the length and quality of sleep while lack of sleep can have a significant impact on our food choices, cravings and health. Given these challenging times, with heightened levels of stress and sleepless nights, Covid and the diet-related disease connection, both need more attention and awareness.


Dr. David Katz and his company, DietID, are on a mission to make diet a vital sign for good health.


Should sleep be considered as well? Some experts believe so.


Imagine, in addition to checking heart rate, blood pressure and body temp, your doctor routinely asked you about your eating and sleep patterns? Instead of writing a script for medicine with its myriad side-effects, she offered you food as medicine, and a prescription for more fruits and veggies, as well as a deeper look into the root cause of your chronic sleep disturbances (e.g. sleep apnea, anxiety, hormonal imbalances).

Sleep Deficiency Is Real


The National Sleep Foundation recommends we get 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. Yet Americans report on average, 2 nights/week of insufficient sleep and 39.5% get 6 hours or less per day; a large minority of folks are flat-out deficient! The toll chronic sleep deprivation can take may go unnoticed, especially when it becomes the normal state of affairs, but it has consequences - from the benign - difficulty focusing, memory lapses and cranky moods to the more serious - injuries and accidents.


Sleep Deprivation: Food Choice, Cravings & Health


Sleep deprivation can also have a significant impact on our physical health. Sleep is linked with key hormones that regulate hunger (ghrelin) and fullness; (leptin) as well as the stress hormone, cortisol. Just one night of poor sleep can disrupt these hormones, causing an increase in cortisol and ghrelin and a reduction in leptin. One study of over 1,000 volunteers found that less than 8 hours of sleep was associated with 14.9% higher ghrelin levels and 15.5% lower levels of leptin.


So after one sleepless night, we may find ourselves hungrier and needing to eat more to feel satisfied. Double whammy. And to make matters a little less bright, veggies are probably not our immediate go-tos! And this makes sense. Our brain and body are forcibly seeking out fuel for rapid energy; sweets and processed carbs will certainly deliver! It’s no surprise we may find ourselves on a blood sugar roller coaster ride all day long (further impairing sleep quality and duration later that night).


When this cycle becomes chronic, health problems ensue.


Herein lies the important relationship between sleep and metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other inflammatory conditions. Addressing sleep is more important than ever as it correlates strongly with diet-related chronic diseases and therefore severe complications from Covid.


Food Tips for Overcoming a Sleepless Night


Now to be clear, there is nothing wrong with indulging in some of our fave foods while also including lots of nourishing ones. That said, when sleep deprivation is the driver, there are some ways to give your body the energy it needs to recover in healthier ways.


  1. Ensure all meals contain a good source of protein; a higher protein meal will help promote satiety and stabilize blood sugar levels, preventing rapid rises and dips that can perpetuate cravings.

  2. Stay on track with consistent meal times to maintain steady blood sugars.

  3. Satisfy your sweet tooth with whole fresh fruit - the fiber will help fill you up while providing some hydration (see #3).

  4. Stay well hydrated: dehydration will only worsen the effects of poor sleep (fatigue, difficulty with focus and concentration) and drive food cravings. Stay well hydrated with water all day long.

  5. Get moving: incorporate light movement periodically throughout the day to increase blood circulation, especially to your brain. Movement will help maintain alertness and ward off fatigue.


When it comes to overall strategies to improve sleep quality and duration, The Sleep Foundation offers some sleep hygiene strategies. Besides limiting alcohol and caffeine, here are 10 foods that can help aid sleep.



Alison Acerra is the Founder of Strategic Nutrition Design, a consulting firm that offers sustainability and nutrition solutions for the food industry in order to help businesses thrive all while supporting healthy people and our planet.


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