The Connection Between Sleep and Nutrition

Late Night Cookies!It’s 2 in the morning, I’ve just finished a paper for Thinking Matters (because sleep doesn’t matter, Stanford?) and I feel like a chocolate-craving pregnant woman. I have a conundrum. Either I listen to reason (and my dwindling meal-plan dollars) and go to bed, or I put some pants on and go to Late Night. As my mouth starts to drool, reason is pushed out of my mind – I need that cookie. Fast forward 10 minutes, and I’m in line waiting to order my precious, precious little cookie. Actually, I did finish my essay, and I remember being told positive reinforcement is great – so make that two cookies. If my stomach had a face, it would be smiling right about now, as I take my first bite…

It’s funny how much meaning lies behind the little things in life. At the intersection of new social technology and food, we find our old friend, sleep. As it turns out, people with sleep problems tweet more about Dunkin’ Donuts than any other consumer brand (see the tweet). At first glance, this small factoid says very little but anything, but let’s delve deeper into the matter. New technology – from the first light bulb to Twitter – has changed our society’s sleeping patterns and introduced new problems to our already stress-filled lives: nutritive imbalance.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy we just can’t escape, a sleep and nutrition trap of sorts, an inescapable truth. With technology taking over our lives, sleep has become a scarce resource. We simply don’t get enough of it. With greater responsibilities, from work to social commitments, our sleep is left to suffer. The result of this new lifestyle: above average cortisol stress-hormone levels. This hormonal imbalance pushes the body to crave for high-calorie foods, such as late night cookies (peters). The body wants what the body wants, and the new demands of a 24/7 world have changed the way we eat for the worst. Food like cookies -a dangerous blend of simple carbohydrates, refined starches and saturated fats- cause spike and fall in insulin levels, derailing the body’s natural rhythm. This is a precursor for many chronic health problems in the long term; insulin resistance, obesity and diabetes are few examples. Increasing weight might eventually cause sleep apnea, a serious sleep problem that is very hard to deal with.

According to data from the 2007-2008 US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, short sleepers (four to six hours a night) consumed the most calories compared to normal sleepers (seven to nine hours). Interestingly, normal sleepers consumed the most varied diet while short sleepers consumed the least varied. Additionally, the survey found that short sleep was linked with lower intake of vitamin C, tap water, selenium and important proteins, whereas adequate sleep was associated with lower intake of saturated fats and total carbohydrates. So, it seems that different sleep patterns reflect varying eating patterns (editor). However, if these same people changed sleep patterns, would their eating patterns change accordingly? Sleep effects the regulatory hormones we secrete during the day. Short sleepers have reduced leptin and elevated ghrelin levels. Significant differences in leptin and ghrelin levels cause increase in appetite, eventually increase in BMI (body mass index). This is why it is a vicious cycle: what we eat affects our sleep and bad sleep biologically pushes us to eat worse and worse over time. This trap of a vicious cycle tells us that sleep should not be taken lightly. Sleep is part of the triumvirate of health for a simple reason – we need it.

Let’s consider another interesting point. What happens if our bodies do not secrete enough melatonin? Since melatonin induces sleep, falling asleep would be pretty hard. We should not forget that nutrition provides the necessary material to secrete the important sleep hormone melatonin. Unfortunately, if we do not eat healthy tryptophan-rich foods (turkey, chicken, salmon…), our body would not have the necessary material to secrete adequate amount of melatonin (katz). The result might be one of the many melatonin deficiency related diseases like severe insomnia, immune system deficiency and cancer. On the other hand, just eating healthy and sleeping well would easily prevent these diseases. You heard it from me, hear it from Steven Barker as well:

This week I decided to opt out from late night eating at least for a month. I know it will be hard but I should change this habit. I promised myself to eat more variety of healthy protein rich-foods and complex sugars (vegetables, fruits, whole grains) while cutting the amount of simple sugars I eat everyday.

If you want to change the way you eat, improve your sleep and your life, the links below could be very helpful:

What is tryptophan and what are tryptophan rich foods:

How to lose weight while sleeping:

Eat a healthier diet:


  • Editor, Health. N.p.. Web. 24 May 2013. .
  • Peters, Brent. “Sleep and Nutrition.”, 12 Apr 2013. Web. 24 May 2013.
  • Katz, David. “Foods to Help You Sleep Better.” Oprah. Oprah, n.d. Web. 24 May 2013.
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