Eating healthily and sleeping well are vitally important to long-term wellbeing but also daily performance. Sadly, we’re getting less sleep than ever and junk food is more accessible than ever.
Sleepiness and fatigue increase your appetite and you’re also more likely to crave refined carbohydrates and fats found in sugary snacks like chocolate bars, pastries and fizzy soft drinks.
We all know this is bad for your waistline, but did you know that poor sleep can also inhibit our ability to burn off extra calories?
Cortisol—The Stress Hormone
Turns out when you don’t get enough shut-eye, your brain responds with a spike in the hormone cortisol. This tells the body to store energy reserves in the form of fat. Some of the other delightful effects of high levels of cortisol are impaired judgement, headaches, rapid heart rate, poor immune system functioning and being irritable. There’s a good reason it’s known as the “stress hormone.” It also puts us into “fight or flight” mode, an evolutionary trait that is great when you’re faced with a predator in the wild, but less helpful when you’re trying to find your airport gate.
To compound lack of sleep with a poor diet, carb-laden snacks help continue the cycle of exhaustion and bleary eyes. These snacks lack many of the essential vitamins and minerals that help produce melatonin and serotonin, hormones that help induce and regulate sleep.
What Are Melatonin and Serotonin?
Melatonin is produced in the brain, particularly when it gets dark. The more melatonin in your blood, the more welcoming your bed will be. Artificial light can trick the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, so it’s best to avoid bright screens from your phone, laptop or TV one to two hours before going to sleep. If you’re more of a night owl, use an app like F.Lux to remove the blue tones from your devices in the evening.
Oats, milk and fruit like bananas and cherries all contain melatonin and will help you fall asleep faster. Maybe evening cereal-eaters are onto something after all.
The body produces serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan, which is found in lean proteins like turkey, fish and chicken, dairy and soy products, nuts, seeds, brown rice, lentils and beans.
Serotonin helps regulate our moods and aids feelings of calm and sleepiness. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to chronic anxiety, depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
How to Break the Bad Food-Worse Sleep Cycle
A complete overhaul of your diet probably isn’t the answer; you want a plan that is sustainable and flexible enough to follow in everyday life, including business travel. Here are a few simple tips to follow:
- Avoid fried or spicy food, processed meats, caffeine and chocolate after mid-afternoon as they can cause indigestion, raise your blood pressure and stimulate the brain.
- Opt for complex carbohydrates like brown rice or oatmeal to help you feel full instead of fries, pasta or white rice.
- Eat early in the evening to aid digestion (it might even minimise your likelihood of ordering another glass of red, a bonus as alcohol hinders the sleep cycle).
Foods That Aid Sleep
Why not swap the white bread and butter for a slice of wholemeal toast with peanut butter to keep you feeling full and focused until lunchtime, with a banana to go? Peanut butter and bananas are superb sources of magnesium, which helps keep us calm and focused, a perfect way to start an important trip.
Oily fish like salmon and boiled new potatoes give you a hit of vitamin B6, which helps convert tryptophan into serotonin. Your sleep schedule stays on track and any erratic moods you might be experiencing after a tough morning are curbed.
Balance a boost of tryptophan with healthy complex carbs with a prawn and whole wheat tagliatelle pasta for a filling dinner or evening meal. Add some dark green leafy vegetables like baby spinach or cavallo nero for a kick of potassium, magnesium and glycine, all minerals that help relax muscles and act as a mild sedative to help you drift off. If you’re not a fan of shellfish or seafood you can always substitute turkey or chicken for a great combination of lean protein and tryptophan.
There was wisdom in your mother’s advice to have a warm glass of milk before bed thanks to calcium being a source for melatonin and serotonin production. Avoid the sugary milkshake powders in favour of raw honey, a natural sweetener that facilitates tryptophan entering the brain. If you’d rather not drink too much before bed you can always have some cheese and (whole wheat) crackers!
What About Jet Lag?
Food and drink can help convince your body what time it is, even if you’ve just stepped off a 12-hour overnight flight in the opposite direction to the sun. If you’re arriving early in the morning local time, then have a light breakfast. Avoid heavy meals with lots of carbs which will make you feel sleepy. It’s the one time of the day where coffee could make sense. If you’re arriving in the afternoon, avoid caffeine altogether, even if it’s really 5:00 a.m. your time. It takes us between six and eight hours to fully process the effects of caffeine, so your espresso will have to wait until tomorrow.
Alcohol is for many an inevitable part of business trips, especially when you’re entertaining clients or catching up with old colleagues. But, on your first night in a new city it’s always best to get your body clock adjusted. A big glass of Malbec might help you dose off initially but the negative effects on sleep quality plus the thumping headache in the morning are best avoided if you want to nail that presentation at 9:00 a.m.
Discipline, the Most Important Ingredient
Long work trips tempt you time and again with team meals, hotel buffets, catch-up drinks and coffee by the gallon. Knowing foods that help you sleep well and perform better on the job are no use if you cave every time donuts get passed around. It takes six weeks to form most habits, so practicing healthier eating and sticking to a solid sleep routine at home will help you maintain your choices when you’re travelling. Just like a muscle, discipline gets stronger over time with training, so hang in there and don’t throw the whole regimen out the airlock if you accept the in-flight ice cream!
For more information on wellness while travelling, and how to become #travelproof, visit https://www.tandtstatesman.com/travelproof