I just woke up from a bad night’s sleep. I woke up at around 4-5 A.M. feeling like something had jump-started my brain. Despite the fact that I had only slept a couple of hours – I got to sleep a little late last night – my body and brain felt wide awake, and I was unable to head back into dreamland.
Why did I sleep so poorly? I put some of the blame on the foods I ate late last night, in particular the dairy product that I consumed alongside my dinner. I rarely eat dairy foods. The few times I do, I typically have some type of fermented milk product, such as cottage cheese or sour cream. The product I ate last night, called Kesam in my home country Norway, has a somewhat similar consistency to yoghurt, but it’s higher in protein.
Could this acidic milk product really be to blame for my poor sleep? Isn’t it completely crazy to jump to the conclusion that something as innocent as a small container of nutritious, soft cheese caused me to wake up long before I usually do? It could just be a coincidence that I ate that product the same night that I slept badly, right? Absolutely. It could. I don’t think it was though, in large part because this is not the first time this has happened to me.
Cheese: One of the worst things you can eat before bed
Dairy products, in particular cheeses, don’t have a good track-record in the context of sleep optimization, at least not in my house. I know that consuming cheese is a bad idea, particularly right before bed; however, sometimes I “forget” this fact, and let my cravings and desires, rather than the sensible part of my mind, decide what I’m going to eat.
But what is it about cheese that makes it such a powerful sleep-disruptor? The short answer is that it’s packed with proteins that, when broken down in the intestine and absorbed, stimulate the brain in a fashion not unlike opioids (1, 2, 3). Particularly casein peptides, which there are plenty of in cheese, have a very potent effect on the brain. This is one of the main reasons why cheese is one of the most craved-after foods in existence. It’s definitely not uncommon to crave cheese. Some people may even go as far as to say that they have a “cheese addiction”.
Unfortunately, cheese is not the only food that we humans consume that is capable of disrupting our sleep. Far from it. Many other food products have a somewhat similar impact as cheese on the biological system that is the human body.
Many modern foods can disrupt the quality of our sleep
If you ask a dozen people on the street what they think are the worst foods and beverages that one can consume before bed, many of them are probably going to mention coffee. Some will likely also say that it’s a bad idea to drink alcoholic beverages such as beer or vodka – perhaps thinking back to the last time they got really hammered; remembering that they didn’t sleep very well that night. The most well-informed and knowledgeable people you meet may also tell you that it’s probably unwise to eat candy and other junk foods, chocolate (even the dark varieties), and wheat-based food products.
The thing that all of these notorious sleep-disruptors have in common is that they contain compounds that stimulate the human brain and/or disrupt the hormonal milieu of the body. Coffee is, as most people know, high in the brain-stimulating, energy-boosting compound caffeine; alcoholic beverages such as beer and vodka are, of course, high in alcohol, which both stimulates the brain and pushes the hormonal conditions of the human body in an unfavorable direction, at least when it’s consumed in large quantities; junk foods tend to be high in refined sugar, which elevates insulin and blood glucose levels and causes a dopamine-surge in the brain; chocolate contains both caffeine and theobromine, a psychoactive compound related to caffeine; and wheat-based foods are high in gluten, which, like casein, can have opoid-like effects (4, 5).
The impact that these compounds are going to have on your health and sleep will likely depend on a range of factors, including the composition of your gastrointestinal microbiota, the permeability of your intestine, and your genotype. With that said, nobody is immune to the effects of these compounds. If you eat a lot of junk food, chocolate, and/or cheese late at night, you’re not going to get a truly good night’s sleep, regardless of how healthy and fit you are.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know – or choose to overlook – this. They consume one or more of the aforementioned foods virtually every night and may have gotten so used to sleeping poorly that they think it’s normal to wake up many times every night and never feel fully rested.
The original human diet: A powerful medicine for sleep-related health problems
As the observant reader has undoubtedly noticed, none of the sleep-disrupting foods mentioned so far in this article were a part of the original human diet. I didn’t deliberately leave “Paleo foods” out, in order to make the Paleolithic diet seem better than it is. Rather, the reason I didn’t mention any of the foods that were on the menu of our preagricultural ancestors is that none of those foods have a disruptive effect on sleep.
Perhaps needless to say, it’s not a good idea to eat a lot of honey or sugary fruits right before bed. That said, it’s probably a much worse idea to eat a lot of cheese, chocolate, or bread. These latter foods are very new additions to the human diet; they haven’t been with us for very long. This fact helps explain why they cause so many problems. If they had been a part of the human diet for millions of years, then chances are evolution would have equipped us with mechanisms that allowed us to better tolerate their presence.
The original human diet is often praised for the impact it has on immunity and inflammation, hormones, gut health, athletic performance, and mental functioning. What is often forgotten is that it also supports good sleep. Not only is it devoid of sleep-disrupting foods such as cheese and doghnuts, but it also indirectly affects sleep via its impact on the aforementioned things. It keeps the hormonal situation in the body under tight control; feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut, which in turn produce compounds that influence the nature and intensity of our dreams; it supports an active lifestyle; and it helps lower inflammation and stress. Together, this sets the stage for good sleep.
Putting it all together
By itself, a species-appropriate diet is not going to make you sleep like an angel. However, when combined with other parts of the ancestral lifestyle, such as organic fitness (preferably performed outdoors), stress management, and time-restricted use of technology (e.g., little or no use of blue-light emitting devices before bed), it certainly may.
Sleep disorders such as insomnia are very common in our society today, which isn’t surprising, given that our environment is packed with things that disrupt our sleep. A poor diet, in conjunction with inadequate exercise and exposure to artificial light at night, can make anyone sleepless.
A lot of people in the industrialized world probably never experience a truly good night’s sleep, due to the fact that they lead an unhealthy lifestyle, are careless about exposure to artificial light at night, and are in poor health. By adopting an evolutionary approach to health, these people would undoubtedly experience rapid improvements in the quality of their sleep.
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