It’s great to welcome Laura Clark again as part of her regular column for me: Live Smart Be Healthy. I know all you new mothers and fathers will find her advice invaluable.

You may well be reading this through a misty haze of new parenthood or be doing the rounds again for the second or third time! Or you may have a toddler who hasn’t quite grasped the art of sleeping through yet.

Research looking at the effects of altered sleep patterns on health and weight often focuses on shift workers or time zone travellers and yet parenthood also plays havoc with our body clock (aka circadian rhythm), which of course your newborn or challenging toddler doesn’t give a monkeys about!

There are many parents frequently pulling a night shift as well as the day shift in a quest to keep a little person fed, watered or happy in their own beds! But what are the effects on our own bodies and what can we do about it?

Our body clock regulates our bodily functions including appetite and hormones. We may feel our days are pretty exhausting but the body is active in a different way once we’re asleep – secreting hormones that maintain a healthy metabolism. With a lack of sleep these hormones take a nose dive and signals between the brain and the gut are interfered with.

Interestingly your baby’s first instinct is the emotional connection between the brain and the gut (known as the brain-gut axis if we’re being fancy). It is able to recognise unhappiness in the gut whether that be simple hunger or more painful symptoms associated with reflux or colic for example, and communicate this up to the brain where cries for ‘help’ are the order of the day.

Parental responsibility kicks in and we come to their aid… whatever the time is. This relentless schedule leaves our own brain-gut connection a little lost for words. Meals become irregular and disjointed (I swear I put that piece of toast down somewhere and did I ever finish that cup of tea?), snacks risk becoming sugar filled as sleep deprivation switches us into cravings for sugary or fatty foods. We lurch from sugar crashes to caffeine highs as we go about our parental duties.

Days with children can often be stressful – and feel pretty endless. Persistent stress also causes changes in our hormonal balance which in turn leads to cravings and increases our desire for certain foods.

If you feel your gut was giving you unhappy signals before the whole parent thing kicked off then you may find my blog on irritable bowel syndrome, a useful read, but meanwhile back to today. I know what you’re thinking – reading this is not going to give me my 8 hours back! True! But a few little things can make a big difference so that when you are asleep it’s of better quality and when you’re awake you only feel like you’ve been hit by a toy bus (which you may well have) and not a real one!

Advice to share:

  • Try to keep to a regular meal pattern. Spreading your calories out is better than a low meal frequency. It helps to regulate your blood sugar levels too and the cravings won’t be quite so severe. It also reduces your reliance on stimulants like caffeine.
  • If anyone helpful makes you a cheese sandwich (or even better cheese on toast because sandwiches one handed, can be messy) get them to lob a few tomatoes on the plate too. Fibre will help to keep your bowels regular (because goodness knows what’s going on down there now!) and it will keep your blood sugars more stable. I know there’s bigger things to worry about but if you can give a nod towards some protein, wholegrain carb and fibre in the meal or snack, your body will thank you.
  • When something sweet is in order seek out fibre too. This is the justification I give myself for flapjack – all those oats have to count for something!
  • Malt loaf, wholemeal hot cross buns or oat cakes with peanut butter are also good. Mini wholemeal pittas with hummus make a great savoury snack. Be mindful of portion size though, for example by slicing the malt loaf before consumption. During long nights of pumping and feeding I demolished a lot of malt loaf in a rather frenzied fashion – I probably didn’t need that much but no one was watching!
  • If you’ve been relieved of ‘dream feed’ duties then capitalise on this with a sleepy snack before catching up on some valuable hours. A bowl of wholegrain cereal with milk or peanut butter on toast is the perfect combination to boost magnesium levels which help muscles to relax- your brain behaves like a muscle in this respect too and I know it can be hard to switch off. You also need more magnesium if you’re breastfeeding.
  • Consider dinners made with bulgur wheat or wholemeal couscous. The grains bind together when served with some veggies and oily fish like salmon, topped off with some natural yogurt and herbs.
  • You could apply the same principle to a quick stir fry made with a brown rice pouch, green veggies and some chicken strips or prawns. Combining slow release carb with some protein and fibre will also encourage tryptophan to enter your brain. This clever amino acid will help to make serotonin – often billed as the feel good hormone it will neutralise the effects of stress hormones and help you to produce the sleep hormone melatonin when needed.

The days and nights often roll into one. You may be dining at 5 am or 10 pm. Healthy food and balance can’t solve everything but it can arm you with the best reserves to deal with whatever the little darlings throw your way!

Laura is a registered dietitian passionate about diet and nutrition and dedicated to making it accessible and tailored to people’s individual lifestyle needs. Keep up to date with Laura’s siteblogFBTwitter and Instagram.

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