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Explore Fascinating Connections between Nutrition & Sleep

Nov 19, 2020 01:05PM ● By Pamela Johnson
by Marjorie Turner Hollman, Contributing Writer

The Bellingham Senior Center invited residents to participate in a free Zoom presentation sponsored through BlueCross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts, entitled “Nutrition and Sleep: Fascinating Connections.”  Registered Dietician Tricia Silverman offered an impressive amount of information in a 45-minute program, from her own personal experiences to her professional understanding of the importance of what we eat and drink and how it can affect our quality of sleep.

Silverman first described suffering from insomnia when she was in her Registered Dietician (RD) internship, and picked a random health spa to visit for three days. She did not realize the spa would offer only vegetarian food and no coffee. After three days, she realized she felt great, and had experienced a night of sound sleep.

She then urged those on the call to test themselves by avoiding caffeine to see if this simple step might make a difference in our own sleep quality. We learned that good sleep can empower our immune systems, something of particular interest during a pandemic! She also noted that lack of sleep can make some vaccines less effective.

As a rule of thumb, Silverman urged, “If you can’t read [understand how to say] the ingredient, don’t eat it.” When asked about additives such as Crystal lite, she urged us to choose more natural additives such as lemon or lime juice, and reminded us that consuming diet soda has been associated with increased risk of stroke and dementia.

Silverman offered a helpful diagram of a dinner plate, showing 1/2 of the plate filled with various types of vegetables, while 1/4 of the plate contained proteins, including beans and lean meat, and the other 1/4 being filled with carbohydrates. She urged participants to increase whole grains, and potatoes, and decrease red meats, (which includes beef, pork, and lamb). In addition, she urged us to get at least three fruits a day into our diet, and healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado.

Our sleeping habits have changed substantially since the 1960s. On average, people slept eight to nine hours a night in the past, while in 2010, people reported sleeping an average of six hours. Silverman noted that poor sleep increases cravings for junk food, which increases weight gain. She suggested that this can lead to a vicious cycle, since obesity is associated with sleep apnea, which creates sleep disturbances.

Steps we can take to address the challenge of poor sleep can include keeping a consistent sleep schedule, exercising early in the day, limiting our alcohol intake to one glass (five ounces of wine, or twelve ounces of beer, or one ounce of hard liquor) and not right before bed. She urged us to wind down one hour before bedtime by dimming the lights, turning off the TV, and spending some time in quiet meditation.

When asked about how much water is enough, Silverman declined to make a hard and fast rule, but noted the six to eight glasses a day suggestion is actually six to eight cups (each cup being eight ounces) per day. She also advised as a better rule to check the color of your urine—if it is dark, you are not getting enough water.

Silverman explained that protein can be stimulating, and suggested that rather than eating a large portion of meat at dinner, we would do better getting a bigger portion of our protein in the morning, and to eat more carbohydrates in the evening, which tends to make us sleepier. Perhaps a carbohydrate snack near bedtime would be helpful.

We were reminded about foods that are helpful for overall health, as well as for promoting better sleep, including adding nuts, legumes, sources of soy and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage). Silverman pointed us to several different types of tea that have no caffeine, including rooibus, and hibiscus. She also suggested eating tart cherries. She purchases a mixture of tart and sweet cherries and keeps the bag of them in the freezer, pulling them out for a few minutes before snacking on the fruit.

The end of the program offered an opportunity for questions from participants—a reminder that despite the challenges of maintaining distance for right now, we have ways to interact safely, and obtain both information and encouragement to take positive steps to keep ourselves healthy. Thanks to the Bellingham Senior Center for partnering with Blue Cross/Blue Shield to offer this valuable program.

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