How Your Lack of Sleep May Be Affecting Your Diet — and Heart Health

  • A new study has found a link between poor sleep, unhealthy diet, and overeating in women.
  • Unhealthy diet is a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Researchers believe this may explain why poor sleep is linked to increased risk for heart disease.
  • Improved sleep quality may reduce risk.
  • Eating a heart healthy diet may also lower your risk.

According to a study by a group of Columbia University Irving Medical Center researchers, women who don’t sleep well tend to overeat and have a poor quality diet.

Previous research has demonstrated a link between not getting enough sleep and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

It was thought that this link might be due to diet, but it was unclear exactly how inadequate sleep might influence diet.

This new research may provide an explanation.

This is important, said senior author Brooke Aggarwal, EdD, an assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, because sleep problems are very common among women.

In fact, almost 40 percent of women have poor sleep, she said.

While previous studies have concentrated on sleep duration and its effect on health, this study looked at sleep quality instead.

What the study found

To clarify the link between sleep and diet, Aggarwal and her team analyzed the sleep and eating habits of a group of women.

The study included 495 women, aged 20 to 76, from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, which Aggarwal said made it unique from other studies.

The researchers took a look at the women’s sleep quality, how long it took them to fall asleep, and whether they experienced insomnia.

The women were also asked to report about the types of foods that they typically ate as well as the amounts.

The team found that women with worse sleep quality tended to eat more added sugars, a pattern that is associated with both obesity and diabetes.

Those who took longer to fall asleep tended to eat more, based both on calories and the weight of food consumed.

Women with worse insomnia were found to eat more food by weight. They also consumed fewer unsaturated fats compared to women who had less severe insomnia.

Poor sleep quality was further associated with a lower intake of whole grains.

What we can take away from this study

Aggarwal noted that it was not possible to determine the direction of the link between poor sleep and diet due to how the study was constructed.

It may be that poor sleep influences dietary choices, she explained.

“We think that poor quality sleep may alter hunger and fullness signals. For example, by elevating levels of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, and decreasing levels of leptin, which reduces satiety,” she said. “It’s also been shown that poor sleep can change brain activity, particularly in the reward centers of the brain, such that the motivation and desire for food are increased, which could lead to overeating.”

However, it’s also possible that less than ideal dietary choices are responsible for the women’s difficulties with sleep, she added. Eating a poor quality diet or overeating during the day, may make it more difficult to sleep well at night.

Aggarwal said the team’s future plans include an interventional study to learn whether improved sleep quality will lead to improvements in diet, which might in turn lead to weight loss and reduced risk for heart disease.

How to improve your sleep quality

Dr. Yonatan Greenstein, an assistant professor of medicine and director of the sleep medicine program at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, who was not involved in the study, said he “absolutely” would recommend that people take steps to improve their sleep quality, based upon this study and others.

“Sleep is an incredibly important part of our life, and unfortunately many Americans do not give it the attention that it deserves,” Greenstein said. “A typical adult needs approximately 8 hours of sleep each night and there are many different reasons why many of us don’t achieve that.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, the following steps can help you get a better night’s sleep:

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule.Heading to bed and waking up at about the same time each day — even on weekends — will help keep your body in sync with its natural circadian rhythms, leading to better sleep.
  • Get more morning sunlight. Morning sunlight gives the brain its cue that it’s time to wake up. Exposure to light at the right time of day helps keep your circadian rhythms on track so you sleep better at night.
  • Be more active during the dayModerate aerobic exercise has been associated with deeper, more restorative sleep. However, you’ll want to avoid exercise near bedtimeTrusted Source as this may actually make it harder for you to fall asleep.
  • Avoid artificial light in the evening.The blue lightTrusted Source generated by electronic devices and household lighting can mimic the effects of sunlight, causing your brain to think you should be wide awake. Blue-blocking lensesTrusted Source or blue-blocking apps like f.lux may help if you absolutely can’t avoid using your devices.
  • Avoid eating late in the evening. Just like light exposure, meal timingTrusted Source plays an important role in regulating our circadian rhythms. Late dinners and midnight snacking can wreak havoc on sleep. Greenstein noted that nighttime eating has also been linked to increased weight, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
  • Avoid alcohol near bedtime. Evening alcohol intake has been associated with poor-quality, disrupted sleep. 
  • Keep your bedroom cool. Part of your body’s preparation for sleep is to reduce its core temperature. Keeping your bedroom cooler will aid your body in its natural transition into slumber. Around 65°F (18.3°C) is the sweet spot, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
  • Keep your bedroom dark and quiet.Distractions like light and noise make it more difficult to relax and get to sleep.
  • Talk with your doctor if you need more assistance. “Disorders such as insomnia, depression, and obstructive sleep apnea are common contributors to poor quality sleep,” said Greenstein.

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