How Stress, Sleep, Diet Choices, and Physical Activity Affect Each Other and Your Overall Health
We’ve all felt the impact that the loss of sleep can have on your diet and caffeine choices, as well as your motivation to exercise, the next day. Perhaps you’ve also paid the “penalty” for having fun, where you stay up late, eat rich foods, drink alcohol and have a good time, but then don’t sleep well, maybe for days to follow, and have a hard time getting back into healthy routines, even after just one night “off”.
Stress has a very clear role in your diet and exercise choices and sleep quality. Racing thoughts, whether during the day or while you’re trying to fall asleep, cause sleep disturbances leading to low energy, sometimes for days. Feeling overwhelmed at work can lead to a stress-eating binge, followed by guilt and a lack of motivation to exercise, as well as lower quality sleep.
Healthy diet choices, frequent exercise, and quality sleep are well-known to be important pillars of a healthy life. While improving just one of these lifestyle factors can help you lead a longer and healthier life, studies clearly show that improving all three will have the most impact in improving both your physical and mental health.
The Relationship Between What You Eat, How Much You Exercise, and the Quality of Your Sleep
Food can either fuel you or slow you down, and research shows that combining a healthy diet with frequent exercise offers more benefit than improving your diet alone.
The right combination of fluids, carbohydrates and protein, eaten at the right time, can decrease fatigue and improve your body’s ability to perform vital functions, like breathing, digestion, and hormone management, as well as movement of your body and exercise endurance.
Poor dietary choices, like consistently eating past the point of being full, opting for junk food or fast food, and eating at late at night can result in chronic illnesses, like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, and as well as cause discomfort from inflammation, carrying around extra weight, and inhibiting your body from performing the vital functions mentioned above.
What, as well as when you eat also impacts your sleep quality and duration. Caffeine and eating too close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep. A diet missing key nutrients isn’t likely to make you feel satisfied, so you tend to eat more, often resulting in a high calorie, high-fat diet, and studies show that this can make it harder to get enough quality sleep.
The Bottom Line: A high calorie, high-fat diet missing key nutrients interferes with the quality of your sleep. Habits like drinking caffeine and eating late at night also interfere with the quality and duration of your sleep.
One of the best things about moving your body is that the benefits are noticeable immediately, like a sense of clarity and decreased anxiety. Physiologic changes, like lower blood pressure and better sleep are also benefits that occur with moving your body. Consistent exercise offers even more long-term benefits, including easier weight management, stronger bones, faster recovery from injury and illness and a reduced risk of many chronic diseases.
High-intensity exercise decreases appetite, often for at least 30 to 60 minutes after finishing a workout. Physical activity can also help you feel more satisfied and fuller after you eat. Additionally, strength training, like lifting weights, cycling, doing pushups, and walking uphill, has been shown to increase your metabolism for up to 24 hours after working out.
Unfortunately, sedentary activities, like sitting, driving long distances, and playing videos games or watching TV, appear to have the opposite effect. Research shows that people who spend more time watching TV consume more calories and are more likely to be overweight.
Research has clearly shown that getting regular exercise can improve both the quality and duration of sleep. Both aerobic exercise (like cardio and running) and resistance exercise (like weightlifting) can improve the quality and duration of your sleep. Any amount of movement may improve sleep, although consistent exercise has been shown to have long-term benefits. There is some evidence suggesting that exercising in the afternoon or early evening can help with sleep, and exercise done just before sleep will increase stress hormones, which can worsen sleep problems.
The Bottom Line: Studies have shown that exercise can reduce pre-sleep anxiety and improve sleep quality in people with insomnia. Making healthy diet choices that fuel your body will increase your exercise tolerance. Exercise, both cardio and strength training, have been shown to help you feel more satisfied and fuller and have an “afterburn effect”, or a metabolic boost causing you to burn calories for hours after you stop working out.
Sleep is your body’s opportunity to physically recover and perform important brain functions, like forming memories and learning. In fact, a fitful night’s sleep can decrease your ability to learn new things by 40%. Another study showed that after just two hours of sleep deprivation, study participants performed at the same levels as they would if they were drunk. Without regular, restorative sleep, your risk of developing health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke increases significantly and prolonged sleep deprivation can also affect concentration and other cognitive functions, causing brain fog, poor memory recall, anxiety, and lack of focus.
Without enough sleep, it’s easy to overeat and choose unhealthy foods. Sleep deprivation affects the body’s release of ghrelin and leptin, two neurotransmitters that tell your brain when to consume calories and when to stop eating. People who are sleep deprived are more drawn towards high-calorie foods and chronic sleep loss has been linked to having a larger waist circumference.
Sleep affects exercise tolerance and ability because it provides your muscle tissue time to recover. Without enough sleep, you will naturally be less physically active during the day and have reduced muscle strength when you are motivated and energetic enough to workout.
The Bottom Line: Quality sleep is linked to increased exercise tolerance, reduced injury, and more motivation to workout. Lack of quality sleep can lead to not only the desire to eat unhealthy foods, but an increase in neurotransmitters that control appetite.
Which Is Most Important: Diet Choices, Exercise, or Sleep Quality?
It is natural to want to prioritize activities that provide the most benefit while balancing a busy, hectic life. However, diet choices, exercise frequency, and sleep quality are so deeply intertwined, it’s impossible to say that one is more important than the others.
Ways to Improve Sleep Through Diet and Exercise
Don’t Eat Late at Night
Be sure to give your body enough time to digest after eating. Experts suggest allowing at least three hours between a full meal and bedtime, which allows your body time to digest the food and avoid upset stomach, indigestion, or acid reflux.
Beware of stimulants like chocolate, coffee, energy drinks, and soda. If you do consume these, try to limit them and enjoy them early in the day. If you find yourself drinking a lot of caffeine during the day, you could be making up for daytime sleepiness due to a poor night’s sleep.
Move your body
While any movement is good, studies show that regular, moderate exercise a few days a week improves sleep. Working out too close to bedtime can increase your stress hormones and make falling asleep more difficult, so give your body a few hours after working out to wind down before bed.
Get some light
Exposure to natural light, by exercising outdoors or exposing yourself to natural light during the day can help you follow a natural sleep rhythm.