Dr. Day is a cardiologist and Medical Director of Heart Rhythm Services at his practice in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowship in cardiology at Stanford University. He is board certified in Cardiology and Cardiac Electrophysiology.
How to End Insomnia and Weight Gain
Do you suffer from fatigue, stress, depression, anxiety, brain fog, high cholesterol, or a raging appetite? If so, there is a good chance you are one of 70 million Americans who also have difficulties sleeping.
Could the dramatically rising rates of sleep deprivation over the last 50 years be responsible for why most people are gaining weight?
The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation
A recently published study showed that sleeping an average of just 5.7 hours a night for one week changed the expression of 711 genes in the body! Many of these genes are the very same genes that cause obesity, heart disease, and dementia. Is it any wonder that insomniacs are 55% more likely to die from heart disease.
Even as little as one night of severe sleep deprivation can cause the same injury to the brain as a concussion. If you are part of the 10% of Americans who even occasionally take a sleeping pill like Benadryl or an antihistamine, your risk of premature death is 3 times higher!
I have battled with insomnia for most of my adult life. It started in college and has been with me ever since. I suspect much of my battles with insomnia are due to stress, travel, and disrupted sleep from being on call for the hospital at night.
I have found that when I am sleep deprived from stress, travel, or being on call for my hospital that I tend to have a ravenous appetite. In a previous blog post, I shared my 10 strategies to better sleep.
The topic of this article is how can we channel our increased appetite from sleep deprivation into better sleep? In other words, how can we eat our way to better sleep and weight loss?
How a Lack of Sleep Changes Our Hormones and Metabolism
1. It Increases the Stress Hormones (Cortisol and Adrenalin)
When we are sleep deprived it increases our stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin. With regards to weight gain, cortisol is particularly troublesome. As anyone who has ever taken cortisol, in the form of Prednisone or a short course of steroids, will tell you that while they took this drug their appetite was intense and they gained weight.
2. It Increases the Hunger Hormones (Low Leptin and High Ghrelin)
Have you ever felt yourself craving sugar after a bad night of sleep? Why is this the case?
When we are sleep deprived our leptin levels are low and our ghrelin levels are high. Leptin is the hunger hormone that tells our brain we are full. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone that tells us it is time to eat.
When these hormones are particularly out of sync, we tend to crave the high sugar and fatty foods. Unfortunately, the fatty foods we tend to crave in this hormonally disrupted state are the unhealthy fats like those found in french fries or processed foods.
With low levels of leptin our brains never get the signal we are full. Likewise, with surging levels of ghrelin we feel compelled to eat even when we have already eaten.
3. It Raises Our Blood Sugar
Our blood sugar levels tend to be high when we are sleep deprived. There are many reasons why this happens. Some of these include the decreased use of glucose by the brain, insulin resistance, and from the high levels of cortisol.
When our blood sugars run high, the body compensates by releasing more insulin. Insulin not only can stimulate hunger, as any diabetic quickly finds out when they start taking insulin shots, but it also drops blood glucose. When our blood sugar levels bottom out from insulin it triggers the hunger hormones which again tell us we are hungry and it is time to eat.
How to End Insomnia and Weight Gain in 7 Steps
As we have now covered how sleep deprivation changes our hormones and metabolism to eat more, I now want to discuss how we can reverse this process. Yes, it is very possible to channel our increased appetite from sleep deprivation into eating our way to better sleep and weight loss. Here are my best 7 strategies to end insomnia and weight gain.
1. Shut the Kitchen Down at 7 pm
Eating late at night not only leads to weight gain but compromised sleep as well. Indeed, in this study researchers found that late night eaters had worse sleep quality.
Late night eating is an important cause of acid reflux. Acid reflux is a well-known cause of poor sleep at night. Even if you don’t get the typical chest pain that often comes from acid reflux it can still disrupt your sleep.
In addition, there is a growing body of evidence that intermittent fasting or time restricted feeding can reverse obesity. In this recently published study in mice, researchers found that just by timing when mice ate determined whether they were lean or obese even though they ate the same number of calories.
The best way to make intermittent fasting or time restricted feeding work for you is to stop eating early in the evening. By the time breakfast arrives, at least 12 hours will have passed and you will have accomplished intermittent fasting or time restricted feeding without even trying!
2. Have “Tryptophan Nuts and Seeds” for Dinner
Have you ever felt tired after a big turkey dinner at Thanksgiving? Odds are that the sleepiness was due to high levels of tryptophan from the turkey. Tryptophan is a sleep promoting amino acid that helps your body to produce melatonin.
Nuts and seeds are the perfect dinner time food for sleep and weight loss. They are packed full of protein, healthy fats, and fiber which means they will keep you full until morning so you won’t be tempted for a bedtime snack.
In addition to the perfect trifecta to staying full (protein, fat, fiber), the tryptophan nuts and seeds will help to put you to sleep. The nuts and seeds high in tryptophan include walnuts, cashews, and sesame seeds.
3. Eat a High Magnesium Dinner
Magnesium is a mineral that 60% of Americans are deficient in. Magnesium relaxes muscles and our nervous system. Magnesium has even been shown in clinical trials to improve sleep.
Some excellent choices to increase your magnesium levels would be pumpkin seeds, spinach, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, or pecans. Not only will more magnesium help to improve your sleep but it can also help with anxiety. Anxiety robs many of my patients from blissful sleep. To learn more about the many health benefits of magnesium, here is a link to an article I wrote on magnesium.
4. Have “Lettuce Opium” for Dinner
From as far back as the ancient Egyptians, the milky fluid part of lettuce has long been known to produce opium like effects. Not only does lettuce taste great in a salad but it can also reduce pain and promote sleep. This is especially helpful as I have found that so many of my patients are kept up at night from chronic pain.
Studies have now been done to prove what humans have known for thousands of years, namely that lettuce has sleep inducing qualities.
5. Eat a High Calcium Dinner
Like magnesium, calcium also relaxes muscles and the nervous system. Although the data are somewhat limited, there is some evidence that calcium with magnesium may help to promote sleep. In addition, calcium can help the brain to better utilize tryptophan in the production of melatonin.
While dairy is certainly a good choice for obtaining calcium, often overlooked options for calcium include tofu, sardines, sesame seeds, spinach, or kale. To learn more about what foods contain calcium here is a good link.
6. Eat Vitamin B6 Foods for Dinner
Vitamin B6 plays many different roles in the body. One of these include regulation of tryptophan and serotonin which are important for healthy sleep.
Some excellent foods that are high in vitamin B6 include tuna, salmon, sweet potatoes, sunflower seeds, spinach, or a banana. It is best to get vitamin B6 at night from foods rather than supplements as vitamin B6 supplements taken at night may cause vivid dreams. When you are sleep deprived state the last thing in the world you want is to be awakened from an intense dream.
7. Eat Cherries to Boost Melatonin
In one study, cherry juice was shown to boost natural melatonin levels and improve sleep quality. While drinking your calories is not a good option for weight loss, the same sleep promoting benefit could be obtained by eating whole cherries.
Putting it All Together: The Perfect Dinner for Sleep
I realize that I just shared many different strategies to eat your way to better sleep and weight loss. How do we put it all together?
Let me share with you my perfect dinner for when I need a good night of sleep. Have the following before 7 pm at night for best results. This simple dinner will cover all 7 strategies discussed in this article.
Eat a lettuce and spinach salad loaded with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and almonds. By loading your salad with nuts and seeds it will keep you very full until morning. For a sleep enhancing dressing try a healthy cherry vinaigrette dressing made with dried tart cherries or a tart cherry juice instead of orange juice in this recipe. Although this recipe does not call for a blender I would suggest using one for the optimal consistency of this dressing.
What do you eat for dinner when you need a good night of sleep?
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.