Tired and stressed? These tweaks to your diet can help

Feeling tired and frazzled can lead to side-stepping healthy habits, like exercise and eating well. These diet strategies can help you stress less and sleep better.
Image: Portrait of woman stretching near the window after her wake up in the morning, back view.
Appropriate sleep — defined as 7-9 hours each night — is as important to your health, physical and mental performance, and emotional wellbeing, as proper nutrition and fitness.Boy_Anupong / Getty Images
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By Samantha Cassetty, RD

Stress is a normal (and annoying) part of life. And when stress persists, it can influence your health by promoting inflammation that plays a key role in many diseases. On top of that, stress hormones prompt weight gain that’s marked by fat storage in your mid-section. This type of belly fat is especially harmful and can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Feeling burned out can be unhealthy in other ways because it can simultaneously lead to side-stepping healthy habits, like exercise and eating well. And some people try to self-soothe with alcohol, which can get excessive. And when you’re in overdrive mode, it’s also hard to sleep.

Appropriate sleep — defined as 7-9 hours each night — is as important to your health, physical and mental performance, and emotional wellbeing, as proper nutrition and fitness. Yet, there’s a good chance you’re not sleeping well — at least sometimes. The American Psychological Association estimates that 60 percent of Americans have sleep issues at least a few nights a week, and the CDC reports that about 30 percent of people routinely fall short of healthy sleep targets.

A chronic sleep deficit doesn’t just leave you cranky and groggy; it takes a toll in other ways:

  • It affects your work performance. Your focus and thinking skills become impaired and it impacts your ability to multi-task. Plus, it’s harder to make difficult decisions when you’re sleep deprived, and you’re more likely to make mistakes.
  • It impairs your reaction time. This is especially dangerous when driving since it affects your ability to break or swerve immediately, for example, if the car in front of you comes to a sudden stop or someone or something is in the middle of the road.
  • It makes you ravenous. Insufficient sleep disrupts the hormone that tells you you’re hungry, putting your appetite on overdrive. At the same time, it messes with the hormone responsible for signaling fullness, which may lead to overeating and ultimately, weight problems. And it makes you crave unhealthy foods.
  • It encourages your body to store more fat. Sleep loss makes you pump out more cortisol—a stress hormone that encourages fat storage.
  • It makes you more likely to catch a cold. Researchers found that people who sleep six hours or less at night are four times more likely to get sick compared to those who sleep more.
  • It raises your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Research suggests our fast-paced lifestyles are partially to blame; we’re too stressed out, spend too much time in front of screens, and get too little activity, all of which can interfere with a good night’s rest.

Try these strategies to help you stress less and sleep better

Eat more fiber and less saturated fat

In a small study that examined the effects of food on sleep, researchers found that a dietary pattern low in fiber and higher in saturated fat (found in red meat and full and reduced-fat dairy foods) was linked to poorer sleep quality, with more night time waking and less of the deep, restorative sleep you need to wake up feeling refreshed.

Another study found that participants who upped their intake of insoluble fiber (one of the two types you need), reported feeling less stressed out and they said they had fewer headaches and better wellbeing during the study period.

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About half of Americans fall short of daily fiber targets, which is in the range of 25 to 35 grams per day. You can get this amount — along with a mix of both insoluble and soluble fiber — by embracing plant-based, fiber-rich foods, which include fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Since a sudden uptick in fiber can cause some unwanted GI effects, increase your fiber intake gradually and be sure to drink plenty of fluids along the way, both of which can give your system a chance to adjust to its new, healthier norm.

Stick to recommended added sugar limits

Added sugar has also been linked to disrupted sleep so be sure to stick with the American Heart Association’s limits of six teaspoons per day for women and nine for men. Think beyond what you add to your coffee and tea and the usual dessert suspects and start to look at labels to get a sense of the foods that supply added sugars. Breads and cereals (including healthier whole grain varieties), plant-based milks, condiments, flavored yogurts, soups, granola bars, and deli meats and jerky are some of the sneakier foods that often contain excessive amounts of added sugars. When you keep track of these hidden sources of sugar, it frees up your sugar caps for lower-sugar desserts so you can stick to the limits but still enjoy a sweet treat.

Make sure you’re getting enough magnesium

Magnesium is a calming mineral that helps you handle burnout better because it plays a role in the pathways that regulate the levels of stress you feel — symptoms like a racing heart, anxiousness, and headaches.

Plus, when you’re stressed out, you excrete extra magnesium and there’s a good chance you weren’t getting enough to begin with; research suggests that the majority of people aren’t meeting their daily needs. Insufficient intake has been linked with sleep problems so it’s a good idea to up your intake so you can calm your mind and rest better.

You can definitely get magnesium from food if you try; it’s found in leafy green veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, along with everyone’s favorite source, dark chocolate. However, unless you’re eating a spectrum of these foods regularly, you might not be getting enough daily. In that case, talk to your doctor or registered dietitian about supplements since some common forms are linked to cramping and, possibly, diarrhea.

Satisfy your sweet tooth with dark chocolate

In addition to helping you meet your magnesium needs, studies indicate that dark chocolate lowers levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, helping you buffer the physical effects of stress better. But it also helps you deal with the emotional effects of stress. (Anyone who enjoys chocolate can relate!) The so-called therapeutic dose is about 1 ½ ounces of dark chocolate per day; more than this can put you over your added sugar targets.

Eat your omegas

These anti-inflammatory fats — predominantly found in oily fish, like salmon and sardines, along with certain nuts and seeds — may help regulate your mood. In one small study among med students, supplementing with these fats was related to a 20 percent reduction in anxiety symptoms. Other studies have found that in periods of high stress, supplements help people feel better and less anxious.

To up your omega 3 intake, have seafood at least twice a week.

Curb nighttime eating

If your nighttime routine involves eating within two to three hours of bed time, you might need to examine this habit. Eating this close to lying down can trigger acid reflux, which can interfere with your sleep. Avoid over-sized dinners and endless kitchen raids that can lead you to feel over-stuffed at night. It’s also a good idea to cut back on really rich desserts and fatty meals, which can exacerbate the situation. (These also tend to be high in saturated fat so they’re not great for sleep, anyway.) Close the kitchen a few hours before you climb in bed and sit upright while binge-watching Netflix in order to allow your body the time it needs to properly digest before you go to sleep.

Be careful with caffeine

You know caffeine is a pick-me-up so you know it can’t be good before bedtime. But caffeine can impact your sleep long after you’ve consumed it — for a period of six hours before bedtime. When you drink it within this time frame, it can shave about an hour from your sleep time. Plus, if you’re already feeling stressed and anxious, caffeine can amplify these feelings. Try to nix coffee and other caffeinated sips by early afternoon, and also monitor your symptoms when you do partake. If you find that caffeinated drinks make you feel worse, switch to decaf (which also has a small amount of caffeine). Other non-caffeinated ways to perk up include a cold glass of water, some light stretches at your desk (to get the blood flowing), or a short walk outside. These measures can help you get through the afternoon slump and still fall asleep when bedtime rolls around.

WHAT A NUTRITIONIST WANTS YOU TO KNOW

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