Sweet dreams, not sweet treats: How junk food causes unwanted sleep results

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sleep-impaired(NaturalHealth365)  The perils of “junk” foods, laden with excess sugars, have long been known to contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and dental woes.  However, emerging research reveals a startling new “wrinkle” in this narrative.

In a new study published in the journal Obesity, researchers found that a diet high in sugars can impact one of the most important weapons we have against disease and ill health – restful, restorative, high-quality sleep.  Let’s look at how a high-sugar diet can torpedo sleep and check out some healthier alternatives.

Study unveils impact of high-sugar diets on sleep quality

In the crossover study conducted by researchers at Uppsala University, healthy young adult participants followed a high-sugar diet for a week and then switched to a low-sugar menu.  Researchers used polysomnography to study sleep’s oscillatory and wave patterns, evaluating both “normal” night sleep and restorative sleep (which occurs after extended periods of wakefulness).

The team had suspected that high-sugar foods are linked with lower amounts of desirable slow-wave sleep – and the study suggested that they were correct.  While sleep duration and the amount of time it took to get to sleep were not affected, disturbing changes to sleep quality were recorded.  The high-sugar diet caused a reduction in delta power, delta-to-beta ratio, and slow wave amplitude, all of which caused “shallower,” less restorative sleep.

Poor sleep affects metabolism, memory, and mood – and may shorten life

Poor quality and insufficient sleep can open a “Pandora’s box” of ills.  These can include a heightened risk for high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, along with a weakened immune system, which increases your risk of illness and infection.  Because poor sleep impairs the balance of leptin and ghrelin – important hormones that control appetite and satiety – your risk of weight gain goes up.  Low-quality sleep also increases inflammatory chemicals in the body, which can set the stage for heart disease.  And the damage doesn’t stop there.

Long-term, chronic sleep problems can impair short- and long-term memory, interfere with concentration, decrease creativity, and impair problem-solving skills.  It can trigger irritability, anxiety, and depression, affect your driving skills and increase the risk of an accident.  Finally – and most disturbingly – disruption in delta power during sleep has been associated with sleep apnea and greater all-cause mortality risk.  (Clearly, it doesn’t pay to overlook the life-sustaining power of restful shut-eye!)

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DASH and Mediterranean diets promote metabolic and cognitive health

The researchers pointed out that fiber-rich diets are associated with more high-quality sleep and cited the DASH and Mediterranean diets as desirable examples.  The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet recommended by the American Heart Association emphasizes fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean protein while limiting consumption of animal products, sodium, refined sugars, and sugar-laden beverages.

The Mediterranean diet also places the accent on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, along with healthy fats from olive oil and avocados and limited amounts of protein such as grass-fed beef, pasture raised poultry and eggs plus wild fish.  Like the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet avoids added sugars, sodium, highly processed foods, and trans fats.  Both healthy ways of eating have been associated with better sleep quality, longer life, and lower risk of heart disease.  Be sure to source your fruits and vegetables from organic sources, and opt for wild-caught fish and organic or grass-fed meats when incorporating these wholesome foods into your diet.

Increase your sleep quality with natural techniques

In addition to avoiding a high-sugar diet, there are other simple, common-sense steps you can take to optimize restful slumber (which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says should consist of seven to nine hours a night).  These include:

  • Refraining from caffeine in coffee, tea, sodas, and energy drinks within a few hours of bedtime
  • Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day
  • Sleeping in total darkness in a cool, quiet room
  • Powering down phones and social media at least an hour before bed, and make sure your sleeping area is free of harmful “blue” light from TVs, laptops, and cell phones

Some holistic healthcare providers also recommend instituting a relaxing ritual an hour before bed – such as meditation, warm baths, or reading – and limiting alcohol.  The Sleep Foundation advises exercising at least 20 minutes daily (but not too close to bedtime).  Finally, many people report better sleep through natural supplemental and herbal interventions such as melatonin, chamomile, valerian, and passionflower extract.  Before trying these, consult with your doctor.

And here’s food for thought.  Evidence shows that enhancing slow wave activity in sleep could help slow cognitive decline.  The American Heart Association (AHA) maintains that people with the healthiest eating patterns at age 50 have a nearly 90 percent lower risk of dementia than those eating the least healthy diets.

The truth is: as appealing as those pastries, pies, and cakes may appear, the sugar overload takes a measurable toll on sleep quality, health, and overall well-being.  While an occasional slice probably does little harm, a habitual high-sugar diet tends to be a recipe for disaster.

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