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What to Eat (and what to Avoid) For Healthier Sleep

Hey Angels and Alphas,

Elite and professional athletes understand that their off-the-court habits are just as crucial as their training regimen. Secondary lifestyle habits such as stretching, diet, stress management, and sleep can significantly impact their performance outcomes.

Among these habits, sleep is one that elite athletes take very seriously. Many of them go to sleep clinics, track their sleep patterns, integrate naps into their training schedules, and aim for 10 to 12 hours of sleep per day.

The attention given to sleep quality and quantity is due to the well-known health, performance, and body composition benefits that come with good sleep, as well as the detrimental effects of poor sleep.

Being in a chronically fatigued state can impair skill-based tasks, hinder endurance activities, and increase the risk of illness and injury. Acute fatigue can also elevate the levels of the inflammatory stress hormone cortisol, which is responsible for abdominal fat storage, impedes fuel utilization, and impairs appetite control. Additionally, feeling tired can lead to cravings for sugary snacks as a temporary energy boost.

The simple advice for better sleep is to sleep more. However, in today’s busy and stressful lifestyles, achieving optimal sleep can be challenging.

While most recreational athletes may not have the luxury of daytime naps or 10-hour nights, there are a few things they can do to improve the quality of their sleep. Surprisingly, dietary practices play a significant role in avoiding the pitfalls of fatigue and reaping the benefits of good sleep.

Here are some dietary considerations to enhance sleep quality:

Caffeine: While caffeine is a great instant pick-me-up, consuming it late in the day can disrupt sleep. It’s recommended to stop caffeine consumption by 2 p.m. This includes coffee, espresso, soda, energy drinks, certain teas, and chocolate.

Alcohol: Besides providing empty calories, alcohol can reduce sleep quality. It negatively affects heart rate variability (HRV), an important metric for evaluating recovery between training sessions. If you choose to consume alcohol, do so in moderation, avoid daily intake, consume it earlier in the day, and have it with a balanced meal.

Heavy Meals: Large meals, especially those high in protein and fat, can cause discomfort and a feeling of fullness that hampers sleep. They also raise body temperature, which contradicts the natural drop in body temperature during sleep. Opting for a larger breakfast and a smaller evening meal promotes better sleep.

Hunger: Severe calorie restriction throughout the day can also lead to poor sleep. Athletes trying to meet specific body composition goals by excessively restricting calories may experience more frequent awakenings due to hunger. Tracking caloric intake using apps like MyFitnessPal can help ensure a moderate calorie deficit for weight management while promoting good sleep.

Solids vs. Liquids: Research suggests that consuming calories before bed in the form of a solid meal is more beneficial for sleep compared to liquid meals. Save meal replacement shakes for earlier in the day.

Macronutrients: Studies have shown that meals higher in protein result in longer but less restful sleep, while meals higher in carbohydrates lead to faster sleep onset times. Both effects are generally positive. On the other hand, high-fat meals have been found to negatively affect sleep, including reducing time spent in REM sleep.

Micronutrients: Several vitamins and minerals play a role in sleep quality. Tryptophan, selenium, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D have been linked to promoting sleep through various mechanisms, such as hormone regulation, serotonin and melatonin production, inflammation reduction, and support of natural circadian rhythms. A well-balanced diet with plenty of variety is the best way to improve sleep naturally.

Supplements: If you struggle with restless nights, certain supplements might offer temporary relief. Natural, over-the-counter supplements like valerian root, melatonin, vitamin D, chamomile, theanine, magnesium, kava, and skullcap have been found to promote sleep. However, supplements are unregulated, so they should be used sparingly and with caution.

In addition to a balanced macronutrient intake and a varied diet, it’s important to address other factors that affect sleep quality, such as stress management, comfort, temperature, and light. Implementing a comprehensive sleep routine that takes these factors into account will further support optimal sleep.

In conclusion, by paying attention to their dietary choices, athletes can enhance the quality of their sleep and ultimately improve their performance.

While achieving optimal sleep may be challenging in today’s fast-paced world, implementing these dietary strategies can provide significant benefits and contribute to overall well-being and athletic success.

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