How Nutrition Can Help You Improve Your Sleep

Did you know National Sleep Awareness Week is this month from March 12th – 18th? In honor of this occasion, let’s look at the connection between nutrition (specifically whole food plant-based nutrition), and sleep.

According to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, the six pillars of Lifestyle Medicine are:

     A whole food, plant-predominant dietary pattern
     Regular physical activity
     Stress management
     Avoidance of risky substances
     Positive social connection
     Restorative sleep

All six are critical to long-term health. However, sleep is arguably the most important of the six. Think about it. We can go many years without exercising, eating junk food, smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, enduring stressful conditions, and cultivating poor relationships, but we won’t survive more than a few days without sleep. We start feeling the effects of insomnia within 48 hours or less. We lose the ability to remember and focus. Our sense of balance begins to falter. We start hallucinating and are likely to fall asleep even when someone tries to keep us awake. Worse still, if we are operating heavy equipment, like driving a car, we can be downright dangerous to ourselves and others. Besides the science, which is conclusive, The Guinness Book of World Records has eliminated the category of going without sleep because it is just too risky.

But Why and How Much?

Let’s start with the background and importance of restorative sleep. First, a definition: restorative sleep is deep and peaceful, usually lasting the recommended number of hours. During the sleep period, the brain cycles through five stages of sleep, repairs itself through brain wave regulation, and restores needed connections throughout the brain and body. At the same time, our bodies are busy supporting brain function and physical health.

In children and teens, restorative sleep is essential for growth and development. How much we need varies by age and individual. Generally, experts recommend the following during a 24-hour period.

  • infants (0–3 months): 14–17 hours, including naps
  • infants (4–12 months): 12–16 hours, including naps
  • toddlers (1–2 years): 11–14 hours, including naps
  • preschool (3–5 years): 10–13 hours, including naps
  • school-age (6–13 years): 9–12 hours
  • teens (14–17 years): 8–10 hours
  • adults (18 years and older): 7-9 hours

Even though we know what the experts recommend, with our busy lives, to achieve eight hours of restorative sleep may still be challenging. In fact, the Cleveland Clinic website states 70 million Americans battle insomnia every year.

Can food help?

Luckily, this is where nutrition can be beneficial. We can make some simple adjustments to what we eat and drink to help us obtain restorative sleep, so we function at our best.

One tip you have likely heard before is to avoid caffeinated beverages and alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime. A second recommendation is to eat foods higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat and sugar, which leads to deeper, more restorative, and less disrupted sleep.

There is a less well-known connection between the foods we eat and the neurotransmitters that regulate our sleep. The neurotransmitters that are instrumental in regulating our sleep patterns are melatonin, serotonin, and tryptophan. Melatonin is a widely known neurotransmitter. Serotonin and tryptophan are precursors to melatonin. Some foods high in melatonin are nuts (pistachios in particular), cherries, strawberries, broccoli, mushrooms, and peppers. Kiwi is a good source of serotonin. Carbohydrates such as potatoes, brown rice, and oatmeal also stimulate the release of serotonin. Finally, plant-based protein sources, such as soy, tempeh, edamame, beans, and lentils, are rich in tryptophan. All these foods can help you fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. A word of caution: avoid eating within 2-3 hours of going to bed to prevent indigestion.

Just as food choices can affect our sleep quality, sleep quality can affect our food choices. Sleep deprivation affects two neurotransmitters that regulate hunger, leptin and ghrelin. Ghrelin is produced in the stomach. It alerts the brain to hunger and increases appetite. On the other hand, leptin is produced by fat cells and alerts your brain when you are full, thereby decreasing your appetite. Interestingly, lack of sleep is linked to lower leptin levels and greater ghrelin levels, leading to increased hunger and appetite. As a result, people who don’t sleep well are more likely to crave high-calorie, unhealthy foods.

In conclusion, we can use nutrition and sleep to maximize our health and well-being. They work together and can support each other, especially if we are selective in what we eat. So next time you struggle to get good sleep, try adding fruits, carbohydrates, and plant-based protein to your evening meal or snack. It might just make the difference between lying awake for hours and getting those Zzzzzzzs. Good night and sweet dreams!


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8 Newsom, R. (2022, April 12). The connection between diet, exercise, and sleep. Sleep Foundation. Retrieved February 15, 2023, from,drawn%20towards%20high%2Dcalorie%20foods.

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