Lack of sleep is one of the most overlooked health markers that all health care professionals—including dietitians—should address more often. For instance, a dietitian may counsel someone with diabetes or address a group about weight management—both of which can be negatively affected by sleep deprivation.
Whether you’re in clinical practice, academia, public health, or any other area of nutrition, are you talking about sleep? Do you ask your clients about sleep patterns? Do you talk about the importance of healthful sleep patterns? Sleep deprivation is a lifestyle factor that has negative effects on health.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines sleep deprivation as less than seven hours of sleep per night; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 35% of adults are sleep deprived, as are a growing number of children and adolescents.
Sleep deprivation plays a role in obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression and other diseases. Lack of sleep also increases ghrelin, the appetite hormone that says “feed me.”
Sleep deprivation also potentially increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The NIH recently reported a small study in which sleep deprivation, measured as one night of sleep loss, was associated with an increase in beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain linked to impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s disease.
Nutrition can play an important role in enhancing or interrupting sleep. Caffeine, found in coffee, tea, cola, and energy drinks, disturbs sleep. Alcohol, though it may make clients sleepy initially, interferes with sleep later in the sleep cycle.
On the other hand, whole grains, fruits, nuts, relaxing teas such as chamomile and peppermint, and milk and other calcium-rich foods may enhance sleep. This is yet another reason to meet the three recommended servings of dairy foods per day. Suggest clients snack on low-fat and fat-free sources such as yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, and calcium-fortified foods. Chronic insomnia is a primary symptom of magnesium deficiency. Almonds, seafood, and green leafy vegetables are rich in magnesium. Tart cherry juice, research suggests, may help improve the quality and duration of sleep; this is in part because tart cherries are a source of melatonin, which helps to regulate sleep-wake cycles in the body.
As sleep research expands, the health implications for sleep deprivation appear to be endless. Regardless of the area of practice, dietitians should stay on top of the latest developments in sleep science. They also should discuss it more with patients, students, colleagues, and with others in any of their practice areas.
— Pat Baird, MA, RDN, FAND, is the founder of Confident Health® and Confident Golf™. She’s an award-winning author, speaker, spokesperson, university professor, and consultant to global food and pharmaceutical companies.