When it comes to getting everything out of yourself as an athlete, there’s one factor that you’re probably neglecting: Sleep.
You can have the best training program in the world, but if you aren’t optimizing the time spent in bed, you’re selling your performance short.
Lack of sleep deprives your body of a key component of recovery:
Sleep is prime time for the body to repair and rejuvenate itself, with processes such as protein synthesis, tissue repair, and hormone release occurring mostly (or only) during sleep.
Inflammation is eradicated and detoxication processes occur when the body is given sufficient rest.
The brain also benefits as sleep provides a chance for neurons to process information and motor skills acquired during the day.
Surveys show you’re not alone if poor sleep and fatigue dog your days. Athletes tend to sleep less and suffer lower quality sleep than non-athletes. This may be partly due to the rigors of training and traveling, but the physiological stress of training certainly plays a role: Exercise depletes nutrients that are used to synthesize neurotransmitters that regulate sleep and wakefulness. And certain forms of exercise elevate the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause the mind to race and keep you up at night.
Nutrition is one intervention that can offset the negative impact of sleep deprivation on the body and even encourage improved sleep. Although the research is only in the early stages, we know that there are several chemical messengers that regulate the sleep-wake cycle and have a powerful impact on mood, motivation, body temperature, strength, pain, and overall performance. What follows are ten nutrition tips for enhancing sleep quantity and quality so that you can get everything possible out of your performance.
#1: Eat A High Protein Breakfast
Sleep, wakefulness, and energy levels are regulated by chemical transmitter pathways in the brain. Interestingly, what you eat first thing in the morning sets up your neurotransmitters and hormones for the entire day, even impacting your ability to sleep at night. By starting the day with a high-protein breakfast you lay the groundwork for metabolic activity all day long so that the body is better able to switch between burning fat and glucose, which is key for being able to sleep through the night.
#2: Bump Up Total Protein Intake
As an athlete, protein is always important to sustain protein synthesis, moderate appetite, and support tissue repair. It also provides the building blocks for many neurotransmitters so that levels don’t get depleted due to intense training. This appears to improve sleep quality: in one study, a higher protein diet allowed people to sleep better and wake up less frequently during the night compared to a high-carb diet. Sports scientists recommend 1.2 to 2.2g/kg of protein a day for athletes, depending on body composition, sport, training status, and preference.
#3: Eat Carbs At Night
A well known trick for improving sleep is to include higher glycemic carbs in the evening meal to improve serotonin release. Serotonin is a calming, “feel-good” brain chemical that enhances sleep onset. High-protein diets can deplete serotonin, but this can be overcome by eating higher carb foods at strategic times.
Here’s how it works: Synthesis of serotonin is dependent on tryptophan, an amino acid that is transported across the blood-brain barrier by a transport system shared by a number of large neutral amino acids (LNAAs), including the BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Ingestion of protein generally decreases the uptake of tryptophan, as tryptophan is the least abundant amino acid and therefore other LNAAs are preferentially transported into the brain. Consuming carbs raises insulin, stimulates the uptake of LNAA into muscle tissue, allowing for increased tryptophan entry into the brain, giving you the boost in serotonin you need for a more restful night’s sleep.
#4: Favor Lower Glycemic Carbs During The Day
Carb intake needs to be individualized for optimal sleep and performance, but we know for certain that excessive consumption of processed and high-sugar carbs is only going to cause problems. Not only are these carbs nutrient poor, they lead to irregular blood sugar and compromise the body’s ability to burn fat. These foods have also been shown to stimulate the endocannabinoid reward brain receptors, that make you feel good (they are the same receptors activated by marijuana).
While this might seem like a good thing, diets high in refined carbs have been shown to change the architecture of the brain, leading to uncontrollable cravings for high-carb foods. You can avoid these problems by choosing high-quality carbs from vegetables, fruit, beans, and whole grains, favoring lower glycemic options during the day and saving higher sugar variations for night.
#5: Ensure Metabolic Flexibility
Metabolic flexibility is when your body is able to readily shift from burning glucose in the blood to accessing fat when glucose levels drop. People on higher carb diets, including athletes, often have compromised metabolic flexibility and their bodies are unable to shift to burning fat. This can lead to interrupted sleep as they often wake up when blood sugar levels get low, and it may be one reason that higher carb diets are linked to poorer sleep quality. There are a variety of strategies to enhance metabolic flexibility on higher carb diets: Time restricted feeding in which you limit eating to an 8- or 12-hour window for a few days, carb cycling, or training on low glycogen (ideally, during the off-season) are a few tricks for improving your ability to burn fat.
#6: Support Melatonin Levels
Melatonin is the sleep hormone and levels increase at night in response to reduced light exposure. Certain foods are known to raise melatonin levels: Tart cherries, bananas, kiwi, almonds, and walnuts. For example, supplementation with tart cherry juice improved sleep quality and quantity and lowered inflammation in a group of people with regular insomnia. Tart cherry juice can be particularly useful for athletes because it has also been shown to lower DOMS muscle soreness. Some people may benefit from a higher dose of melatonin, in which case a supplement is warranted.
#7: Avoid Calorie Deficits
You might be in the habit of thinking that calorie deficits are good things since it seems like everyone needs to lose weight now days, but for athletes or anyone interested in peak performance, calorie deficits are a problem. Anytime you have a calorie deficit, the stress hormone cortisol is released to free glucose stores. This is bad news for athletes because cortisol is already elevated in most endurance trainees due to the heavy metabolic requirements of training. Strength and power athletes can also suffer from high cortisol during heavy training phases or if life stress is getting them down.
High cortisol can lead to a jittery feeling and racing mind, impairing the ability to sleep. Getting enough calories to fuel training demands is critical. Getting a nutrient-rich diet is also important because when cortisol is elevated the body burns through nutrients necessary for metabolic function and stress management. Along with mind-body recovery activities like deep breathing, massage, and meditation, getting extra vitamin C and magnesium post-workout can help clear cortisol.
#8: Use Chamomile or Valerian Tea
Both chamomile and valerian are herbs that can be taken in tea or capsule form at bedtime to aid sleep. Valerian activates GABA, calming the brain and having a sedating effect. It also may reduce anxiety and the racing mind that often comes from high cortisol and excessive training stressors. Chamomile also has a sedative effect and provides the antioxidant apigenin that helps eradicate inflammation—a common factor in insomnia.
#9: Be Smart With Caffeine
Caffeine is an incredible performance enhancement tool and it holds the label of “most effective legal supplement available.” However, too much caffeine or caffeine at the wrong time will raise cortisol and other stimulating neurotransmitters, stressing the adrenal glands. Over time, this can lead to imbalanced hormone levels, inflammation, and impaired sleep. If you’re suffering from sleep disturbances, feel fatigued during training, and ragged the rest of the day, it’s probably time to cut back on the caffeine. Taking a break will pay off in several ways: It resets the adrenals and reduces your “tolerance,” which means you’ll get a performance boost when you pick up your next cup of java.
#10: Take MCT Oil Before Bed
As an athlete who is powering through hundreds of extra calories during training, it’s normal to wake up hungry at night. One tool that may blunt appetite and improve night time sleep is to take 1 tablespoon of fat high in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), such as coconut oil or MCT oil. MCTs don’t enter the cholesterol cycle and are processed in a way that improves fat burning, helping to regulate metabolism for a better night’s sleep.
Final Words: Research into the impact of nutrition on sleep is limited and we know that results vary by the individual. If you’re not getting results from your current nutrition plan, don’t be afraid to mix things up. Strategies we didn’t cover in this article include using sleep supplements (read about them here), ensuring hydration throughout the day so that you don’t wake up at night needing to go the bathroom, and developing habits that encourage sleep (we’ve got those summarized here)