Episode 76 Transcript – How to Improve Sleep with Nutrition

Leah Higl:

Hello and welcome to the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. I am Leah Higl and I’m here with my co-host Aidan Muir, and today we will be discussing how you can improve sleep with nutrition. Firstly, I think it is pretty important to mention that there is definitely a bidirectional relationship with sleep and nutrition, so they both affect each other in both directions. I’m sure most people have the experience of poor sleep leading to just different behaviors around nutrition but also changes in appetite and cravings. There is definitely a link there but our focus for this podcast is really going to be running through the things that you can do from a nutrition perspective in order to improve your sleep overall.

Aidan Muir:

Starting with the most obvious one, but I’ve got to get it out of the way, is caffeine. So caffeine obviously impacts sleep. I’m probably more passionate about this than most people, but something that I think is particularly relevant is that the half life of caffeine is about five hours, but it can range from anywhere from 1.5 to nine hours, there’s a lot of individual variation between people. Because of that, that means that there are people who at that higher range, that kind of nine hours mark, who I don’t know, might have caffeine at 2:00 PM and it’s still in their system or if you have a lot of coffees or whatever, even though it’s coming out of their system, they still have a decent chunk in there. If somebody has heaps of caffeine, it might be the equivalent to having, I don’t know, a coffee or two right before bed, if that makes sense.

I feel like that gets overlooked a lot and I also feel like a lot of people feel like they’re towards the quicker end and there’s a lot of people like, “Oh, caffeine doesn’t affect my sleep.” So many people say caffeine doesn’t affect their sleep and then the research shows that it affects everybody’s sleep as well.

I just wanted to mention it ’cause I’m like I’m more passionate about it than most being like if you’re looking to improve your sleep, honestly caffeine is the first place to start but it’s also the most simple one that everybody knows about, so wanted to get that one out of the way.

Leah Higl:

Yeah, it’s an important one. I think it’s just, yeah, it’s so often overlooked and people are like, “Oh yeah, it doesn’t affect me,” but they just haven’t not had caffeine in a really long time so they don’t really know what it could be like if they didn’t have caffeine late in the day or et cetera.

The second thing we’re going to talk about is actually carbohydrate intake and timing around bed. Research indicates that having a high carbohydrate meal or snack in the space of that one to four hours before bed can help reduce the amount of time it actually takes to get to sleep while improving the amount of overall REM sleep that you get. It doesn’t seem like this is a really huge impact. It does look to be about that 10% roughly improvement overall so it could be the thing that makes your sleep a little bit better but probably isn’t going to make a world of difference.

I think if you’re trying to strive for fat loss or reduce your carb intake or if you have other nutritional goals, you don’t necessarily need to do this and it’s the be all and end all. It might be a bit of a balancing act between this and other goals, so I don’t think it’s overly important, but if you are looking to get the most out of your sleep it could be something to consider. Although in my opinion, I think in terms of eating before bed, I think not going to bed aggressively hungry probably has more of an impact on overall sleep quality than the carbs before bed, but it is something that you could look at doing.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. I went pretty deep down that rabbit hole of looking into that topic ’cause I’d heard a lot of people say having some carbs one to two hours before would make a huge difference. Obviously I’d heard people on the other end of the section say that make things a lot worse and stuff like that. But yeah, it is a complicated topic because it looks like it helps, looks like it helps a little bit, but then we also don’t see opposite approaches causing massive issues. One of the things I was looking at is intermittent fasting, but time restricted eating not necessarily showing things being worse, assuming people aren’t super hungry when they go to bed or anything like that.

Leah Higl:

Something to consider but probably not to be all and end all.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. Although it’s sort of boring, the next one I’ve got is the first real hack I’ve got which is tart cherry juice. I’ve talked about it on here before but it doubles as a few potential benefits. One of them is that carbohydrate snack one to two hours before bed. If you get that concentrated kind of shot form of it might be 15 grams of carbs. If you have the amount that’s used in some of these studies, sometimes they go 500 mil, sometimes it’s like 750 mil. It’s like we’re looking at up to 60 grams of carbs in that kind of timeframe. There’s a few mechanisms, it can increase melatonin production, it can increase tryptophan as well, and both of those have links with improved sleep. The study that I always bring up but I always downplay it a little bit, the study I always bring up is there was a study done on tart cherry juice before bed in people with insomnia and it increased sleep duration by 85 minutes on average in comparison to placebo.

Leah Higl:

Which is a huge number.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. It’s insane and it’s enough that I can’t look past it. I’m like, “Do I expect that if you got 1000 people with insomnia, got half of them to do this that improve it by 85 minutes? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’d be that impressive.” But we have seen research on directly supplementing melatonin helping a little bit, but on average it’s not super impactful. Not necessarily looking at the insomnia research but just sleep in general, it seems to improve it by about six minutes on average.

I don’t think it’s too farfetched to believe that the combination of something that increases melatonin and tryptophan and then also has that carbohydrate component improves sleep by a little bit more than that six minutes on average.

Leah Higl:

Yeah, I recommend tart cherry juice a little bit, particularly to my clients leading into events and anecdotally it could be a bit placebo but I do find the feedback I get is, “My sleep is really good and I’m recovering really well. It’s made a fair bit of a difference.” Yeah, could be placebo, could be the fact they’re doing other things, but I think it’s worth checking out for sure.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah, particularly when I get athletes who don’t have budgetary constraints.

Leah Higl:

Yes.

Aidan Muir:

Because it’s not the cheapest option. Particularly because you can’t just buy it in stores.

Leah Higl:

It’s hard-ish to get. You have to buy it online. It’s a bit annoying but I think it is worth trying especially because logistically, super simple.

Yeah. Swinging back around to another one that we want touch on and it’s just being overly full or overly hungry when you go to bed. Going to bed excessively full can reduce the sleep quality and duration of sleep, particularly for anyone who experiences reflux. You don’t want to have a huge meal before bed and then go to bed stuffed. Then on the flip side of that, you probably don’t want to be super hungry to the point where you are waking up in the middle of the night like, “Man, I really need a snack.” That is probably something that is going to impact your sleep quality. Generally being in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time or getting excessively lean can impact your sleep. We do know that bodybuilders in late stages of comp prep commonly cite that they do struggle getting sleep so I think that is something to note that if your sleep is really important to you, you may want to look at not going to bed hungry, not trying to diet to aggressively, and all that jazz.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. The next one is kind of a dietary quality thing like fiber, saturated fat, and sugar. This is a difficult area to interpret. Definitely at a population level, there is a pretty clear correlation between higher fiber intake, lower saturated fat intake, and lower sugar intake, and improved sleep, that’s a very clear link. But that is always difficult to interpret because there’s like this concept of healthy user bias and being like, “If you do these things you just have a better quality diet in general.” I reckon if you looked at somebody doing that type of intake, they have a better micronutrient intake per calorie and stuff like that. There’s a lot of other things that go on with that. They might have lower body weight and everything like that, but beyond that …

That’s definitely at a chronic level improved sleep but we also have some studies looking at it in a short term timeframe that I find more interesting. I wouldn’t read too much into it, but there was one study that compared a high saturated fat meal to a lower saturated fat meal and I believe calories were matched in this meal and they found that the one that led to people falling asleep 15 minutes quicker was the lowest saturated fat meal. Although there’s all these chronic benefits and stuff like that, there seems to be some acute benefits too. Even if we just look at it from a dietary quality perspective, it’s like, “Okay, having a higher quality diet probably helps with sleep as well just in general.”

Leah Higl:

Totally. Next one is probably a little bit more interesting in that people like supplements.

We’re going to touch on a few supplements and that’s supplements that can assist with stress management, which could obviously lead into helping with sleep, et cetera. Supplements in this ballgame would be L-theanine and Ashwagandha mostly. Both of these supplements do have research showing that they help with sleep, but probably more wager on the fact that their research is a bit more strong in regards to limiting anxiety and stress in general and that probably has a bit of a flow on effect to sleep. One study on people taking Ashwagandha for six weeks had them self-report sleeping 72% better than they did at baseline. That’s pretty crazy.

72% better. I don’t know how they gauged that, but …

Aidan Muir:

Self reported from memory, but …

Leah Higl:

Self reported but … They just scaled it.

Yeah, which is insane. I don’t necessarily think it’s going to have that impact on everyone, but …

Aidan Muir:

This is all the research on Ashwagandha, hey. It’s just a crazy improvement in everything now.

Leah Higl:

That’s it. It’s so weird looking at Ashwagandha. Seems so magical when you look at the little bit of research that is there, but we don’t have enough to …

Aidan Muir:

Still skeptical.

Leah Higl:

I’m still very skeptical, but it’s one of those things that is also very safe to take and if you have the extra money, I think it’s worth trying and that the placebo group showed a 29% improvement, so that’s also to note. You’d kind of like minus that from the 72 maybe and to get a better read on it. Generally in regards to L-theanine, there’s not much direct research on L-theanine and sleep. Anecdotally a lot of people do find that it does reduce stress and again, flow on effect to sleep. There is one study we are aware of that was in children with ADHD and it showed sleep improvements generally, but it’s a bit of a leap to say if it helped in children with ADHD that it’s going to help everybody but that’s a little bit of research that we do have and there was an improvement there.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. I think the tricky thing with being evidence-based when there’s stuff that doesn’t have a lot of evidence on is kind of interpreting research like this. One of the ways I view it personally is it’s like if I struggled with sleep and I was a very stressed person, I’d probably take these two things, but I’d probably take it through the lens of being like, “Maybe this helps, maybe it doesn’t.” The first step I look at is there any downside of these things? There’s not really any downside of these things beyond the cost and the effort of taking it and stuff like that. At minimum, it’s probably helping the stress and that’s probably carrying over to sleep but we don’t know for sure.

Leah Higl:

There may be other things you can do non-nutrition related that would give you a lot bigger bang for your buck in terms of stress management for sleep than these supplements but also these might be an easy win.

Aidan Muir:

Magnesium is a common one that is also recommended for sleep. I have quite a few thoughts on this. The starting point is that magnesium binds to GABA receptors, GABA helps your brain wind down, that sounds really promising. That sounds really good. The mechanism makes a lot of sense. We have also very clearly seen that magnesium deficiency seems to reduce sleep. But interestingly, just using blood tests and stuff like that, the average person gets a blood test, they’re probably not deficient in magnesium even if they have a low-ish intake of magnesium. You can have a sub-optimal intake of magnesium and not have magnesium deficiency. I wouldn’t necessarily be basing a lot of thoughts about magnesium and sleep based on magnesium deficiency just because that’s a lot more rare than other stuff like vitamin D deficiency and stuff like that that we’ve talked about quite a bit. With insomnia, the research is promising. Magnesium does seem to help with insomnia. Typically people are having, say, I don’t know, 300 milligrams of magnesium about an hour before bed seems to help insomnia.

Without insomnia, the research is not promising at all.

It’s one of those situations where it’s like anecdotally a lot of people who measure their sleep quality find benefit from taking magnesium before bed, but I have some thoughts about it being like, you know thar Ashwagandha study we talked about being like, “That was compared to placebo?”

They had a significant improvement in comparison to placebo. When we’re just looking at our own, we’re doing a study on ourselves and we’re just like, “Let’s look at my sleep when I don’t take magnesium, let’s look at my sleep when I do take magnesium,” there’s no kind of placebo control, so we’re not comparing it to anything and we obviously can’t do that test ourselves. We just can’t do that.

It’s food for thought that’s like in the Ashwagandha study, there was a 29% improvement in the group taking placebo. If I got a 29% or a 30% improvement in my sleep taking magnesium, I’d continue taking magnesium, I’d continue taking magnesium.

But it’s like we see that just from placebo. That’s something to think about when looking at the anecdotal stuff.

Another thought I do have on it is, because I’m actually quite open to it potentially helping with sleep, just an average person. Although I’ve said all that, I’m like, “I don’t know.” I am still open minded about it potentially helping particularly because the mechanism is so strong, but another thought that I do have is that although most people aren’t walking around with magnesium deficiency, if we compare most people with magnesium intake, even just as a recommended daily intake, which may or may not be optimal, most people have a relatively low intake in comparison to that.

It’s rare for people without great diets to be meeting that target and that leaves open the question of being like, “Well if most people just improve their magnesium intake through food, are they still going to be getting the same benefits anyway?” That would be a point that I would preferentially start with. Even though I’m quite open to supplementation, stuff like that, it’s just like there’s a lot of areas in our diet that we can improve and I feel like that’s a relatively easy one to improve.

Leah Higl:

Yeah, and it’s kind of opening up the floodgates to all the other possibilities of all the potential supplements that may work and you’re like, “Well, you could just improve the overall quality of your diet to hit a lot of these things.”

Aidan Muir:

I think that’s better wording than what I went with there because I do think that’s exactly how I think about it. In a lot of cases I’m like, “If we have an inadequate intake and that’s going to continue, supplementation often makes sense.”

But if we view that with magnesium, it does open this floodgate. A lot of other nutrients.

Leah Higl:

A lot of other things. Then all of a sudden you’re taking 12 things before bed.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Leah Higl:

But that pretty much wraps it up for this one. This has been episode 76 of the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. If you could leave a rating and review on your podcast platform of choice, that’s always appreciated but otherwise, thank you for tuning in.