Do you have trouble falling asleep? To sleep? Are you sleeping well?
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Your diet may be to blame.
New research from the University of South Carolina, recently published in the journal Nutrients, found that those who ate more inflammatory foods slept worse than those who ate less of them.
Dr. Michael Wirth, one of the study’s lead authors and an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the university’s Arnold School of Public Health, says Luck he has looked at the role of inflammatory diets in several different groups: police officers, pregnant women, and men in general.
All such studies came to the same conclusion: When people shift toward an anti-inflammatory diet, they sleep better.
They may not sleep longer, Wirth warns. But they spend more time in bed asleep, without waking up. And they get better quality sleep. “It improves their sleep efficiency,” he notes.
Why? High levels of inflammatory markers, such as interleukin 6 and tumor necrosis factor, disrupt the natural rhythm of the sleep-wake cycle, Wirth says. If someone’s diet often includes inflammatory foods, “you lose that natural rhythm.”
How to shift towards an anti-inflammatory diet
His advice to those who want to improve their sleep through diet: Don’t start out too fast.
“One thing I try not to do is say, ‘Hey, take your diet and completely change everything in it,'” he says, adding that Americans in particular don’t respond well to such demands on their freedom.
Her suggestion instead: Start by adding just a few anti-inflammatory foods to your diet on a regular basis.
Some anti-inflammatory food options:
Green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale
Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna
Brightly colored fruits such as strawberries, cherries, oranges and blueberries
Nuts such as walnuts and almonds
Fiery, colorful peppers like jalapenos and habaneros
Even small changes can make a difference, such as adding spices, herbs, onions and/or garlic to dishes you’ve already planned to make. Spices and herbs, in particular, are “some of the most anti-inflammatory foods on the planet,” Wirth says—an effect that’s the opposite of what you might expect, given their astringency and heat.
If you find you’re sleeping better and want to take things further, cut down on animal protein and “boxed” foods, Wirth recommends.
He refers to the concept of “shopping outside the store.” If you stick to the parameters, you’ll embrace the fresh—fruits, vegetables, protein, dairy, and the like—and avoid processed foods full of unhealthy preservatives and additives.
If that seems like too big an order, focus on snacks first, Wirth suggests, since they’re typically the main source of processed foods in the diet.
Inflammatory snacks to avoid include:
Other good foods to limit due to their inflammatory state: fried foods, such as fried chicken, and those loaded with oil, such as many pizzas.
Even removing one or two inflammatory foods from your diet can put your body on the path to healing, advises Wirth. And you can expect to be paid benefits in both the short and long term.
“After two, three, four nights of really good sleep, you start to see changes in your alertness during the day, the ability to think on your feet, physically not being as tired,” he says.
In addition, expect a reduction in the risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
When inflammation disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm, it affects more than just sleep, Wirth warns. So is “everything about your body’s ability to fight infection and digest food to prevent insulin resistance.”
The good news: Small, positive dietary choices can start to move the needle back—quickly.
Wirth adds, “You get better, you can think better and do things physically better.”
This story was originally published on Fortune.com
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