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No doubt you already know that it’s a bad idea to eat spicy or rich foods right before bedtime. But nutrition plays a greater role in getting a good night’s sleep than just what you eat late at night. Poor nutrition can affect your sleep patterns and keep you tossing and turning, or worse, waking and gasping for breath all night long.

Poor nutrition can lead to imbalances in the brain’s neurotransmitters, basically the chemical “messengers” responsible for sending signals to the rest of your body to tell it how to function. The neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and GABA are actually created or built in your gut. Serotonin is as a mood-enhancer that affects sleep and digestion; a deficiency of serotonin can lead to depression and anxiety. Dopamine is a motivator and reward, pleasure, and pain neurotransmitter; deficiencies can lead to depression, ADHD, and Parkinson’s. GABA calms the brain; low levels of GABA can lead to moodiness, anxiety, panic attacks, and the inability to fall asleep. When the creation of neurotransmitters is disrupted, the result is problems getting a good night’s sleep.

So, your gut is, in essence, the gateway to your body’s good health. When you eat, your gut is supposed to digest the food and then absorb the nutrients from that food into your bloodstream. The cells that line the walls of your intestines actually regulate the rate of absorption. But that whole process can be impacted by food sensitivities or intolerances, life’s stressors, environmental toxins, or infection or disease.

The result is a condition known as “leaky gut.” When you have a leaky gut, instead of nutrients being absorbed and fueling your body, particles and other microbes from the food you eat literally leak out of your gut into your bloodstream. Your body’s immune system then identifies those substances as “foreign” invaders that must be attacked and destroyed.

That process can lead to inflammation, which appears in different forms in different people. In one person it may appear as brain fog or poor memory, in another low energy and fatigue, while another may have gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as gas, bloating, and constipation. It can even manifest as skin issues, such as eczema, psoriasis, and dry skin. Since the symptoms vary from person to person, identifying the source of the inflammation—a food sensitivity or intolerance—can be a difficult process.

Leaky gut and inflammation can stem from diets that are high in white flour, white sugar, and processed foods, a discovery made by the dentist, Weston A. Price, in the first half of the twentieth century. He found that, within one generation of eating these foods, people were developing narrower jaws and there was more crowding of teeth and more tooth decay. He even went so far as to theorize that people today are genetically predisposed to having smaller jaws—and subsequently smaller airways—as a result of these substances in the diet. That may even be behind what appears to be a rise in obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep issues.

Combatting these issues, then, is a matter of eating organic whole foods, those foods that come from the earth and are not altered by man through genetic modification or through the use of pesticides or insecticides. Foods that are labeled as “certified organic” are grown and processed by farms or facilities that have obtained specific certification and accreditation.

So nutrition can affect sleep at a more intricate level; it’s about more than just avoiding food a few hours before bedtime. Sleep problems can stem from the foods you eat. People often think they are eating healthy, when in reality the foods they are consuming are causing negative reactions in their bodies.

In addition to disrupted neurotransmitters, poor nutrition can also lead to an imbalance in the “hunger hormones,” ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin tells your brain when your body is hungry, and leptin signals when you are full. After a few hours without food, ghrelin is supposed to tell your body that it’s time to eat again. Then, when you eat, leptin is supposed to tell your body when to stop.

Without enough sleep, ghrelin and leptin may actually switch roles, with ghrelin staying elevated all day while leptin remains low. That can cause you to feel hungry all day, adding to your already tired state from lack of sleep. Ultimately, the continuous disrupted cycle of high daytime ghrelin and low leptin can lead to metabolic syndrome, a collection of conditions—high blood pressure, high blood sugar, higher cholesterol and triglycerides—which can raise your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

At the Julian Center, we help people incorporate better foods into their diet as part of addressing their dental and sleep needs. If you need help dealing with sleepless nights and better nutrition, reach out to me at The Julian Center for Comprehensive Dentistry at 410-964-3118 or www.juliandentist.com. We’d be happy to look deeper into the problem and find solutions to help you get a good night’s sleep.