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Diet Linked to Sleep Duration in Study that Reveals Foods You Should Eat to Get a Better Night's Sleep

Update Date: Feb 07, 2013 11:06 AM EST

Can't get enough sleep? Your diet may be to blame.  A new study found that what people eat plays an important role in how much they sleep.

The latest study, published in the journal Appetite, is the first to show how certain nutrients can affect short and long sleep duration, and that people who eat a large variety of foods had the healthiest sleep patterns.

Sleep, like nutrition and exercise, is very important in determining a person's health and well-being.

Researcher Michael Grandner, Instructor in Psychiatry and member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology at the University of Pennsylvania said that while many people recognize that there is a relationship between diet and sleep, there has been very little scientific research on the topic.

"Although many of us inherently recognize that there is a relationship between what we eat and how we sleep, there have been very few scientific studies that have explored this connection, especially in a real-world situation," Grandner said in a news release.

"In general, we know that those who report between seven and eight hours of sleep each night are most likely to experience better overall health and well being, so we simply asked the question 'Are there differences in the diet of those who report shorter sleep, longer sleep, or standard sleep patterns?'" he said.

Grandner and his team analyzed data from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which includes demographic, socioeconomic, dietary, and health-related questions.

Researchers compared how much sleep each participant reported getting each night to their daily dietary intake. The participants were grouped by different sleep patterns: "Very Short" sleepers who have less than five hours a sleep a night, "Short" sleepers who get five to six hours a night, "Standard" sleepers who sleep seven to eight hours a night and "Long" sleepers who sleep more than nine hours a night.

Researchers also evaluated participants' full dietary intake, which included everything from the occasional glass of water to complete, detailed records of every part of each meal.

Researchers then analyzed whether each group differed from the seven-to-eight hour sleepers on any nutrients and total caloric intake. Researchers then looked at these associations after taking into account overall diet, demographics, socioeconomics, physical activity, obesity, and other factors that could have explained this relationship.

The findings reveal that the total caloric intake varied across groups.  On average, short sleepers consumed the most calories, followed by normal sleepers, very short sleepers and then long sleepers.

Researchers found that food variety was the highest in normal sleepers and the lowest in very short sleepers.

The study also revealed significant differences across groups for intake of many types of nutrients, including proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

Grandner found that very short sleep was associated with less intake of tap water, lycopene (found in red- and orange-colored foods like tomatoes),and total carbohydrates. Short sleep was associated with less vitamin C, tap water, selenium (found in nuts, meat and shellfish), and more lutein/zeaxanthin (found in green, leafy vegetables). Long sleep was associated with less intake of theobromine (found in chocolate and tea), dodecanoic acid (a saturated fat) choline (found in eggs and fatty meats), total carbohydrates, and more alcohol.

"Overall, people who sleep 7 - 8 hours each night differ in terms of their diet, compared to people who sleep less or more. We also found that short and long sleep are associated with lower food variety," Grandner said.

Researchers said they are still unsure whether altering diet could help improve sleep.

"This will be an important area to explore going forward as we know that short sleep duration is associated with weight gain and obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease," Grandner said. Likewise, we know that people who sleep too long also experience negative health consequences."

Grandner said that if future research can pinpoint the "ideal mix of nutrients and calories" to promote healthy sleep, then the healthcare community has the "potential to make a major dent in obesity and other cardiometabolic risk factors". 

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