Are You Craving Caffeine and Sugar, or Simply More Zzzs?

By Karen Malkin, HC, AADP

Does this sound familiar? It’s 10:30 pm. You know you should go to bed (maybe you’re even stifling a yawn), but instead of winding down, you grab the sugary snack you’re craving and stay up for another hour or more. You toss and turn and wake up feeling sluggish with a foggy brain–you need coffee, STAT! Throughout the day, you chase a sugary or carb-laden boost to keep you going. And the cycle repeats, day in…day out….

This makes sense because daytime fatigue (or, cravings for sleep) can actually manifest as an increase in appetite and cravings for sugar, refined carbs, soda, and caffeine. Sleep deprivation increases the hunger hormone, ghrelin, which leads to refined carb and sugar cravings. While what your body actually craves is sleep, you’re tricked into thinking you need these nutrient-poor foods as a quick source of energy. These are unnatural cravings; you are designed to crave healthy whole foods, such as dark leafy greens and rich proteins, which provide sustained energy without a crash.

WHAT’S IN YOUR CUP?

When you have a night of poor sleep, it’s common to reach for caffeine to “wake” you up. But the coffee you have in the morning can contribute to a pattern of diminished sleep. Here’s why: Caffeine has a half-life (the time it takes your body to eliminate half of it) of 6 hours. If you drink your cup of coffee at 8 am, only half of it will be gone 2 pm, and 3/4 by 8 pm. The caffeine from the remaining 1/4 cup of coffee might be what keeps you up at night, leaving you feeling restless in bed. Breaking your morning coffee habit is tough and should be done gradually, but once you cut down on your caffeine intake you’ll sleep more soundly, and by extension, think more clearly.

Alcohol is a more complicated situation. One or two drinks can help you relax and may help you fall asleep, but when the body’s natural sleep cycle begins to lighten between 2-4 am, the alcohol metabolizes and acts like more of a stimulant. This is why you often wake up throughout the night after drinking. Quality sleep is compromised and can lead to you feeling wiped out the next day. Ideally, keep alcohol intake to a minimum and avoid drinking right before bed.

THE STRESS FACTOR

Stress directly impacts sleep. Stress is any real or imagined threat to the body and how your body reacts to it. Your thoughts play a huge role in how you handle stress, so it’s good to notice how you react in stressful situations. Stress causes a rise in cortisol, your fight-or-flight hormone. When levels of cortisol are chronically high in your body, it’s not only hard to lose weight; weight gain is often imminent. The opposite of the stress response is the physiological relaxation response. During relaxation your body experiences optimum digestion and assimilation of nutrients, enhanced calorie-burning capacity, better decision-making ability, and a more restful sleep. Finding this relaxation response begins with the breath. It’s physiologically impossible to feel stress while you are deep breathing. This is why yoga and meditation are so great for relaxation and digestion!

Studies show that slow-wave sleep enhances connectivity between neurons, which is why sleep is especially important for children and teenagers’ brain function and memory. Getting adequate sleep (sleeping through the night) also becomes more difficult as you age, so making sleep a priority is important for healthy aging.

EATING TO PROMOTE ZZZs

Protein may help you stay alert during the day as it blocks your brain’s ability to produce serotonin, the mood regulating chemical that promotes sleep. Protein and high-quality fats should be eaten at breakfast and lunch. Carbohydrates have the opposite effect, triggering your brain to produce serotonin, hence inducing sleep. For dinner, try eating such complex carbs as brown rice and quinoa along with lots of colorful veggies and some lean protein. A starchy food just might be your sleeping pill!

Attempt to front load your water early in the day and avoid excessive water intake after dinner. Same with physical activity – do this during the day and not before bed.

SLEEP HYGIENE

With all the health benefits outlined here, it’s clearly important to prioritize your sleep, and this can be done by establishing good sleep hygiene. Here are some tips for achieving optimal sleep:

  1. Do not eat within 2 hours of sleeping.  Eating a heavy meal before bed will lead to poor quality sleep as the body needs to work to digest the food instead of resting, rebuilding, and detoxifying.
  2. Turn off the computer two hours before bed. The blue light of the screen stimulates your brain.
  3. Try a hot Epsom salt bath to relax your muscles and relieve stress.
  4. Get a massage or stretch out your muscles before bed.
  5. Try laying a hot water bottle on your midsection. This raises your core temperature and helps you relax.
  6. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep and go to sleep at the same time each night.
  7. Pay attention to the days you feel great and make connections around your sleep and cravings.

Creating a pattern with your sleep habits will help ensure you get quality sleep every night. And before long, you’ll wake up feeling refreshed and watch your cravings slip away like a bad dream from long ago…

To your good health,

Karen Malkin, HC, AADP

Certified health, nutrition and eating psychology counselor

Karen Malkin wellness