There’s been a lot of media coverage lately regarding the growing numbers of children with sleep problems. What’s being touted as the root cause of these problems seems to be an issue with weight and problems related to use of electronic devices too close to bedtime. What I know from all my years of experience is that people often do not make a connection between the foods their children eat and sleep issues. Let’s take a closer look at some useful things to know when it comes to food and sleep. It might surprise you!
WHAT’S STRESS GOT TO DO WITH IT?
Stress can significantly impact sleep. Whilst we may not think our children are highly stressed, when you look at what they cope with on a daily basis from a psychological standpoint i.e. homework deadlines, exams/tests, remembering all their kit for their various school and extra curricular activities combined with the stresses of living in the modern world with those electronic devices and the access to peers and the world at large 24/7, actually our children probably are pretty wired.
One of the most important things to aim for when it comes to normalising sleep patterns is the normalisation of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands that are situated above the kidneys. This hormone is responsible for helping regulate many body functions and is a strong determinant in how refreshing your child’s sleep period will be. Ideally cortisol would naturally be highest in the morning and lowest at night. However this is often not the case. It is released in a cyclic pattern known as the ‘circadian rhythm’. Any disruption to your child’s circadian rhythm can adversely affect multiple functions in their body, including energy production and their immune response. A disruption in the cortisol level during the night will affect the quality of their sleep. If their cortisol level is high during the night, they will have disrupted rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and will wake up unrefreshed, no matter how many hours of sleep you think they got or how long they were in bed for. REM sleep is the stage of sleep during which they dream, and is reached approximately five times throughout an 10 hour sleep cycle. At this point in their sleep cycle their muscles relax and their breathing rate increases. You’ve probably walked into their bedroom to check on them at nighttime and witnessed this kind of sleep. The key to a normal cortisol level at night is a normal cortisol rhythm during the day and particularly leading up to sleep. So how can our children achieve this? Well, a good start is for them to have a normal eating rhythm. That means sticking to regular meal times at regular intervals throughout the day.
Key Message – eat regular meals, every day.
EATING TO A ‘NORMAL’ RHYTYM.
Cortisol levels respond very quickly to food or drink consumed. Foods that release sugar into the blood quickly such as cakes, biscuits, white bread, sugary breakfast cereals and chocolate cause our children’s cortisol levels to rise. For most children, who start the day with a normal cortisol level, starchy or sugary breakfast choices can cause the cortisol to rise above the normal range. This is likely to disrupt cortisol which may remain high all day and therefore affect sleep at night too.
Having no meal at all is even worse. This will also make their cortisol levels rise. A rise above the normal range during the day almost guarantees that the night-time cortisol will be high and thus disrupt REM sleep. Whilst not all children are what I call ‘breakfast people’ they do need to plan to have a meal at some point during the morning whether that’s during mid-morning break at school or even as an early lunch.
Foods that release energy into the bloodstream more slowly such as eggs, meats, poultry, fish, and most vegetables tend to lower the cortisol level. If one starts with a normal morning cortisol, eating foods such as these every five hours during the day is recommended to keep the cortisol on its normal track.
Key Message – Avoid sugary breakfast cereals in the morning
DO EAT BREAKFAST AND MAKE IT GOOD!
Studies have found that eating breakfast may improve short-term memory and attention. If your child has eaten a breakfast of sugary cereal and fruit juice they are most likely to experience a surge in blood sugar. This, unfortunately, is likely to be followed by a blood sugar ‘low’ as their body tries to rebalance their blood sugar levels by producing the hormone insulin. Eating meals and snacks that are rich in refined carbohydrates, low in fibre and low in protein tends to lead to a fluctuation in levels of blood glucose and therefore energy and concentration level. This can stand in the way of a good night’s sleep as energy levels continue to fluctuate according to their ‘set pattern’ even whilst your children are asleep. Help them to make better choices such as foods containing more protein and fibre:
Fish, meat, eggs, vegetables, wholegrain crackers, nuts, seeds, fruit and yogurt.
Key Message – ensure your child understands the importance of protein and fibre in the breakfast meal
FOODS THAT CAN SPECIFICALLY HELP SLEEP
Poultry – a source of tryptophan which is a precursor to melatonin (their sleep hormone)
Red Meat – a source of iron
Nuts and Seeds – a source of tryptophan, magnesium (also known as “natures tranquilizer”) and zinc which helps convert other chemicals into melatonin
Eggs – a source of tryptophan and protein which helps energy to last for longer
Dark Green Vegetables – a source of magnesium and B Vitamins which improve the conversion of serotonin to melatonin
Key Message – an evening meal combining a source of protein with vegetables should help sleep quality