In some of my previous posts, I’ve already talked about how eating breakfast can help you sleep better.
I want to go a bit more in depth on this topic, because I believe it’s an important one.
Even though we are told from childhood that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, a lot of people forego this advice.
Yet the importance of breakfast cannot be underestimated, especially in insomniacs. I really want you to take a look at this one and try to apply it.
Not only did eating breakfast markedly improve my own sleep, eating a larger breakfast has basically helped everyone I ever worked with.
So here’s a bit of in-depth talk of the effects of breakfast on your sleep.
Breakfast sets the clock right
In the first place, meal timing functions as a ‘circadian zeitgeber’, in other words, an external ‘cue’ that helps tell your body the time of day. I’ll explain.
Our body contains multiple ‘biological clocks’. There are two kinds of these clocks.
One is our central biological clock, which synchronizes all the other clocks. The central biological clock is located in a part of our brain called the ‘suprachiasmatic nucleus’, or SCN. This clock responds to light exposure, and to set it right, you need a lot of light exposure during the day.
The second kind of clocks are the ‘peripheral circadian clocks’. You can find these clocks in the cells of other parts of our body. They’re located in organs such as the heart, the kidneys, the liver and your reproductive organs.
Researchers have even discovered that almost each and every cell in our body has its own circadian clock, that tells that cell what to do at each point during the day.
Just as light activates our central circadian clock in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, food intake is one of the elements that activate our peripheral circadian clocks. In this particular case, the peripheral clock that’s situated in the liver.
By eating food in the morning, you activate the circadian clock in your liver, which tells your body that it’s daytime.
The real question – how does this affect your sleep?
Research shows that changing meal times didn’t directly influence rhythms of melatonin and cortisol, and therefore doesn’t impact sleepiness in a big way.
However, and this is a big however, later meal times have a strong impact on blood sugar levels. Research shows that skipping breakfast and eating later in the day can delay blood sugar rhythms for more than 5 hours.
Because of this, your peripheral circadian clocks become desynchronised from the main circadian clock. Imagine if your brain clock thinks it’s currently 14:00, while your liver clock imagines it’s only 9 in the morning because you’ve only just eaten.
While eating breakfast won’t influence your melatonin rhythms, and therefore your sleepiness directly, the desynchronization of circadian clocks can cause you to have lower energy levels and feelings of jetlag.
That lack of energy, as well as the disrupted blood sugar levels due to the desynchronization of clocks will influence your stress levels and therefore your ability to sleep well.
Which brings us to our next point…
Breakfast keeps you well fed and happy throughout the day
First of all: your cells need energy. That’s why you eat food. If you don’t eat food, your body will break itself down to create that energy. It will break down fat, but also lean tissue, like muscle, to do this.
To break these tissues down, the body releases catabolic hormones like cortisol and adrenalin. These are also called stress hormones.
Now, depriving yourself of food is stressful to your body. That goes double when you deprive yourself of food in the morning, because this is when your metabolism is at its weakest.
As a consequence, your body will release more stress hormones when you skip breakfast than it would when you had skipped dinner.
Since your metabolism is fairly weak in the morning, not eating will have a more noticeable effect on your stress levels than not eating lunch.
Furthermore, omitting breakfast induces insulin resistance and worsens your blood lipid profile (i.e. cholesterol and triglyceride levels).
This basically means that you’re setting yourself up for a blood sugar rollercoaster when you decide to skip breakfast.
To put it shortly, skipping breakfast is a major contributing factor to insomnia and sleep problems. Not eating in the morning has negative consequences on your sleep, your stress levels, and your health in general.
Every day is a competition
Now, imagine the Olympic athlete. I think we can agree that these are some of the strongest, healthiest people on the planet. Every time they perform, they give their everything, and make sure every detail is right, just for that 0.01 percent extra chance that they’ll win.
Now, think about their eating habits. Do Olympians skip breakfast, and eat the bulk of their food in the evening, after the race?
No, of course they don’t. Elite athletes make sure that they properly fuel themselves before competing.
If people who perform at that level postpone their meals until the afternoon or the evening, they would probably become insomniacs as well. If they don’t provide themselves with the energy that their intense schedule requires, they’d completely burn themselves out.
In the same way, you have to view every day as an event for which you have to prepare and stock up on fuel, to make sure you function at your best.
It’s important that you make sure that your cells have all the fuel they need to produce the required energy to fight off the stressors of the day.
This is the philosophy behind eating a big breakfast.
But I’m not really hungry in the morning
This is an excuse I hear often. People, when they wake up, sometimes don’t feel really hungry, and they come to the conclusion that they don’t need food yet. Or when they try to eat food in the morning, they just can’t get anything in.
But this is only because you have trained yourself not to be hungry in the morning. Having to get up early to go to work, you’re often in a rush and don’t have time (or more accurately, don’t want to make time) to eat a solid breakfast.
But just like you might have trained yourself not to be hungry in the morning, you can adapt your body to become hungry in the morning again.
If you really don’t feel hungry when you wake up, just start by eating something small, like an egg or a piece of fruit, and build up from there.
Over time, your body will start to expect food when waking up. It will prepare itself for the upcoming meal by releasing gastric juices and increasing appetite.
Now, you might think: I eat breakfast already, so I’m good. If you do, all the better.
Of course, the quality of your food matters too. Sugary cereals and snacks are not a substitute for wholesome, healthy foods. So you might want to make sure that what you put in your mouth each morning is actually good for you.
On the other hand, just eating a few slices of lettuce and other low caloric vegetables isn’t gonna cut it either. You need food that provides energy, in other words, plenty of calories. But preferably the healthy kind.
So, maybe you’re not sure what to eat. I’m not going to write a whole cookbook here, but I can show you a couple of meals and try to explain why they are good or bad.
I’d like to show you an example of a bad breakfast:
- Sugary cereal with milk
- Orange juice out of the box
- Donuts or other processed wheat products
What you have here, is basically liquid calories and grains, and almost no protein.
A meal like this will wreck havoc on your blood sugar levels, because all the carbohydrates in your food enter your blood really quickly.
First, due to the rapidly absorbable sugars, you get a massive blood sugar spike.
Because your body always tries to keep blood sugar levels within a certain range, your pancreas will release insulin to remove the excess glucose from the bloodstream, as high levels of glucose in the blood are toxic.
This is why some people get an energy boost after a meal like this, only to be followed by a crash later on.
But because insulin has removed the glucose from your blood stream, your blood sugar levels are in danger of becoming too low, and your body has to restore them to normal levels again.
It does this by releasing cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Cortisol is used to muster resources and convert protein and fat into glucose.
When your blood sugar levels are unstable all day long, you’ll have highly elevated levels of cortisol by the time you get to bed. This creates an environment where insomnia thrives.
Feel that anxiety when you’re lying in bed, unable to sleep? This is at least partially due to chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.
Now, this is less of a problem if you are lean and metabolically healthy, and more of a problem if you are overweight or obese, but in any case, you still want to avoid meals like these.
…and good breakfast
Here’s an example of what I call a good breakfast:
- A couple of boiled eggs (I eat five every day)
- A vegetable mix: think carrots, spinach, beetroots, a few slices of avocado
- Some fruit: an apple and an orange (in non-liquid form, of course)
This is a good breakfast because it provides ample protein, fiber, slowly digestable carbohydrates, and healthy fat. These allow for more stable blood sugar levels, and as a result stable energy levels and improved sleep.
All in all, you’ve got a wholesome meal that provides ample macronutrients AND micronutrients.
Most importantly, it provides more than enough calories, so you have ample energy to start the day, without putting you in a blood sugar rollercoaster.
Hell, you might even have a cup of coffee with your breakfast. (I explain here why that isn’t that big of a problem as you might think.)
A good rule of thumb for proper meal composition:
- Try to base your meal around a sizeable amount of protein
- Add plenty of vegetables and fruit
- Finish up with some healthy fat
Yeah, but I’m doing intermittent fasting which is super good for me
A lot of people these days are into intermittent fasting. And yes, intermittent fasting has been shown to have lots of health benefits.
But there’s a big misunderstanding among intermittent fasting enthousiasts: namely that it requires you to skip breakfast. This is not the case.
What matters most while doing intermittent fasting, is the feeding window, which is the time period during the day in which you eat. This could be 8 hours eating, 16 hours fasting, for example.
But to get the benefits of fasting, it’s not required that you skip breakfast. You could just skip dinner and still have your 8 hour long eating window.
That way, you can intermittent fast while aligning your mealtimes with daytime, and don’t risk desynchronizing your circadian clocks.
Fasting induces its benefits due to a process called autophagy. This is when your cells get rid of damaged proteins and clean up the house, which helps prevent your cells from becoming dysfunctional and potentially cancerous.
This process only occurs during periods of not eating. But it doesn’t really matter when you don’t eat. Only the duration of the fast is important.
You could have an eating window that lasts from noon to 8 PM, but you might as well eat from 6 AM to 2 PM. The fasting window is equally long in both cases.
And as I have discussed above, eating earlier is actually much better for your blood sugar levels and blood lipid profile, as well as synchronizing your circadian clocks.
But there’s another reason why you should be careful with fasting. Fasting is in some way always stressful.
Now, a stressor can be good for you, if your body is able to recover from it. But stress becomes bad when you’re exposed to it for too long and aren’t able to recover properly. Just like as is the case with exercise, for example. Here’s an article where I go a bit more in depth on the concept of ‘stress’.
Now, if you are an insomniac, you’re already sleeping very poorly. This has a MAJOR impact on your ability to repair and recover from stress.
Even the lack of sleep itself is very stressful (as many of you might’ve noticed).
Add to that the fact that, from my experience, a lot of people become insomniacs due to excessive dieting and overexercising, or otherwise putting a large amount of strain on their body for an extended period of time.
For these people, it’s this dieting that’s causing their insomnia. Eating more (healthy foods of course) and quitting their excessive dieting is the number one solution to improving their sleep.
That being said, delaying your food intake to later in the day has been shown to have negative effects on body composition (in other words, it makes you fat).
This is due to the desynchronization of your circadian clocks. But it’s also kind of stupid if you’re doing fasting precisely to lose weight.
The right way to fast/diet
Now, do I think you should never skip breakfast if you do intermittent fasting? Not really. Are you a healthy, fit person? Do you sleep like a baby each and every night? Please go ahead.
Even then, I still believe that IF’ing, when done in a way that you limit your food intake to a certain feeding window, works best when you skip dinner instead of breakfast, because of the reason pointed out above. Eating in the morning is more in line with our natural circadian patterns, and if you necessarily have to fast, you can get all the benefits without skipping breakfast.
A study done earlier this year confirms this. As you can see in the image below, those that restricted their feeding window experienced a myriad of benefits, such as improved insulin sensitivity, lower oxidative stress and decreased appetite. Nevertheless, the fasting group still ate early in the morning.
Are you a healthy, normally functioning human being? Someone who gets a solid eight hours of sleep every night? Then I certainly won’t stop you from skipping your morning meal.
But if you read this blog, you probably don’t fit that mold. If you suffer from insomnia, I highly recommend you don’t try to restrict your calorie intake in any way.
Don’t go all out with the snacks and processed food. But by all means, eat tons of lean meat, fish, vegetables and fruit.
TOO LONG – DIDN’T READ?
Your body needs to be able to tell the time of day. This is especially true if you suffer from insomnia. Eating early in the morning helps with this. Breakfast also provides you with ample energy to take on the day, and lowers stress hormone levels. This will help you sleep a lot better.
To implement this advice, try to shift your calorie intake to earlier in the day. That means:
- A big breakfast
- Medium sized lunch
- A small dinner
And whatever you do, stay away from midnight snacks.