3 science-backed ways to improve your sleep

You toss and turn and can’t get to sleep. The next morning, instead of being alert and ready to take on the day, you find yourself dragging—dependent on coffee for a morning boost. For many, something as integral to our nature as sleep seems elusive.

Night Owl Surfing the Net
Are you a night owl? If you are, your body may produce less melatonin, a hormone tied to sleep and wake cycles that’s also a potent antioxidant.

From weight gain to increased cardiovascular risk to even accelerated aging, poor sleep quality can be disastrous to your health.

Improving your sleep can boost your immune system, increase athletic performance and improve your memory.

Here are three ways to improve your sleep and make sure you get a good night’s rest.

Minimize your exposure to blue light after sunset

The pineal gland in your brain produces the hormone melatonin. In turn, melatonin helps regulate sleep and wake cycles, causing drowsiness at appropriate times.

Not only does melatonin help sync sleep patterns, it functions as a potent antioxidant that is as effective as vitamin E and has been found to significantly reduce cellular stress and damage. The best part? It’s naturally produced by your body.

Melatonin helps regulate sleep, but is disrupted by artificial light from devices like tablets and smartphones Click To Tweet

For melatonin to be produced, you must be exposed to natural patterns of light, meaning lots of bright light during the day and minimal blue light at night. To maximize melatonin production, consider following these tips:

  • Wear amber-tinted, blue-blocking sunglasses after sunset if you’re exposed to electronic screens or bright lights
  • Studies in 2009 and 2011 found that wearing these kinds of glasses help combat disruptions in melatonin
  • If you have a sleep disorder or do shift work, replace house lights you use in the evening with amber light bulbs
  • Install blue-blocking software like Twilightf.lux or Redshift  on your computer, tablet and/or smartphone
  • Make your bedroom as dark as possible by covering windows with heavy drapes
  • Turn electronic devices that emit light off or away from your bed

Eliminate late-night meals and snacking

Don’t raid the fridge after dark or eat dinner too late. A 2011 study found that eating late in the evening extended the time it took individuals to get to sleep and reduced overall sleep quality.

Research shows that eating too late at night disrupts melatonin production, as well as raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is naturally supposed to be high in the morning, not evening.

Research shows that eating late at night extends the time it takes to get to sleep and reduces sleep quality Click To Tweet

So, what seems to be the sweet spot for meal timing at night? Research leans toward keeping your evening meal about four hours away from bedtime.

Don’t drink alcohol near bedtime

While many like a nightcap, it’s not the best idea as far as sleep goes.

A small amount of alcohol (such as a glass of wine) may make it easier to fall asleep, but any amount of alcohol disrupts the second half of your sleep cycle, which is important for concentration, motor skills and memory.

While alcohol may seem to help you fall asleep, it results in a less restorative sleep cycle Click To Tweet

Ladies take special note: You metabolize alcohol differently than men, absorbing 30% more in your bloodstream. This means alcohol disrupts sleep more in women than in men.

Interested in learning more about sleep? Follow our Sweet Dreams board on Pinterest.

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Reviewed by Aparajitha K. Verma, M.D.

Summertime snacks fit for kids

In just a few days, my teenage son will come spend the next month with me, and there are three things I’m certain of: He’ll stay up long after he’s supposed to; he’ll sleep way longer than he should; and he’ll eat me out of house and home.

While I don’t have the energy to control the first and I have to work and can’t always control the second, I do know I have some power over what he eats when he’s at my house. As anyone with a teenage boy in the house will attest – they can eat … a lot. Just because he’s going to eat doesn’t mean he can’t eat healthy.

While we can't control everything our kids do, we can help them make healthier decisions when it comes to food Click To Tweet

I reached out to Kristen Kizer, R.D., L.D., a clinical dietitian with Houston Methodist Wellness Services for some healthy food suggestions for my son. She provided me some great (and simple!) summertime snacks that should keep any teenager properly fueled for most activities.

Guacamole and baby carrots:

“All this simple guacamole requires is jar of salsa and some avocados. You mix them together and you have an instant dip for veggies,” Kristen said. She recommends baby carrots because they’re already washed and ready to eat. “The vitamin C in the salsa will keep the guacamole from turning brown and the healthy monounsaturated fat from the avocado will keep your hungry teens satisfied,” she said.

Whole wheat rotini and veggies and pasta sauce:

“Pasta is versatile and can easily be made in large quantities. Take a bag of frozen mixed veggies together with a jar of pasta sauce and heat up in a sauce pot while you cook the pasta,” Kristen said. To make it easy for your teenager to heat up, Kristen suggests putting everything in the refrigerator in a covered glass container once it’s been cooked. “All your kids have to do is grab the complete meal and heat it up in the microwave, and with all the sauce and vegetables, they won’t even know they’re getting a healthy dose of fiber, magnesium, manganese and selenium,” she said.

Greek yogurt with fruit:

“I prefer to add frozen fruit to Greek yogurt over fresh because it makes it a cool, refreshing treat, and as the fruit melts, the juice spreads throughout the yogurt, making it sweeter,” Kristin said. She suggests buying 32-ounce containers of yogurt and adding your teenager’s favorite fruit. “The extra protein from the Greek yogurt will keep your hungry teen full and he or she will also be getting fiber from the fruit, as well as vitamin C, potassium, folic acid and calcium.”

Cereal:

When you don’t have time to leave something prepared, cereal is always an easy alternative. “Keeping a box of lower sugar cereal on hand can be helpful when teens are around. I suggest something with no more than 6 grams of sugar, like Kashi’s Heart-to-Heart or Honey Sunshine,” Kristen said. “Original Cheerios  can also be jazzed up with some vanilla extract and cinnamon, or PB2, a natural, dried peanut butter powder that can make plain Cheerios taste a lot more like their peanut butter variety without all the added sugar.”

Thanks to Kristen’s help I think I’m ready for the onslaught my kitchen will face these coming weeks, and perhaps more important, my son will have healthy alternatives to enjoy instead of typical junk food and snacks.

For healthy cooking ideas, check out our Snack Smart Pinterest board.

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What’s the prescription for a healthy breakfast?

Are you smart about your breakfast? The most important meal of the day is definitely a must here at Houston Methodist. Why, you ask? Because a healthy breakfast provides the fuel our bodies need to help us power through the day.

Having a healthy breakfast can help improve your attitude throughout the day, prevent obesity, help brain function and kick start your metabolism. And, breakfast eaters often perform better than those who skip breakfast. So, what are the smart people eating? Well, we asked them.

I like a high-protein breakfast; usually eggs or egg whites, depending on my last cholesterol, strawberries and blackberries and coffee. – Dr. Osama Gaber

My wife makes me a breakfast each morning that is yogurt, soy milk, oats and blueberries. It is refrigerated and I take it in to work, run and then eat breakfast at my desk. – Dr. Michael Reardon

I eat Oatmeal (#1 choice), an egg white omelet (#2 choice) or Greek yogurt (occasionally). I have been having the same breakfast for years. – Dr. Aparajitha K. Verma

I generally eat either an omelet or curry for breakfast, never cereal, and once a week I eat oatmeal. – Dr. Gavin Britz

Weetabix and soy milk every day. Plus coffee. – Dr. Jenny Chang

I’ve eaten the same thing for breakfast for decades: Kellogg’s ‘Original Bran’ cereal topped with fresh blueberries. – Dr. Stanley Appel

If your breakfast needs help, find some inspiration on our Breakfast of Champions Pinterest board!

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Label fables: 4 tips when looking at nutrition labels

Food marketing is powerfully persuasive and it often slips below the radar of our critical thinking.  Usually all it takes to lure a shopper into buying a product is to have a tempting buzzword on the front of a package.  We buy it because it’s low fat! And natural! And packed with fiber! You get the picture.

Understand the effects of the “health halo”

These claims can cast a blinding spell that has been dubbed the “health halo.” This term refers to foods pretending to be more than what they really are and can cause us to let our guard down.  For example, you might say to yourself, “Go ahead, have some more cookies, they’re low-fat!” That low-fat label is a hidden persuader giving you mental permission to eat more.  Lots of processed junk foods are hiding behind a health halo, so here are just a few things you need to know to defend yourself.

Realize the difference between fake and real fiber

Fiber is one of the hottest nutrition buzzwords.  Food companies have been ramping up fiber content on nutrition labels to impressive-sounding numbers by using fake fibers.  Ingredients to look out for include:

  • American_Fiber_Intake_Gap
    While fake fibers can help you reach your daily fiber goal, they may cause bloating. Stick to fiber from whole foods like fruits and vegetables.

    Inulin: made from chicory root.

  • Maltodextrin: made from rice, corn or potato starch. (Note to celiacs: sometimes it’s made from barley or wheat.)
  • Polydextrose: made from glucose (sugar) mixed with sorbitol (a sugar alcohol).
  • Oat fiber: made by extracting fiber from oats.

These fake fibers aren’t harmful, but they can cause bloating.  Also, they don’t have the same health benefits as naturally occurring, intact fiber that’s found in whole foods like fruits and vegetables.

While fiber can be healthy, be on the lookout for fake fibers like inulin, which can cause bloating Click To Tweet

Know that gluten-free doesn’t equal “healthy”

Gluten-free foods are all the rage in the grocery store right now and lots of people are experimenting with a gluten-free diet for curiosity’s sake.  Only a small percentage of people have a medical reason to avoid gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. For the vast majority of people, going gluten-free will not offer any health benefits.  In fact, gluten-free foods are often twice as expensive as their gluten-containing counterparts and higher in calories and sugar.  French fries are gluten-free, so just because a food is gluten-free doesn’t make it more nutritious.

Don’t be fooled by claims like “all-natural”

Don’t get excited over the claim “natural.” This claim is designed to make you feel like the product is farm fresh, but it’s meaningless because it’s unregulated and hasn’t been defined.  Read the ingredients list.  If you can’t pronounce it or there are more than five ingredients, it probably isn’t natural. The bottom line: don’t judge a book by its cover or a product by its package.

10 rules for a long and healthy life

It used to constantly amaze me that the great Dr. Michael DeBakey continued to perform surgeries well into his 90s. He used to say he would never retire, there were too many diseases to conquer.

9. DeBakey 60s
Dr. Michael E. DeBakey’s surgical career spanned more than seven decades and 60,000 patients.

And he never did retire; when he died in 2008, DeBakey was still coming in to work whenever he could. He was 99 years old.

People used to ask him if he knew the secret to a long and healthy life. “Yes,” he would say, and nothing else.

Once, with DeBakey’s slight participation, I put together a list he could use to answer those questions about a long and healthy life.  He never used it, but we agreed the list was absolutely true. There have been literally thousands of studies to prove or disprove these rules, and they all came out the same way.

Years later, these rules still stand up even with minor updates. They are so true, they’re boring. You can print them out and tape them to your refrigerator or carry them around in your wallet. But you probably know them already.

What is the secret to a long and healthy life? Common sense. Click To Tweet

The question should always be: “What is the secret to a long and healthy life?” To which DeBakey would have replied, “Common sense.”

10 (or so) Absolutely True Rules For A Longer, Healthier Life

  1. Don’t smoke cigarettes.
  2. Exercise as much as you can.
  3. Lower your cholesterol level to reduce risk of heart disease.
  4. More often than not, choose foods that are good for you – rather than foods that are bad for you. (You know what they are.)
  5. Wear a seat belt in the car. And don’t mess with cell phones while driving.
  6. Practice safe sex.
  7. Go easy on your exposure to the sun.
  8. Don’t play with guns.
  9. When it’s time, get all of your recommended screenings. (Mammograms, prostate exams, colonoscopies, etc.)
  10. Be friendly and happy whenever you can.
  11. Remember: everything in moderation – including friendliness and happiness.