Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Well-Fed Head

at 5:00 PM

It's 2:00 in the morning, and you've been awake for what seems like hours. You were ok when you went to bed, but after a while you woke up-and that was it. You can't find a comfortable spot, the pillow won't work, and your mind has started worrying over everything from the moderately scary to the totally terrifying. Worst of all, it feels like this could go on all night.

You've been around this block before, and you have a few tricks that have worked in the past. You turn down the thermostat, breathe deeply, count everything you can think of. You may even say your affirmation, and repeat some favorite scriptures. Finally you get up and turn on the computer-but nothing works! You are up, and there is no sleep wave to be caught.

Now what do you do? What in the world is wrong?

Before you give in to the despair of another sleepless night, stop and consider what you ate this evening.
You may have eaten well all day (or maybe not!) but what you ate during the last few hours before bed can strongly affect how you sleep.

Your evening might have looked something like this:

You met some friends for a TGIF celebration after work. You didn't over-indulge--just a couple of drinks, and some chips and dip when you got hungry. By the time you left, you didn't seem to have much of an appetite, so you decided to splurge on an ice cream treat and call it an evening. Or maybe you picked up a pizza for a quiet evening at home watching TV, and then enjoyed a couple of drinks and a box of your favorite candy with an old movie. You went to bed and dropped off just fine...but now, a few hours later--you're up and the night's gone bad.

What happened? You got sugar-high, and when the sugar ran out, your brain went into withdrawals.

Your brain uses a special version of sugar-glucose-to do its work. Sleep is rest time for your body, but your brain is still working hard, and not just dreaming, either. Your brain has to provide everything you need to get to sleep, move through your sleep cycles, make all the clean-up and healing adjustments to your cells, and do the rearranging and tidying up of everything you learned through the day, so you'll be fresh, organized and ready to go in the morning.

To power all that work, your brain needs glucose. And to regulate that glucose throughout the night, you need a stream of slowly releasing carbohydrates, with a little protein foundation to hold things steady.

But when you pack in the empty calories, and especially when you add alcohol to the mix, your brain sucks it all up for a fast sugar-high that leaves you drowsy. You'll go to sleep--but when the high burns out, you'll drop into a brain glucose abyss. The empty, fast burning sugars are used up, and your poor brain is left with...nothing.

In an emergency you may save the day (or night!) if you get up and eat some slow-release carbohydrates like whole grain bread, maybe with a little peanut butter protein to slow things down. But that strategy puts you at risk for building a habit of night eating-and night eating is a sure plan for obesity and sleep-cycle disaster. So while that may be a good one-shot fix, your best course is to plan your eating so that you have the right nutrition for healthy sleep.

Now it's true that healthy eating should be an all day affair-but we're going to focus on the food that supports you through your brain's night-work.

The goal of your evening food choices is to release the "feel-good, healthy sleep" neurotransmitters (the messengers that send instructions through your brain and body) so you can go to sleep and have everything your brain will need to work well all night. You'll need glucose for energy, as well as nutrients for building and recovery. For that, you'll need protein and a balance of complex carbohydrates.

Protein is the solid foundation. That includes meat, fish, eggs, even cottage cheese and nuts. Beans can be part of the protein mix, but they don't work on their own. You also need some good, slow-release carbohydrates-the lower-calorie complex carbs. Those are vegetables like broccoli and tomatoes, avocado and asparagus, and fruits like cantaloupe, oranges and pineapple, as well as brown rice, whole grain breads, sweet potatoes. A few of the higher sugar white foods like white potatoes, white rice, and white bread can be ok, as long as you keep a good balance with the colorful, slower releasing choices.

Then there are the simple carbohydrates. Those are the "fun foods" that we love. They're not all sweet, but they all give us a quick sugar-high brain-rush-and then drop us straight down into a brain glucose abyss. You can have some of these super-sugars-things like wine, beer, potato chips, pretzels, rice cakes, cookies and ice cream--as long as you have them in moderation. They will release lots of sugar, super fast, and make you feel drowsy and satisfied...for a while.

But the sugar-high, brain-rush foods can't stand alone. If you want to sleep for more than an hour or two, fun foods have to be eaten on top of--in addition to--your healthy carbs and protein. (And when you want to use your brain to think clearly, you'll want to skip these choices altogether.)

Even when you're happy to fall into a stupor, sugar-high fun foods aren't a substitute for the slow-release, brain-sustaining foods. Without the sustaining power of long-acting proteins and slow-release carbohydrates, you'll end up right back where you were-awake in the middle of the night, with your depleted, sugared-out brain gasping for nourishment like a beached fish gasping for air, while you flop around in your bed.

So make some conscious choices for healthy sleep. Let your brain have what it needs for a good night's work, so you can get a good night's rest!

Learn how to sleep deeply and easily. Discover The Home in Your Heart.

Dr. Deborah Kukal is a health psychologist who has been teaching mind/body medicine for over 15 years. Visit her sleep page at

Try a FREE on-line guided meditation at The Home In Your Heart, Dr. Kukal's website

Dr. Kukal's sleep information, tips and meditations will enrich your sleep and nourish your mind and body.

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