By Ana Mantica
You snooze, you lose? Not when it comes to reaching your fitness best. Here's how eating smarter will maximize the quality and power of your zzz's.
Related: More Tips on Getting the Best Rest
Don't skimp, then splurge.
Skipping midday meals may seem like an easy way to shed weight, but doing so can throw off your body's normal sleep pattern. Researchers who followed a group of Muslims during Ramadan (a month of fasting from sunup to sundown) found that the group lost an average of 40 minutes of sleep a night compared with a nonholiday time of year. The likely cause: changes in hormone levels due to fasting. Large, late dinners exacerbate the problem: "A big meal increases the blood flow to your digestive tract, causing your stomach to secrete more gastric acid and making your pancreas and intestinal muscles work harder," Breus says. This stimulates your system instead of calming it.
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Do eat early and often.
"Your body uses up energy during the sleep process; it needs to be restored," Breus says. Eat a mix of protein and carbs for breakfast (think eggs and whole wheat toast), and have six 250- to 300-calorie mini meals throughout your day. Eating something nutritious every few hours helps your body and brain maintain the right balance of hormones and neurotransmitters, essential for falling -- and staying -- asleep at night.
Related: Sleep Your Way to Better Skin and Hair
Don't be a party victim.
Just say no to canapes, cheese plates, and mini meatballs. High-fat and spicy foods spark indigestion and reflux, keeping you up long past your bedtime, says Carolyn O'Neil, RD, author of The Dish: On Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!
Related: Stretches to Help You Sleep Better Tonight
Do eat carbs for dinner.
A recent study found that people who ate jasmine rice before bedtime fell asleep faster than those who didn't, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports. The reason? Jasmine rice is high on the glycemic index, so it helps increase the body's production of tryptophan, an amino acid that makes you sleepy, explains study author Chin-Moi Chow, PhD, senior lecturer at the University of Sydney.
Related: How to Stop Hitting the Snooze Button
Don't go to extremes.
When daily calories dip below 1,200, you miss out on key nutrients, and this may affect your sleep, says Susan Moores, RD, a dietitian in St. Paul. Low iron, for instance, may cause symptoms similar to restless leg syndrome. A deficiency in folic acid may lead to insomnia. Studies also suggest that anorexics on extremely low-cal diets limit the time their bodies spend in the slow-wave sleep cycle, necessary for muscle repair and recovery.
Related: 14 Energy Drainers -- and Fixers
Do strike a balance.
A well-rounded diet with foods high in B vitamins, calcium, and zinc will help you rest better. "Vitamin B6 signals your body to produce the calming hormone serotonin," Breus says. "And calcium and zinc are natural relaxants."
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Don't overdo the cold cuts or coffee.
Processed foods like deli meats contain a lot of sodium, which can interrupt sleep by raising your blood pressure and dehydrating you, Cornell's Maas says. Caffeine, meanwhile, stays in your system for up to 12 hours, so the effects of a p.m. latte could linger till midnight. Try skipping the joe tomorrow: Not having caffeine for a single day can improve sleep quality that night, a study in the Journal of Clinical Nursing found.
Related: Healthy Habits That Zap Your Energy
Before bed, have a cup of chamomile tea; the plant it's made from acts as a mild sedative, Breus explains, calming your body and helping you drift off.
The bottom line is to focus on eating foods in as close to their natural form as possible (for instance, apples, not apple danish). And eat smaller meals, says Breus, but more frequently. Simple, no? And all without counting a single sheep. Sweet dreams.
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