March 31, 2022

Can Food Positively Impact Your Sleep?

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Susan Okonkowski, registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Together, they discuss whether or not food can positively impact our sleep.

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

  • If what we eat impacts our sleep
  • How we can approach nutrition to improve our sleep
  • Foods we should limit or avoid to get better rest at night
  • If the timing of when we eat affects our ability to fall asleep

Transcript

Chuck Gaidica:
This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast episode 103. Coming up, we discuss whether or not food can positively impact our sleep.

Chuck Gaidica:
Welcome to A Healthier Michigan Podcast, the podcast dedicated to navigating how we can improve our health and wellbeing through small, healthy habits we can start implementing right now. I’m your host, Chuck Gaidica. Every other week, we’ll sit down with a certified expert to discuss topics that cover nutrition, fitness, and a whole lot more. And on this episode, we’re diving in the deep end on the possibility of somehow we can positively impact our sleep by focusing on the food that we eat. With us today is registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Susan Okonkowski. Good to have you back.

Susan Okonkowski:
Thank you so much, Chuck. It’s great to be back.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, you know, I read your bio all the time and I somehow skip over all kinds of things. You have got such a deep rich bio, everything from your masters from U of M, in public health. And then now, how long have you been judging or peer reviewing manuscripts and helping hand out healthcare awards? Has that been going on for a while?

Susan Okonkowski:
Yeah, almost actually seven to eight years now.

Chuck Gaidica:
Wow. Okay. Yeah. Well, it’s so good to have you back. And the last time that we spoke, which is very interesting, we were talking about, our topic was how to combat fatigue with the food that we eat. And so now I want you to help me get fatigued so I fall asleep by the end of the podcast episode. Is that okay?

Susan Okonkowski:
Sure. We can do that today, right?

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, let’s talk about this idea because for some of us, we think about food and sleep and we think about going into a food coma. Thanksgiving is probably the poster child for that idea, that you eat and then grandpa over there, loosens his belt and then falls asleep on the couch. But then there’s also sugar buzz, which turns into a downer. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that we do that can tend to lead us towards sleep, but we’re talking about something a little different, something more healthful. And I guess the master question in this, are there foods that we can eat or focus on that can literally help us gain better sleep?

Susan Okonkowski:
There are, but I want to be a little bit careful about targeting a specific food to really kind of step back and say, in order for us to have restful sleep at night, there is a lot of complex things that go into your quality of sleep. It’s your environment you’re sleeping in. It’s what you’re eating during the day. I think that’s a big thing too, is not is it only one certain food that’s going to help you sleep really well at night. It’s thinking about what are you eating throughout the entire day. As far as are you eating healthy foods like lean protein and rich dietary fats and all of the things like the natural sugars from fruits and vegetables and the really healthy things that you put into your body all throughout the day are going to contribute to that restful sleep at night.

Susan Okonkowski:
Because like you said, Chuck, if all of a sudden you sit and have a cup of coffee right before you go to bed or you’re celebrating someone’s birthday and oh, let’s have cake after dinner. It’s 8:30 when you’re having cake and ice cream and then all of a sudden you want to go to bed at 10 o’clock and you’re like, I can’t fall asleep. I feel like I’m having an issue. Was it something I ate? More than likely, you just put all of that refined sugar into your body, which is going to limit and prohibit how well you are able to fall asleep.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, yeah, you mentioned coffee too so it’s a double whammy, right? Sugar and caffeine could be going in right before you’re trying to nod off.

Susan Okonkowski:
Exactly. There’s so many things that we need to think about like how well can I sleep. Some individuals out there may have certain medical conditions that interfere with the quality of their sleep and maybe they have insomnia, maybe they have some sort of obstructive sleep apnea. If you’re an individual out there listening today, make sure that you work with your physician on that aspect of your sleep. But when it comes to thinking about how can I really eat something healthy, there’s all kinds of other claims too. There are, oh, if you eat this food before you go to bed, you’re going to have just the best night of sleep, which I think we have to look at, is this real evidence or is this something that is out there that’s maybe just some sort of false claim that that someone is trying to sell a product to. We just have to take that into consideration as we’re talking today as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, and you know what’s so interesting, and I think we are always looking in general for the magic pill, right? I don’t know about me, I don’t really think this way, but I know I have snacked my way toward bedtime, right. We’re binging some show and we got into the third episode. We’re like, we’re not giving up on this one yet. And all of a sudden I’m hungry and it’s late and I’m snacking. I don’t do this but I bet you, somebody thinks, well, I’ve had the nacho chips and the diet pop. I’m just going to pop a melatonin and it’ll all be fine. Not really. Not really the case.

Susan Okonkowski:
Right. Well, and you’ve said a really common thing, Chuck too. You might have had some nachos and maybe a diet pop, or maybe you’ve had something else. Most people, if they’re staying up late, they aren’t reaching for things like carrots and hummus, or they’re not reaching for maybe some blueberries and raspberries to have as that late time snack. It’s often those high carbohydrate, higher fat foods that our body tends to crave a little bit when our hormonal hunger control gets out of balance. Like you said, that’s when people do reach for melatonin because you see it advertised all the time like melatonin is going to help you sleep. It is a synthetic form of a hormone that your body naturally produces. Melatonin does play a really big role in your circadian rhythm and how your body knows when it’s time to go to bed at night.

Susan Okonkowski:
It can help to have that synthetic hormone for some people. But again, always advise everyone to talk with your physician about taking any sort of synthetic supplementation like that. Because also there are foods that do have a small amount of melatonin in there, which probably is where people read some articles and they’re like, oh, well, if I take, tart cherry juice is an example. Now I don’t know how many of you out there, or Chuck, if you’ve ever tried tart cherry juice.

Chuck Gaidica:
I have, I have tried it. I don’t drink it all the time but I’ve tried it.

Susan Okonkowski:
Well, that actually is a food that contains a small amount of melatonin in it. So if you were to take that within 30 minutes before bedtime, some people do report and there’s been some anecdotal studies out there where they have been able to fall asleep more naturally and stay asleep for that restful night. Maybe it is due to the fact that they had that cherry juice or there’s other foods like walnuts that have a small amount of melatonin in there. So there’s other things that you can try to incorporate into your dietary habits at bedtime. Milk is another one. Any form of milk, given the fact that it has that mix of some carbohydrates, some protein, that too is another one that people kind of tout as helping them to be able to stay asleep at night. But often those foods that you hear about as like, “maybe they’re magic foods to help me sleep at night” do contain a small amount of natural melatonin in them.

Chuck Gaidica:
I know you’re being very cautious because you’re also saying helps for some, but let me just ask this directly. If I’m going to eat some walnuts or I’m even going to take a supplement and drink a glass of water before I go to bed, honest to goodness, how much of that by the time it gets into my stomach, it gets digested I then have to give back the water that I took to take the supplement? I mean, how much is actually going to get into my system by the time I fall asleep that it really is going to give me a better night sleep versus to your initial point, plan your day in advance so that you’re really setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep?

Susan Okonkowski:
Right. It’s very minimal. That’s why there’s not a lot of evidence-based research out there that says you can eat these foods before you go to bed to really help you get that restful night of sleep. The biggest thing that anyone out there can follow if they’re looking to like, how can I really help out myself with sleep at night? Some of it has to do with nutrition. It is a direct correlation. If you are eating lean poultry and protein from a mix of animal and plant-based foods and you are not consuming those refined sugars or drinking a lot of caffeine and alcohol before you go to bed and you also have a nice environment which allows you to rest and allows your body to know that it is time to sleep, more than likely you are going to get a fairly restful night of sleep. Compared to, well, I’m going to drink cherry juice and have all of these other different foods right before I go to bed, that’s the key that’s going to help me.

Chuck Gaidica:
So then a lot of what you’re saying, I think we sometimes see in ourselves or even those around us in our family, it’s not counterintuitive. It’s an average everyday good healthful diet. But oftentimes a lot of people think, well, that one drink cocktail beverage or a glass of wine getting close to bedtime, that’s going to zonk me out. Or I’ve got to get that one last snack in. Sometimes that stuff just before bed is probably working against you.

Susan Okonkowski:
It can. Especially when it comes to caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine is a little bit separate than alcohol. You do hear about people, maybe they have a glass of red wine before they go to bed. Well, it can help you to fall asleep quickly, the thing about having that glass of wine right before bed is that it’s going to impact how your REM sleep goes into that stage two. So you fall asleep quickly, but then all of a sudden you might find yourself waking up at three hours after you’ve gone to bed. You’re like, why am I waking up? What happened? You can’t then fall back asleep because the metabolizing of that alcohol is impacting your overall nightly sleep. It’s something to think about as well.

Chuck Gaidica:
You know, I’m going to admit something here because I really don’t binge eat late at night and I typically don’t binge shows. Those two things just don’t go together. If I am, I’ve got ants in my pants, I got to get up and work out. I’ve just got to get up. I can’t sit on the couch the whole time. But that time I was speaking of earlier where I did snack my way through a couple episodes and I thought I’m doing okay, I think it was with some kind of popcorn. I woke up multiple times that night, I was sweating. My pillow was wet and I know why. Because my system was saying, well, I’m trying to digest this stuff you just threw at me and you decided you wanted to go to sleep right now. Was that my interpretation, was it on the money? Was that what was happening?

Susan Okonkowski:
It absolutely could have been happening. Especially if you have had any sort of snack that is heavy in carbohydrates. Not that it’s a bad thing to have a small snack before bed, because that’s always this misconception too is like, well, I have to have dinner six hours or four hours before I fall asleep and that’s the only way that I’m going to get good night of sleep. It’s actually a little bit false. You can have a small snack before bed, but again, keeping that key on small snack, but it is common. If you do have a larger snack that’s a little bit more heavy that you will fall asleep and then all of a sudden you can wake up with like night sweats or you can wake up.

Susan Okonkowski:
People even have like really bad stomach ache in the middle of the night or they wake up with heartburn. That’s another really common thing, that for some individuals, when you lie down, the digestive system doesn’t work as well when you’re sitting upright and it can really lead to problems with acid reflux. Which is why often they say, don’t eat two hours before you go to bed to allow that digestive system to really work with heavier foods that you’ve just taken in.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, in here we’re concentrating on food going directly to sleep and yet you’re saying things that to me, I’m getting red flags in my brain. You’re talking about acid reflux. If you’ve got sleep apnea and you already could have problems with sleeping and you eat too much, there could be complications in other systems of your body, which in this case could be breathing. All of a sudden you’re influencing your entire system. You just thought you had a couple handfuls of popcorn and all was well.

Susan Okonkowski:
It absolutely could. Sometimes people don’t think about that because life’s busy. They may have done something unusual that evening. Again, having a late meal here or there once a while, like you said, you had that maybe off night where you had a little bit of a larger snack. We all do it. Everybody is human. But you do kind of think to yourself the next day, you’re like, I didn’t sleep as well. Or maybe you happen to have a vigorous night of activity close to bed where you are skiing or were doing something else, and all of a sudden you find yourself lying there not being able to go to sleep. There’s so many complex things that can impact your body for how can I rest well tonight that you don’t think about all the time.

Chuck Gaidica:
Now you mentioned two hours before bedtime for a meal. Is that a general rule? Is that the kind of timing we should focus on if we’re looking for a restful night sleep about two hours of window, a break before we start to go to bed?

Susan Okonkowski:
I would say yes, usually two to four hours, just to make sure that you give your body enough time to really go through all of those internal metabolic digestive. It’s almost the digestive routine of breaking down all those nutrients that you had in a meal. Unless you’re going to have just a really small meal, which most people don’t do for dinner. That’s why we always say like two to four hours. And then it’s not uncommon, have a small snack before you go to bed if you’re not one who does intermittent fasting or something like that. And I say, within 30 to 60 minutes before you go to bed. I mean, never would I ever recommend like, oh, just have that snack on the way up the stairs as you’re going to bed because that can really impact you falling asleep and staying asleep. But two to four hours is really optimal for overall health to allow yourself to digest those nutrients in the proper way that won’t give you any acid reflux and also allow you to fall asleep in that natural away.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, and you mentioned intermittent fasting and that’s a whole different episode. But the reality is if I’m going to stop eating two to four hours before I go to bed and I don’t eat breakfast per se until 8:00 AM the next day. Chances are pretty good, I’ve had a 12 hour fast, as long as I haven’t snacked. So in the sense of everything we’ve been reading lately about the healthfulness of the circadian rhythm and you don’t even have to think of it as a fast, it’s just kind of normal. That may be a bonus and have an upside too, right?

Susan Okonkowski:
It absolutely is. That’s why I do find it interesting when someone’s like, I’m intermittent fasting. It’s like, well, a lot of people actually do that just on a regular basis. Because the time and window of which you are consuming your food falls within that 10 hour timeframe during the day, which is not that uncommon.

Chuck Gaidica:
And you’ve got, what, two kids, right?

Susan Okonkowski:
Yes.

Chuck Gaidica:
So you’re a busy mom. Are there not going to be implications into your day from the beginning right to the end as a busy mom or dad or you’re taking care of an aging parent at home, whatever it is, where your lack of sleep then drives you to eat stuff that maybe you shouldn’t? Which then becomes this vicious circle that just repeat, rinse, wash and you keep doing this through the week. So it really does have to start the best you can handle it earlier on and through your day so that you’re not influencing what’s happening at night.

Susan Okonkowski:
It’s completely true, Chuck. I can even think of specific examples. For everyone out there who’s listening, when you do have lack of sleep, sometimes against your control, right? Because you’re going to have those nights. Maybe you’re worried about something with your family or the world around us or whatever it is that impacts your system where you’re not sleeping properly. You all of a sudden have these increased hunger hormones during the day, which not only make you hungrier per se, but they also drive you sometimes. There’s research out there where it drives you to seek out those higher calorie, higher carbohydrate kinds of foods because of all of the different hormones that are working in your body to try to regulate back to normal.

Susan Okonkowski:
I can think of a specific example when my kids were really small, it was like, oh, I’m so sleep deprived. I was busy working and I wanted to have like just awful foods that I normally wouldn’t eat. And to try to resist against that urge to say, you know what, I really just want a piece of pizza instead of having this grilled chicken salad. It’s difficult because of the way that your brain hormones are working against your lack of sleep that you’ve experienced. And so trying to get yourself back on track as soon as possible will then help your overall sleep and your nutrition. But it happens and it is very normal. It’s all about that hormone control.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, when you think you’ve come out of a cycle. For us, we’re in this joyful season of being grandparents now, but yet the little girls, we have four grandkids. One of them is three. One of them is going on seven. When they come over for the sleepover, it’s the three year old who gets up. Some mornings she got up at 4:30 in the morning, Susan. Oh my gosh. I mean, I spent my lifetime in TV news. I didn’t go to bed and I still don’t until about 11:30 or 12:00. It’s just the way my life was for 40 years and I can’t help it. So for me, the next day, I’m playing around, I’m running around the house and all of a sudden I’m like, I’m coming down fast. And so I guess therein lies part of that is you got to figure out your healthful ways of skating through your day. Whether you’re chasing grandkids or your own kids to try to keep your energy level going, so when it is time to really hit the hay, you do it healthfully.

Susan Okonkowski:
Exactly. It’s tough during those times because when you were tired in the day, I mean, we’ve experienced this, right? You reach for something like, I’m just going to have maybe a cup of tea or an extra cup of coffee today because I need this little extra pick me up during the day to get through. But then all of a sudden you do, you find yourself in that vicious cycle that night when you really are like, okay, I can rest. It is time to rest that your body is not letting you rest because it’s been thrown off.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, and I do want to point out one other thing that I find kind of cute because there’s somebody in my family who would talk about having a warm cup of milk every night. I mean, it could be 90 degrees outside and they still were heating up their milk and having a warm cup of milk, sometimes a cookie to be fair. But they would verbalize, well, this is what puts me to sleep. And in this conversation, it’s reinforcing in my mind, actually if that works for them, whether there’s science behind it or not and they think that’s what makes them sleep better every night, God love them. I mean, it’s like, this is it for you. Whether it’s placebo or otherwise.

Susan Okonkowski:
Absolutely. There has been some research out there, because milk is rich in certain nutrients that it can potentially help someone to fall and stay asleep. Because you think about foods that have B vitamins in them and you think about the dairy and fish and poultry and all these other things. There can be some truth to that. I think it’s just something that we have not tapped into enough evidence-based research to say, these are ultimately leading to. Because the human body is so complex with hormone regulation and all the other things that are happening. But I agree with you whether placebo effect or not, if it’s working, you go for it.

Chuck Gaidica:
If we were to start our day, if you were to look at eight o’clock in the morning, we’ll just pick some arbitrary times. Noon for lunch or so, and then a dinner five, six o’clock at night. If you have kids, that may run late because you’re just getting home from work. If we pick those three times, give me your idea of the healthful day that sets you up for a good night’s rest. And if you want to throw in exactly what we should be eating, fine, but it’s kind of a reverse engineering thing in my mind. Like let’s start at the beginning to set ourselves up for a successful end of the evening. What would that be like waking up and getting going?

Susan Okonkowski:
Exactly. One of the biggest things too, and in that day, throw in some snacks, I would say number one. And then the other thing is balance your meals. I won’t go into specific foods, but if you balance each meal with a lean protein, some dietary fiber and some type of good, healthy fat. So you think of about fish, avocados, maybe some nuts, legumes. Balancing those kinds of foods in every single meal that you eat, throw in a couple of healthy snacks, maybe some peppers and hummus, maybe it’s an apple and some almond butter throughout the day in that eight hour to 10 hour window. You’re not only balancing your blood sugar control. You are also balancing your hormonal control and you’re eating things that are rich in all of the different nutrients that our body needs. Vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids.

Susan Okonkowski:
B vitamins are another very critical nutrient to help you sleep at night. When you are eating those healthy foods throughout the day and having that balanced kind of nutrient mix that I know we’ve talked about in the past, it will set you up to then be able to fall asleep nicely at night and hopefully stay asleep through the night with your circadian rhythm.

Chuck Gaidica:
Does movement and exercise play a role in this? Obviously, you would think if it were a workout day for you, if you’ve got that time to carve out, that could set you up for a restful night of sleep as long as maybe that’s not too close to going to bed. But movement, especially for those, whether they’re working at home or now back in the office, just getting up and moving so your digestion is moving, right. Just giving yourself some of those breaks so you’re not sitting all day.

Susan Okonkowski:
Absolutely. For muscle tone, muscle control. You think about all the different things that whether it’s vigorous or low impact type of activity, moving throughout the day actually also helps you stay awake as well. Because you think about even, if you get into a slump in the afternoon, get up and take a small walk around the block or take a walk around your house, whatever it is, and you sit down and you almost feel refreshed and reset. Those type of, like I said, whether vigorous or low impact activity throughout the day is going to help you sleep at night and through that sleep, it’s going to help repair tissue if you’ve done vigorous activity during the day. It’s oftentimes you don’t want to have that vigorous exercise within an hour to 90 minutes before you go to bed, just because your cardiovascular system, give it time to kind of relax, rest, get your resting heart rate back down to normal and give your body some time to just relax before bed.

Chuck Gaidica:
Oh, we’ve talked about so many great things. Do you want to give us some takeaways that you think are the most important key pieces of this? So we can be getting a restful night’s sleep relative to what we’re eating through the day. What are the bullet points for us?

Susan Okonkowski:
I would say one of the biggest things is really the best sleep quality when it comes in relation to food is that try to consume, add a quite amount of fiber throughout the day, foods that have natural sugars. We’re talking about fruits and dairy products. Whether those be true, cow dairy type products or there are almond or plant-based, whole grains, complex carbohydrates, your sweet potatoes, your brown rice, lean protein. Again, having that mix between animal and plant-based protein and then throwing in some high quality fats to kind of round it out. If you can try to incorporate those foods into your daily routine of your nutrient mix, it will help set you up for adequate sleep throughout the night. And then also, like you said Chuck, getting in some activity throughout the day, vigorous or low impact.

Chuck Gaidica:
Maybe even dialing down on the use of your device when you’re trying to go to sleep, I know that’s got nothing to do with what you’re eating, unless you’re tempted to nibble while you’re looking and playing your word game before you go to bed. But I just know that there’s a reason that you can make your device dark or just put it on the nightstand and forget about it. It just makes perfect sense.

Susan Okonkowski:
Oh, it does. It’s hard to do, but it is so much better for your regulation of melatonin, because your melatonin is going to turn on naturally when it gets dark outside. Turning off those devices, turning off the TV, really just sitting down with a good book sometimes really will help to combat that insomnia, help you fall asleep naturally. I wholeheartedly agree with that.

Chuck Gaidica:
So I never would fall asleep during an episode with Susan Okonkowski as a guest, but I have to throw in my Three Stooges invitation. And if you don’t know who they are, you can search up their snore because they had the best snoring. Susan, the best snoring ever, because they always added, (Chuck makes snoring sound), that was it. I don’t even know if I snore like that because of course I’m not awake to know. I’ll have to ask my Susan if that’s how I sound.

Susan Okonkowski:
Oh, too funny.

Chuck Gaidica:
Well, you take care. It’s sure good to have you back on the episode today and a very important topic we don’t necessarily think of it as much as maybe we should, but there is a way to go to bed tonight to go to sleep and do it well.

Susan Okonkowski:
There absolutely is. Thank you so much for having me on again, Chuck. It was great to chat with you.

Chuck Gaidica:
Same here. Thanks. Susan Okonkowski who’s a registered dietitian and a healthcare manager at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. We thank her. We thank you for listening to A Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s brought to you by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you like the show, you want to know more, you can check us out at ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast. We’ll also put in show notes trying to find that other episode we mentioned with Susan on fatigue. And of course we’ve got a ton of other episodes. This is episode 103. So you can follow along. You can leave us reviews or ratings on Apple Podcast or Stitcher to get all the new and old episodes on your smartphone or tablet. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica. Be well.