To Print
So we talked about two aspects of sleep: the circadian rhythm and the sympathetic response. The main idea of that was to understand that almost always, sleep issues are not about things you need to start doing, but rather about things you need to stop doing.

The circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock and the sympathetic nervous system is part of your survival/alert system.

What you eat can determine how you sleep

Another major insight is that your body’s sleep-wake clock (the circadian rhythm) and the “sympathetic drive” (another term that describes how active your alert/wake system is), are impacted by environmental factors. The two most important of these are light and food.

I want you to think about that for just a second.

What do light and food signal to the body?

Light signals daytime. It does not matter if that light is coming from the sun, a TV or your cellphone.

Light to the brain says “Come on! Wake up!”  That can mess with your internal sleep clock.

Food, on the other hand, can say several different things depending on what the food is and when it is eaten.

With food, it is not so black & white.

Eating carbohydrates works like this: Sugars/starches that are digested quickly give quick energy in the short run, and then relaxation and even tiredness over a longer period. 

Think of a kid you give candy to. They are jumping off the walls for a short time and then calm after the “high” wears off. This varies with the type of sugar/starch but in general the more fiber the more balanced and even the energy response. 

Cookies, for example? They give immediate energy and then a crash. Pasta gives some energy than a little less crash.

Beans give less immediate energy, but that energy is sustained. Vegetables give even less immediate energy and the longest lasting burn.

See how that works?

Protein is digested more slowly than starch (even starch with fiber) so it provides the most even and sustained energy. 

If you add fat to starch or protein, the energy is sustained for even a longer period of time.

And alcohol is like starch in reverse. It sedates at first and then several hours later stimulates. We have a name for the tendency for alcohol to wake us up, it’s called “wine o’clock.”

So why am I telling you this? Because many people are unaware that their sleep issues are directly related to food or light.

Let me cover this slowly so it makes sense. Bare with me, there will be some science involved.

Not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep

Let’s say your issue is not being able to fall asleep. You may be inadvertently turning on your sympathetic drive.

Are you exposing yourself to bright lights from the TV or computer? Are you eating too much or too little sugar/starch?

I know the carb thing can be confusing but think of it this way.

Your body needs some glucose. If it doesn’t get any, it sounds an alarm and releases stress hormones that help the body access stored sugar in your liver (called glycogen).

These same hormones, like adrenaline, are involved in the fear response. This is why some low carb and paleo dieters have issues going to sleep.

But if you eat too much glucose, the blood sugar can get too high, again causing the body to send off alarm bells. In this case large amounts of insulin are released to lower blood sugar levels. In some, not all, this response can be too strong and lead to blood sugar levels that fall too low, too fast.

That can also cause adrenaline to be released which stimulates you and keeps you awake, or wakes you up.

So there are two scenarios when it comes to carbs, sleep & blood sugar. One person eats no carbs at night and can’t fall asleep as a result. In the other case, the person eats too many carbs. They then go to sleep fine but end up wide awake within two to four hours due to this reactive adrenaline response.

High fiber carbs, and especially protein, can solve the issue for many because they deal with both issues.

So here are the things for you to try based on this discussion, plus a few other things I threw in to help:

Avoid caffeine 6 hours before bed
Avoid alcohol 2 hours before bed

Difficulty going to sleep?

Make sure you eat closer to bed and have enough, but not too many carbs

Difficulty staying asleep?

Make sure you eat closer to bed and focus on protein, fat and slow-digesting carbs (like beans)
Make sure when the sun goes down your lights go down as well. Dimmers and candles can help with this.