How to Improve Sleep and Circadian Health: Tips on Nutrition, Exercise and More
Quality sleep is essential to our overall wellbeing; it’s as essential to survival as food and water. While you are sleeping your brain is actively forming connections. Without adequate sleep, you can’t maintain the pathways in your brain that let you learn and create new memories, and it’s harder to concentrate and respond quickly.
Also, getting poor quality sleep increases the risk of disorders, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity. In fact, inadequate sleep has been shown to lead to low energy and fatigue during the day which can lead to overeating and weight gain.
Sleep is integral to our circadian rhythm, which is made up over 100 internal biological clocks synchronized with environmental cues (such as light and temperature) and typically coincides with the sun’s cycle, which causes you to be sleepy at night and awake and energetic in the morning.
To answer frequently asked questions related to circadian health and sleep, we’ve reached out to some of our experts to share the best ways to optimize your sleep.
Improving Circadian Health
How do you restart your internal clock? The following questions were answered by Gary Small, M.D. – Member, Herbalife Nutrition Advisory Board and author of The Memory Bible.
How to reset your circadian rhythm and get better quality sleep?
Reducing environmental triggers that interfere with sleep is key to reset your circadian
rhythm so that you can fall asleep at night and awaken at times that optimize restful sleep.
These are some strategies that can be helpful:
Set a consistent bedtime and time to wake up
Avoid daytime naps
Exercise during the day
Use the bed only for sleep; this will condition the mind to associate the bed with sleep.
You can also try a method called the restricting sleep strategy, which aims to decrease the actual amount of time spent in bed to establish and maintain a healthy circadian rhythm. It involves getting up and leaving the bedroom if you are unable to fall asleep within 20 minutes, and only returning when you feel sleepy again. The resulting partial sleep deprivation will increase fatigue the next night, but after sleep habits improve, the amount of time spent in bed can be gradually increased.
What are some popular trends related to sleep and circadian health?
Any method that induces a relaxation response can help induce restful sleep, including mindful meditation, guided imagery, systematic muscle relaxation, and others. For example:
Guided meditation apps. These can be downloaded onto a smartphone or tablet and used to induce relaxation at night so you can readily drift off to sleep. Examples include Breathe2Relax, which teaches breathing techniques to help with stress management, and Headspace, which provides meditation techniques to reduce anxiety. Do note that not all sleep apps have been studied systematically to demonstrate that they work so rather than just relying on testimonials of their effectiveness, assess whether systematic research studies have shown that they work.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi). This is a therapeutic approach that combines several strategies, including sleep restriction therapy (going to bed and getting out of bed on a regular schedule), stimulus control instructions (pinpointing actions that interfere with sleep), sleep hygiene education (a customized list of things that should and should not be done to promote sleep), and other methods. Systematic controlled clinical trials have demonstrated the effectiveness of this practical method when provided by a therapist or through an app (Sanvello, CBT-i Coach).
Food, Sleep, and Nutrition
How does food affect our sleep and vice versa? The following questions were answered by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training.
How does the amount of sleep we get affect body weight?
Inadequate sleep can lead to shifts in levels of some of the body’s hunger hormones. Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells, and one of its jobs is to send a signal to your brain to tell you that you’re full. The problem is, when you don’t get enough sleep, your leptin levels plummet, so lack of sleep can increase hunger.
If that weren’t enough, sleep deprivation also leads to a boost in an appetite-stimulating hormone called ghrelin. This explains why sleep-deprived folks tend to snack more, seeking out midnight snacks and “highly palatable” foods (i.e. goodies high in fat and sugar) in an attempt to keep energy levels up.
Similarly, the more hours you are awake, the more time you have to spend eating. Getting adequate and uninterrupted sleep is an important tool in weight control, so my advice is to keep dinner on the light side since large, fatty, or heavy meals take a long time to digest. Instead, focus on healthy carbs like salad and veggies, fruits and whole grains and pick up some lean protein from beans, lentils, tofu, or a small portion of grilled fish or poultry – a bowl of lentil soup with a salad or a tofu and veggie stir-fry with some fruit for dessert would fill the bill.
Many people are guilty of having a midnight snack. Is it bad to eat before going to bed?
There are a couple of good reasons not to eat right before you go to bed:
Your bedtime snacking might be taking over your daily calorie budget.
Unless your snack is really small, light, and easy to digest, lying down soon after you eat a sizable snack is a recipe for heartburn – and possibly a disrupted night’s sleep.
That said, if you eat an early dinner and tend to stay up quite late, you could get a bit hungry before bed. As long as you have calories to spare, a small, light snack a couple of hours before you retire might make sense. Try to include foods that are high in calcium, which helps muscles to relax. A cup of warm milk is an age-old remedy for sleeplessness, and for a good reason.
How does food impact our sleep, and what foods should we avoid/choose? What you eat and also when you eat can have a big impact on the quality and length of your sleep.
Here are some tips on what to eat and avoid for a good night’s sleep:
Keep dinner portions Going to bed with a very full stomach can be uncomfortable and even lead to indigestion – a sleep buster, for sure. On the other hand, if your dinner meal is too skimpy, you might be wakened by hunger pangs.
Don’t overdo the fats and proteins at dinner. Fatty meals take a long time to digest, and protein foods stimulate the production of chemicals in your brain that help you feel more alert. But low-fat meals are digested more quickly, and healthy carbohydrates help stimulate the production of different brain chemicals – the ones that help you relax and get to sleep. Rather than making protein the centerpiece of your evening meal, focus on healthy carbs – veggies, fruits, whole grains, and beans – with a small serving of protein.
Omega-3s may help you sleep. Omega-3 fatty acids – found in fish, nuts, and seeds – assist in regulating the body’s internal clock, in part through effects on the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep cycle.
Watch your intake of caffeine and alcohol. If you’re a regular caffeine drinker, you may be able to fall asleep just fine – even if you have a cup of coffee after dinner. But caffeine – and alcohol, too – can disrupt normal sleep patterns. You may be able to fall asleep, but you don’t stay asleep. And that makes it harder to reach the deepest (and most restful) stage of sleep.
Don’t overdo the fluids in the evening. If a full bladder is what’s interfering with a good night’s sleep, try to curb your fluid intake after dinner. Aim to drink
What is your personal sleep routine?
I’m generally a good sleeper and I think it’s because I do try to follow best practices. I tend to eat my largest meal at lunch and keep my dinner meal a bit smaller and lighter. I also limit my alcohol intake to a single glass of wine before dinner, and only on the weekends when I generally tend to stay up later. I’m also a big believer in staying away from all screens before bed. I put my phone and laptop away and instead read for about an hour before going to sleep – and I read actual “physical” books, rather than reading on a device, to avoid the blue light.
How Exercise Affects Sleep
Does exercise timing affect our sleep quality? The following questions were answered by Samantha Clayton, OLY, ISSA-CPT – Vice President, Worldwide Sports Performance and Fitness.
What is the best time of day to exercise? Are morning or evening workouts better?
The best time to exercise is when you feel at your best and when it fits in with your lifestyle. Morning is often optimal for most because you are well-rested and energized and it allows you to check it off your to-do list early, rather than having to squeeze it into your day. But if you are not a morning person and prefer to exercise later, that’s okay, too. It’s all about what works for you.
What are the pros and cons of exercising or playing sports during the evening?
The main pro of doing sports in the evening is that it is a great way to socialize, decompress and de-stress after a long day working or managing family responsibilities. The only downside is that you may be physically not at your best, especially if your day was very active. Provided you have good nutrition and hydrate throughout the day, the evening can be a great time to have fun on the field.
Highly intense exercise may give you an energy boost and make falling asleep a little more difficult, so be sure to have a little downtime post-workout to relax.
Is there a particular exercise/routine you recommend if people work out in the evening?
You can do any workout you wish in the evening – from lifting weights to doing cardio. Or even a HIIT class. It all depends on your personal goals. If your goal is to feel more rested in the evening, opt for a lower impact, low-intensity style like yoga, Pilates, stretching, or a nice walk. This will help you to stay in a relaxed frame of mind and may help with your sleep routine.
Don’t get into the mindset that you have to work out at a specific time of day to get better results. It’s all about the time of day that works best for you individually. The greatest gift you can give yourself is to learn your own body, and from there, aim to exercise at a time that feels good and works with your schedule. The key is consistency. Pick a time that you can consistently meet.
What is your personal sleep routine?
I’m an early to bed, early to rise human. I go to bed by 10 PM each day and I am up before the sun at about 5:30 AM. I have a nice routine of stopping emails early and try my best to stay off technology from 8:00 PM onward. I love to do yoga in the evening and save my hard workouts for lunchtime because I get super energized after a session and know if I do it before going to bed, I will be wide awake. I love to have a hot herbal tea (no caffeine) every night in a giant mug. My day ends with my skincare routine and starts with my morning tea. I’m all about good habits and routine. My kids laugh that I have always gone to bed before everyone else but I go at a thousand miles per hour all day, like an energized bunny so when the sun goes down I’m exhausted. I’m highly active and I’ve learned how I work best. Everyone is different and everyone has a sweet spot with timing. I’ve found mine and hope it helps me age gracefully.
Sports Nutrition and Sleep
These questions were answered by Dana Ryan, PhD, MBA, M.A. – Director, Sports
Performance and Education
Are there any sports nutrition supplements that can interfere with sleep and shouldn’t be taken at night?
Avoiding caffeine at night is important as it can certainly interfere with sleep. For every person it is different, but I typically stop taking caffeine around 2 or 3 p.m.
What is your personal sleep routine?
Having a nighttime routine is very important for me since I’m not good at “shutting off my brain” to sleep. I use the Enrichual products every night before bed and try to stay away from my phone before sleeping since that can hinder sleep. Instead, I try to do some short meditations to help with sleep. I also typically light a calming candle or use essential oils through a diffuser before bed to help with relaxation.
Improving Sleep Hygiene through Bedtime Wellness Routines
Can self-care routines and your sleep environment impact your sleep? The following questions were answered by Laura Chacon-Garbato, Director, Worldwide Nutrition Product Training and Education
What are good wellness routines or self-care habits people can incorporate to promote better sleep hygiene?
Make the bedroom a screen-free zone. Create a sleep environment that minimizes disruptions. Disconnect from electronics devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Electronic back-lit devices like cell phones, tablets, readers, and computers emit short-wavelength enriched light, also known as blue light which has been shown to decrease or interrupt the natural production of melatonin in the evening and reduce feelings of sleepiness.
Invest in a good skin–care routine. Just like you have an evening routine before going to bed by putting on pajamas and brushing your teeth, you should also prepare your skin for rest. Having a good skin care regimen, which includes a cleanser and moisturizer, will prepare your skin for the much-needed rest it deserves. Since you’re exposed to pollution during the day, make sure you use a gentle cleanser that removes makeup and impurities. Look for a cleanser that is dermatologist-tested and sulfate-free to prevent irritation to the skin. After cleansing, use a nighttime moisturizer, preferably with natural botanicals like aloe vera and essential oils that’ll leave your skin soft and moisturized.
Are sleep masks any good?
Do what’s best for you to create a good sleep environment. A sleep mask can block artificial light which could potentially help you get a good night’s sleep. Fabric can make a big difference, especially if you have sensitive skin. Look for masks made of cotton because they are breathable and can prevent irritations.
Any final tips or recommendations for good sleep hygiene?
Sleep is the closest thing there is to the fountain of youth. Your body works to repair itself while you rest. Sleep also benefits your appearance in numerous ways. The secret is to get six to nine hours of sleep each night. Not only will your skin look amazing, but as your body renews itself, you’ll also produce new collagen. Collagen is what gives your body its firmness, supports elasticity, and when collagen is abundant in your body, it can reveal a youthful glow.