Ah, January that traditional time of giving up the ‘bad’ and embracing the ‘good’. But at what cost? A low carb, low calorie diet combined with excessive exercising to shed the Christmas weight gain or to embrace a newer/fitter/better you will simply push the body into insomnia. Why? Because of elevated stress hormones as the body contends with inadequate nutrition and poor nutritional choices.
Add to that poor food choices which have traditionally been heralded as healthy and you have a recipe for poor sleep.
How do we know? That’s how we ended up with broken sleep. Both of us (‘us’ being Sophie and Sarah from Done Counting Sheep) cut out carbs and calories, and ate ‘clean’ to better ourselves but it ended up wrecking our health and our sleep instead.
So, knowing what we now know, these are the things we have given up:
1. PUFA’s (short for polyunsaturated fatty acids)
These types of fats are found in vegetable oils that are ubiquitous in take away foods, ready-made meals and crisps and unfortunately, many people still cook with them at home under the well-meaning but misguided belief that they are heart-protective.
Sunflower oil, corn oil and soya oil are the main ones but if the ingredients say vegetable oil, then look out! And please don’t forget that a third of the weight of a packet of crisps are made up of a sunflower oil (sounds so innocent doesn’t it?). So, if you are consuming an average of one packet of crisps per day, in a year that is nearly 4 litres of vegetable oil alone, and that’s without the guaranteed extra in any food made outside of your own kitchen.
So, what is the issue with these oils and what might they have to do with sleep?
Well the very nature of them, being highly unsaturated, is what allows them to wreak havoc in the body. Here is what they do:
- Suppress thyroid function. This is important because a suppressed thyroid (yes, even if you are “in range”) can increase stress hormone production which then interferes with sleep. It’s why many hypothyroid people, although low in energy during the day, struggle to sleep at night.
- Raise inflammation. These oils are inflammatory and any inflammation can create a stress reaction in the body.
- Increase stress hormone production. Yes, these oils can actually directly create an increase in stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
As you can see, these very modern cooking oils are not our friend when it comes to sleep.
2. Artificial Sweeteners
Did you know that artificial sweeteners work by exciting our brain cells, fooling our brains into thinking we are taking in something sweet and nutritious? Dr Braylock, a neurosurgeon, wrote a whole book on the subject called Excitoxins, The Taste That Kills. Artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, are excitotoxins. They excite or agitate brain cells to death. One very good reason not to take them.
But here’s another: they interfere with your sugar metabolism and actually cause foods cravings and weight gain. We have sweet taste buds for a very good reason – because our cells love glucose. In fact, they run on the stuff and our body will do whatever it takes to keep the supply going to vital organs, like your brain, including, and preferentially, breaking down your lean muscle to provide it. If you have a craving for something sweet, then there is a genuine need going on there.
Do not avoid carbohydrates (all of which break down to glucose or sugar) if you want to sleep. Eating good quality and sufficient carbohydrates through the day helps ensure good sleep at night. Here are the carbohydrates we recommend eating regularly each day:
Root vegetables, fresh fruits, dried fruits (dates are especially good because the high potassium helps shunt the sugar into the cells), stewed fruit desserts (with a little good quality ice cream), rice (best soaked from the morning), lentils (again, best soaked), oats (again, because they are seeds, these are best soaked overnight to allow proper digestion) and oatcakes and honey. A little sugar, yes pure white sugar, in the context of a nutrient rich diet is perfectly fine too.
You can read more about why carbohydrates are so important for sleep here.
3. Gluten (and wheat, of sorts)
Is wheat upsetting the balance? I know, we all know someone who has dropped wheat in the name of better health. Wheat is not a demon food, it has sustained populations since the beginning of time but there is a genuine problem going on between wheat and people’s health and it’s this. Wheat have been hybridized to contain a much higher gluten content than traditional strains of wheat. Gluten is a very problematic protein to digest and it has a very negative impact on many people. This can be in the form of brain fog, depression, bloating, IBS, constipation, diarrhoea, arthritis (because of the immunological reaction to the protein). Added to that, traditionally, bread was given time to rise. It was fermented for longer, sometimes 24 hours as in the case of a genuine sourdough bread (sorry, I don’t believe for one minutes that the loaves on the supermarkets are true sourdoughs). The fermentation process was vital for one very important reason – it allowed time for the yeasts and bacteria to break down the hard to digest gluten and other elements.
In other words, wheat is now an issue because of the way we are eating it, which is a far cry from how it was traditionally produced and prepared. And plenty of people eat wheat three times a day!
And this is a potential problem for sleep because of the inflammation caused by eating potentially allergenic and hard to digest gluten and the resulting raised cortisol which is a stress hormone. Cortisol spikes are associated with broken sleep. Science is starting to look afresh and some neurological disorders, including depression, as diseases of inflammation. For a healthy mind, it helps to have a healthy gut.
It’s only been in the last half a century or so that disorders of the mind were viewed from the neck upwards. But our head is one part of a whole system and so our sleep is also a reflection on the rest of our body.
What should we be doing instead?
- Going back to the traditional fats which are more saturated and actually beneficial for our health and metabolism. These would include solid butter (not spreadable, these are made as such by the addition of a vegetable oil), coconut oil (this oil is particularly beneficial for thyroid function) and olive oil. We very often have to look back in order to move forwards.
- Limiting the amount of times per week we eat out (not so hard to do in January!)
- Avoiding vegetable oils when cooking food and choosing ready-made meals
- Choosing meat and poultry produce we opt where possible for grass-fed beef (and lamb) and pasture raised eggs and poultry because this produces a better and healthier fat in the animal
- Avoiding artificial sweeteners and getting enough carbs instead
- Avoiding gluten and choosing unleavened breads and sourdoughs
Want to know what foods we are putting back into our diets for better sleep? Read this. Number 12 might surprise you.