Baby and You


Duane Mellor explores the important role that sleep plays in our health and how our modern lifestyle and diet may be impacting our quantity and quality of sleep

Most of us looking to make changes to improve our health immediately think about what we eat or how we can get more physically active, but how many of us think about sleep? Do we get enough sleep quality? Is it important for our health?

This is almost a ‘chicken and egg’ issue! Does the lack of sleep lead directly to health risks or does how we sleep impact on our food choices? This can be taken further to think about the foods we eat and if they can affect our sleep resulting in a continuous ‘unvirtuous circle’. So, what can be done to reverse this? How can we improve our sleep and eating habits to ultimately improve our health?

More Britons are sleeping for just 5-6 hours a night


According to the National Sleep Foundation report, experts suggest that adults require 7-9 hours sleep for optimal health, with older adults needing slightly less. According to a survey of over 5000 British adults, around seventy per cent sleep for 7 hours or less a night with more than a quarter experiencing poor quality sleep regularly. The same report also suggested more Britons are sleeping for just 5-6 hours a night . It appears to be more than a co-incidence that the typical quantity and quality of sleep are falling at the same time as rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes are increasing.

Multiple research studies have suggested there could be a link between short duration of sleep and risk of obesity (45 per cent increased risk) along with risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and all causes of death. It appears that less sleep may be linked to eating more dietary energy (calories) as part of a less regular eating pattern with fewer main meals and more snacks. The reasons why this might happen aren’t completely clear. It’s been suggested that less sleep may alter appetite hormones or how we seek pleasure from food. A simpler explanation is that sleeping less allows more time for more food to be eaten. What is clear is that it’s complex and likely to occur through several effects that result in very small changes to food intake over time. In turn this results in an increased risk to health.

Does how we sleep matter?

Getting enough sleep is important and how we sleep could be equally relevant. We recently found that older women, but not men, who had an afternoon nap or siesta, appeared to have an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, which includes altered cholesterol and blood pressure.  It seems that having an afternoon nap was associated with a larger waist size which may be linked to the increased risk of ill health. So it’s not only the amount of sleep we have but possibly the quality and timing that’s important too.

Adults require 7-9 hours sleep for optimal health

How do you know if you’re getting enough sleep?

The National Health Service (NHS) says that it’s not essential for everyone to get 8 hours sleep a night, but there are ways to tell if you’re not getting enough shuteye.  These include waking up tired or wanting to nap during the day.  It’s suggested that we try and find the balance, getting enough sleep to wake up refreshed.

There are several health conditions that can impact on sleep quality. One of the most common is sleep apnoea. This is a condition often associated with snoring where breathing stops during sleep and wakes the person up. It has many causes, but probably the most common one is being overweight and having fat build up in the soft palate at the top of the mouth. So, eating well and being physically active to help with weight management may also help you sleep better, beyond simply making you tired.

What about working shifts?

Another common factor that may impact on sleep and health in our modern 24/7 society is the impact of shift working and sleeping at different times of the day or night. Working night shifts has been associated with increased weight and risk of cardiovascular disease. The reason for this has been linked to altered meal patterns that have been linked to consuming more calories. This, however, may not always be the case and there could be impacts on how the body clock works and differences in food choices. If you’re working nights, try to plan your meals and snacks. This can help extra snacks and meals from ‘slipping in’, especially those high in calories and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals.

Does coffee keep you awake?

At the end of a meal in a restaurant the waiter often asks if you would like a coffee. Many of us will think, ‘yes, but it will keep me awake’. What does the science say?

A recent review suggested that older adults can be particularly sensitive to caffeine in drinks and some even advise not to drink them after mid-afternoon. The effect of caffeine in younger people seems to vary with how their brain reacts to it; this area would benefit from more research, especially with trends to consume more energy drinks. Overall, research suggests caffeine can make it harder to fall asleep and can impact on quality of sleep.

Can anything help you sleep?

Many of us have been told that milk before bed can aid sleep, which along with drinking chocolate, has generated a range of night-time drinks, but is this the case? A recent review suggests that there may be some evidence linked to diet quality, but for specific foods the jury is out so it’s probably more about your overall diet. If you find a glass of milk helps then there’s no need to change this.

Does cheese cause nightmares?

Linking cheese to dreams has a long history, even appearing in a Christmas Carol with Scrooge blaming his dreams on eating cheese. There could be an indirect link in common with many foods high in fat eaten late at night – it could increase the risk of heartburn which could disturb sleep. On the other hand, it’s widely thought that any other links may be strongly based on cultural beliefs and folklore.

In summary

Getting enough sleep is important but for many people it can be a real challenge. Modern lifestyles, work-life balance challenges and the potential effects of light pollution and effects of screen use late at night can all impact. If you’re struggling with getting enough sleep it may be worth talking to your GP. If you think the problem could be related to your diet or weight, explore your eating and physical activity patterns. If you need help with your lifestyle and diet, consider seeking the advice of a Dietitian. Like trying to eat your ‘5-A-Day’ fruit and vegetables and fitting in your 30 minutes of activity, getting enough sleep is an important part of keeping healthy. Just like a jigsaw puzzle, sleep, diet and exercise all interact to affect your health.

References available upon request

Key facts

• Quality of sleep and length of sleep are reducing in UK adults. While 8 hours a night is not essential for everyone, understand what’s right for you.

• Inadequate sleep appears to increase risk of chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This may be related to food choices.

• Make healthy sleep part of your overall lifestyle. Just as you care about what you eat and being physically active, care about your sleep habits too.

• If you’re struggling to get enough sleep, look at your ‘sleep hygiene’. This can include use of screens before going to bed.

Having trained and worked as a dietitian and lecturer in the UK, Dr Duane Mellor PhD RD is an academic. He has an interest in the communication of health and nutrition, especially when claims are being made.


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