Someone reminded me recently that the first three letters in the word, ‘diet’ are, ‘DIE’. Well, given the link between sleep deprivation and death and the fact that some diets spell the beginning of sleepless nights, this is not that for from the truth.
Is the rise in low carb and insomnia just coincidental? We think not.
Insomnia is becoming an ever-increasing nocturnal nightmare and whilst its cause is certainly multi-factorial, fad diets are, from my own past experience and from what I see very frequently in my clinic, becoming a key contributor.
For the last decade or so low carbohydrate diets, in particular, have been lauded as the key to quick weight loss or keeping the weight off. That, followed by the recent demonism of sugar, has meant that people are now extra cautious of carbohydrates, including even fruits.
This low- or no-carb diet very often provides fairly quick gratification on the scales: the weeks can go by, then the months and even a year or so and then…then the wheels start to fall off. And before the patient can put the two together they present with insomnia (and frequently anxiety or depression too).
Insomnia – it’s not in your head it’s in your liver or, more precisely, what you store there.
But where does the link between a low carb diet and insomnia lie? Well that answer lies not in your head but in your liver. More precisely, it is in how much glucose you store up during the day in your liver in the form of glycogen. Your liver acts as a storage unit for glucose that you absorb from carbohydrates during the day so that between meals and, most importantly for any insomniac reading this, during the night your body has a source of fuel to feed upon. It would be easy to think that as you sleep your brain turns activity right down and consumes less fuel, but this is not true.
Did you know your brain needs as much glucose during the night as during the day?
Your brain uses just as much glucose when you are sleep as when you are awake during the day; in fact, your brain must have glucose, whilst you are asleep, for that reason. So, what happens if you have purposely or perhaps, just through being too busy, not had sufficient carbohydrates during the day to lay down a good eight hours’ worth of glycogen to see you through the night? Your brain and other vital organs cannot be allowed to starve and so your body has built-in emergency mechanisms which makes it scavenge fuel from your muscles and fat instead. And this emergency mechanism comes in the form of adrenaline and cortisol – stress hormones which cause the break down and liberation of energy from these alternative sources to save the day (or night). But at a cost: mental alertness. Oh yes, you may be exhausted and desperately in need of a good night’s sleep but you get to bed and at some point in the night find yourself perfectly, acutely awake with a razor sharp mind (and sometimes a racing heart too). In other words, the fight or flight response kicks in at night, just when you don’t want it to.
What you eat and do today can determine how you sleep tonight.
One of the keys to steering away from the flight or fight response is to eat adequate carbohydrates (somewhere around 150 g minimum for a typical adult) during the day, especially in the form of fruits and roots. These foods store well as glycogen in the liver and, compared to grains, don’t raise a high insulin response, favouring deposition of glucose in the liver. At the beginning of the road to recovery, for clients who suffer from insomnia, I also recommend a small snack between meals to keep the stress response low and to allow optimal glycogen storage. Dates and a little dark chocolate between meals or some fruit and cheese as a snack work well. Traditionally children were put to bed on warm milk or cocoa and there is wisdom in this. The calcium and magnesium in the milk have a calming effect on the nervous system whilst the sweetened milk further keeps the stress hormones low. I frequently recommend hot milk with two teaspoons of honey before bed or a strong chamomile tea (two to three teabags) with honey in a small cup. Here’s the Chamomile Recipe For Sleep.
Adrenaline and cortisol come to the rescue when low blood sugar raises the alarm. If you reduce the need to rely on these hormones by eating an optimal diet, you will start to have a more restful and deeper sleep.
So, remember, what you eat today can determine how you sleep tonight and the quality of your sleep can actually be a very accurate barometer of the quality of your diet.
Originally published at donecountingsheep.com