Back in the late 80’s my co-workers gave me the nickname of “fiber queen.” Having graduated with a bachelor’s in clinical nutrition in the early 80’s, my student notes were full of then groundbreaking research on fiber by British researcher, Dr. Denis Burkitt. Dr. Burkitt noticed that there was a much lower incidence of colon cancer in Africa than there was in Europe and America.
He deduced that the differences came not from genetics, but from habits. Dr. Burkitt criticized the modern habit of eating simple carbs (sugars) and starches in refined form, stripped of their bulk-forming fibrous covering. He also was ahead of his times and pointed out the dangers of eating white flour before it became vogue to eschew this Americanized wheat product.
Throughout the years, some of the original fiber hypothesis Dr. Burkitt posed has been modified. Yet, thanks to new findings we continue to be surprised by all the things that fiber can do to create a healthier body and life.
Easy way to better sleep … eat more fiber
A study published this year in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine looked at the relationship between fiber and sleep. Yes, sleep! Turns out that what we suspected is true; what we eat does affect the quality of our sleep.
Recent research shows that we as a country are sleep deprived. The toll goes from the benign, difficulty in crunching numbers to the dangerous, an increase in auto crashes due to falling asleep at the wheel.
This new sleep-food study looked at 26 normal weight adults aged 30 to 45 years who had no history of sleep issues. They were monitored for 5 nights in a sleep lab using polysomnography to gather the participants sleep data. The lab lights went dark at 10pm and participants awakened at 7am to clock in 9 hours of sleep.
During the first 4 days, the participants consumed a controlled diet. On the 5th day, the participants were allowed to eat whatever they desired.
Looking at the two types of diet, the results showed that the duration of sleep didn’t differ by the diet but the quality of the sleep was affected by selected foods. There was less deep slow-wave (desirable) type of sleep and it took longer for participants to fall asleep after the day of free eating by the participants.
When they analyzed the foods eaten it showed that the greater the fiber intake, the less stage 1 or very light sleep experienced and more of the slow-wave (desirable) sleep occurred. The study looked at other nutrition components, saturated fat, sugar and carbs. The results showed the higher the percentage of total calories from saturated fat from the diet, the less slow-wave sleep – this is not desirable.
When they looked at percentage of calories coming from sugar and other processed carbs they found that the higher percentage resulted in more arousal from sleep. This can be those annoying early AM awakenings that disturb our sleep patterns and leave us feeling groggy when we start our day.
We know from previous research, and from our own lives, that we tend to overeat when sleep deprived. We often tell ourselves that we need “something” to wake up and provide energy to keep moving through the day. Our food choices are not as virtuous when sleep deprived; driving us to higher sugar and fat containing foods.
Strange bedfellows … Hormones and Fiber
Sleep deprivation affects hormones that regulate blood sugar and appetite, such as insulin, cortisol, ghrelin, and leptin. Plus, research shows the unbalancing of these hormones occurs with only night of restricted sleep (3-4 hours). Think of how many nights you’ve had less than 4 hours of sleep? Even individuals without pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, will show a profile of insulin resistance (elevated blood sugar levels) with only one night of restricted sleep.
Other research has shown that restricted sleep affects the belly-fat promoting hormone cortisol; causing it to be lower than normal in the morning and inappropriately elevated at night. Another hormone, leptin, is also affected by lack of sleep. This hormone basically tells us “Life is good, my tummy feels full.” The cabal of dysregulated insulin, cortisol, and leptin creates the perfect environment for overeating.
From this recent sleep study we now have initial data to show conversely that what we eat affects how well you sleep. It’s easy to see how these two factors can create a vicious cycle of sleep deprivation, causing poor food choices, that then affects the quality of the sleep.
Fiber is the real superfood!
Fiber continues to amaze us with its reach into our health. In fact, the US Dietary Guidelines considers fiber a “nutrient of concern” for the public and this year increased the Daily Value from 25 to 28 grams of fiber per day. This new amount will be reflected in the new Nutrition Facts Labels on food and beverages. Considering the average American consumes 15 grams of fiber per day, we have a long way to go.
I believe the consumer has heard the message to increase fiber but has been led astray by food companies marketing ploys. The desire to increase the fiber content in common consumer favorable foods, like nutrition bars, resulted in the rise of adding a category of fiber called functional fibers to commonly consumed foods.
Functional fibers consists of isolated, non-digestible carbs that have beneficial physiological effects in humans. Whereas dietary fiber consists of non-digestible carbs and lignin that are intrinsic and intact in plants.
Functional fibers for food labeling include isolated, non-digestible plant (e.g., resistant starch, pectin, gums), animal (e.g., chitin and chitosan), or commercially produced (e.g. resistant starch, polydextrose, inulin and dextrin’s).
The key word is that dietary fiber comes from plants where functional fiber is extracted from specific food sources (i.e. Chicory Root). Is one better than the other? The sleep-food study didn’t differentiate the types of fiber consumed so we don’t know if that factor affects sleep.
However, when it comes to overall health, having your fiber quota come from only one source, such as functional fibers, falls short in receiving the global benefits from this food constituent.
Fiber plays a huge role in determining the type of bacteria created in our colon and their byproducts that are shunted back to the liver to carry out multiply reactions. The species and amount of bacteria in our intestinal tract has been shown in animal and human studies to affect everything from our body weight to development of mental health disorders.
It’s estimated that there is about 100 trillion bacteria chomping away in your gut and their hungry! These bacteria actually help us digest food and synthesize vitamins too. To keep these guys happy they need food and one of their favorite sources of food comes from fiber. A shocking result of a study on mice fed a fiber-free diet showed that their own bacteria began to eat away at the gut’s protective mucus lining, with the potential to trigger inflammation and disease.
Avoid dropping the F-Bomb!
Creating an eating plan that provides adequate variety of fiber sources is the best approach to provide your body, especially your liver, with sources of energy that it can use efficiently and effectively. One thing frequently seen is an exuberance to add fiber to the diet backfires since the person drops the F(fiber) bomb into their untrained colon and experiences unpleasant side effects of gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea. This does not have to happen.
“Go slow and go low” is the mantra dietitians use when recommending an increase in fiber. A Registered Dietitian can assist you in figuring out your current fiber intake and plan out the appropriate food sources and amounts of fiber to add to your eating plan.
Some of my favorite high fiber foods are organic apples, oatmeal, and raspberries. I’d love to hear what your favorite fiber foods are too!
Bonnie Roill, RDN, CPT, Hormone Support Coach is a nutritionist for women looking for a seasoned dietitian that uses foods and botanicals to re-balance hormones to create a healthier weight, increased vitality, restorative sleep, and a happier tummy. Her group telephone program “Detox with the Dietitian” is a whole food 21 day program that provides a kick-start to a healthier body and lifestyle. The next program starts June 8th – click here for details.