How poor sleep quality affects your life (and what you can do about it)

A professional ice hockey player tells you why sleep is critical for functioning well and how you might be compromising the quality of your sleep without knowing

groggy man reaching out to his alarm on his bed in the morning

As a professional athlete, I have learned an important component of sleep: quality is more important than quantity. Our schedules are designed for entertainment at night. That means we work late, after which we often travel. It’s a demanding business that creates physical and mental stress. There’s little time for professional athletes to recover with quality sleep. But, it’s important to understand this is a health issue not just for professional athletes—it’s a universal problem.  Our daily schedules are extremely busy and stressful and there never seems to be enough hours in a day. And, when strapped for time, sleep and proper eating habits are often the first to be compromised.

When I don’t eat well, I don’t sleep well. Why is it that we feel so poorly when we don’t get a good night’s sleep? The answer lies in our hormones. Our bodies need to work properly, and the best way to hormonal health is through our food. Whole foods! Foods left in their original form like fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and ancient grains. This is because processed food in and of itself can cause stress.

Two faced cortisol

Have you ever been late for a flight at the airport? Many of us have had that harrowing experience rushing into the airport, dashing to the check-in counter, and then eyeing the long line at security. All the while constantly looking at our watch and wondering how we can possibly get to our plane on time. You have to figure out how to get on that plane, and fast. Think of the extra energy your body seems to find. It’s commonly referred to as “fight or flight” mode (pun intended). Where does it come from? It’s a so-called stress hormone called cortisol. It makes us more aware and more alert.  It cranks up energy fast.  It helps us perform at higher levels —important for professional athletes. But there’s a downside—stress is not helpful for sleep.

Let’s look at another example. If I cut my hand, the injured area would turn red, swell, and feel warm. It’s the body’s natural response to heal. Like the airport scenario, cortisol is added to the equation to help regulate my injury. Why is cortisol involved in both situations? Stress! Our bodies will respond with cortisol whether you’re late for a flight, cut yourself or—you guessed it—eat a poor diet. Stress is stress. Our body doesn’t know the difference between one stress and another. Each time, our brain’s natural response is to flood our bodies with cortisol.

High cortisol levels and a good night’s sleep are simply not good bed companions. Constant stress creates abnormally high cortisol levels that can cause us to “burn out” and crash. We have trouble fighting off being sick. It reduces our glucose metabolism during sleep and fails to break down our food into energy. Neither I, as a professional athlete, nor anyone else, can be successful if we don’t recover from our daily activities with proper sleep.  A first step to balance cortisol levels and recover during sleep is to eat well.

High cortisol levels and a good night’s sleep are simply not good bed companions

Let our bodies do the work

After a restful night’s sleep, I wake up feeling rejuvenated and strong.  Why? It’s because I gave my body a chance to repair itself. I allowed Growth Hormone (GH) to do its job. It repairs and strengthens our bodies at night during a phase called “deep sleep”. But getting into “deep sleep” is no piece of cake (yes, another pun). We have trouble getting into a deep sleep if we have eaten sugar.

I have trouble sleeping if I have high stress. To avoid stress, I eat foods low or absent in sugar. Sugar is quick energy, and our bodies have a desire to use it immediately. But the body has something in there called insulin that sucks up sugar.  More sugar means more insulin.  High insulin mean lower GH levels, and when you have low GH levels it can’t do its normal repair work. Lower GH levels mean we typically wake up groggy and tired.  And it’s often a product of unhealthy foods. A tired brain is a sloppy brain. That’s why at night we don’t crave a vegetable. We want a cookie. We want sugar.  Our sleep deprived brain resorts to primitive instincts. It wants energy now! That’s why we instinctively reach for comfort foods that are high in refined sugar and unhealthy fat. Poor food choices can cause a rather unhealthy sleep cycle.

Whole foods to the rescue

First and foremost, eating whole foods isn’t about one or two specific foods. Yes, foods like tart cherry juice and kava tea can help you sleep. But that’s using a band-aid when you need a more significant treatment. In other words, you need to eat whole foods throughout the day. Whole foods will keep you energised all day and naturally encourage sleep as night approaches. Eat whole foods rich in fibre. High fibre foods like Savi seeds or almonds help dull the effect of the sugar we already have in our diet.

Secondly, healthy fats are important. They help keep energy levels up during the day. Shawn Stevenson, the author of Sleep Smarter, compares our metabolic system to a fire. Eating simple carbohydrates is like putting strands of paper on the fire. It will quickly turn bright, but it will then burn out equally fast. It cannot sustain the fire. However, eating healthy fats is like throwing a wooden log into the mix. The fire will burn for a very long time. Healthy fats are also healthy for our immune system. Eat avocados, walnuts, Brazil nuts, pecans, flax and hemp seed, olive and coconut oil. They all make for a healthy immune system that can help us recover quickly during sleep.

Eating healthy fats is like throwing a wooden log into the mix. The fire will burn for a very long time

Thirdly, supplement your healthy fats with protein. There was a study in 2008 where healthy men were fed a high fat/protein diet and a low fat/protein diet. (High fat/protein meant 1% carbs, 61% fat, 38% protein. Low fat/protein meant 72% carbs, 12.5% fat, and 15.5% protein.) The diet with higher fat and protein content increased all stages of deep sleep. The second diet did just the opposite; sleep quality was decreased. The following are great examples of meals with a combination of healthy fats and protein:

  • Grains with Legumes – Sample Meal: Lentils and rice
  • Nuts with Legumes – Sample Meal: Black bean and cashew salad
  • Legumes with Seeds – Sample Meal: Lentil Dal and sunflower seeds
  • Grains with Dairy – Sample Meal: Goats cheese and rice pasta

I may be small but I pack a punch

It’s time to start talking about some little guys that can really be game changers in the sleep world: Micronutrients. These little guys are the building blocks of healthy hormones and can give you some serious ZZZs. They include minerals, vitamins, enzymes, trace minerals, and phytonutrients. A former doctor of the United States Navy Seals found that emphasising the importance of micronutrients drastically improved his soldiers’ sleep quality. His name is Kirk Parsley and, as a new doctor to the Seals team, he had many soldiers coming to him complaining of sleep problems. They were taking medications so they could sleep. He began by taking blood samples from his soldiers and found shocking results. Physically, they appeared to be in peak physical condition. But Dr. Parsley said that “metabolically, they looked like crap.” The tests came back with low testosterone, low growth hormones, low insulin sensitivity, and high inflammatory markers. He realised his soldiers were lacking proper micronutrients. In addition to promoting the importance of whole foods, he came up with a drink consisting mainly of vitamin D, magnesium and tryptophan. His nutrition plan worked.  The majority of his soldiers no longer needed sleeping pills.

Final thought

All athletes get the same professional advice about eating and sleeping, and the average person might think they’d adhere to the rigid rules. But rules are meant to be broken, even by athletes who should know better. I know some who spend time in the middle of the night eating pizzas. Some have the occasional extra beer. We, too, struggle with always putting the right foods in our bodies. Eating correctly is constantly changing and a lot depends on what’s right for each individual. However, through my career I’ve learned that a good night’s sleep starts as soon as I get up in the morning. Fuelling my body to aid in sleep shouldn’t be limited to a certain meal or snack. It’s a routine. My advice is don’t get overwhelmed and start drastically changing your diet. Change isn’t overnight. Good nutrition habits take time; even for those whose careers depend on it. Improving sleep patterns through nutrition is not about perfection. It’s about being aware.

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Colin Greening
Colin Greening is a professional athlete who plays left wing for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the National Hockey League. He graduated with honors from Cornell University where he served for two years as captain of Cornell's varsity hockey team. In the off-season he is doing research and writing on the role of nutrition in sports performance.



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