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How Eating Plants Helps You Sleep Better

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

“The first change that I noticed was better sleep, and it happened pretty quickly. I've never been a great sleeper, and this made significant improvements to my sleep quality. The second immediate change I experienced was how fast I recovered from workouts. Once I implemented plant-based eating, I never felt super worn down after consecutive days of hard sessions. Getting better, more restful sleep, and quicker turnaround times after lifting meant that I was much more effective and productive in my workouts.” -Kevin, NASM - CPT, CES, Owner of Snodgrass Fitness, Atlanta, GA

Something that might not be foremost in your mind when it comes to optimal mental health, physical health and performance is sleep. Does this sound familiar? You woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t fall back to sleep because you were thinking about "x,y and z" on the to-do list. Or you couldn’t fall asleep and by the time you actually did fall asleep your alarm went off sounding like a freight train in your ear. Or you think you slept, but aren’t quite sure, because it also felt like you were awake most of the time and you remember every last detail of your very vivid dream. No matter the reason for not sleeping well, you might find that your brain is foggy, you’re a tad bit (a lot?) cranky, you feel sluggish and all you want to do is lay in bed, watch Netflix and snack on sweet stuff or starchy carbs all day (there’s science behind these cravings when you’re sleepy). For some people, lack of sleep can become chronic, which can take a toll on life, not to mention lead to chronic diseases. Are you sleeping well enough to feel and perform your best every day? If the answer is no, which is the case for one in three Americans who are chronically sleep-deprived, then continue reading to learn how what you eat can directly affect your sleep habits.

Why sleep is important

According to the CDC, adults need 7 or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing. Short sleep duration is defined as less than 7 hours of sleep per 24-hour period. Interestingly, if you live in the United States, surveys show that sleep patterns may be a reflection of where you live in the country, with those living in the southeast (Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama) and states along the Appalachian Mountains reporting less than 7 hours of sleep a night (more than 40 percent of people living in these states).

The case for adequate sleep ...

  • Sleep plays a vital role in the function of your brain. Inadequate sleep can disrupt emotions and cognition.

  • Sleep helps regulate your metabolism and appetite. Lack of restful sleep may increase your risk of becoming overweight due to disrupted hunger and satiety hormones. In fact, poor sleep patterns have been shown to increase overall caloric intake and lead to poor dietary choices.

  • Sleep supports optimal functioning of your immune, hormonal, and cardiovascular systems. Inflammation can occur without enough sleep, increasing the risk of illness, heart issues, and hormonal imbalance.

  • Sleep deprivation has been associated with obesity, high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Sleep deprivation can lead to illness, training injuries, early fatigue, and suboptimal performance.

  • Sleep helps you live longer based on a 2014 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience concluding that consistently getting enough sleep is a significant factor in longer life spans.

Lifestyle Habits for Healthy Sleep

Practices and habits that can aid in healthy sleep include regular exercise, avoiding sugar and alcohol before bedtime, avoiding caffeine at least six hours before bedtime, avoiding saturated and trans fat before bedtime (animal products or fried foods), making your sleep surroundings your sanctuary, and creating a routine. Establishing a nighttime meditation practice and not using electronic devices one to two hours before bedtime may also help. Plant-based diets are high in complex carbohydrates, including fiber and isoflavones (phytonutrients, a.k.a nutrients found in plants), which may help with quality sleep. Plant-based foods can also be sources of tryptophan and melatonin, which are known to aid in good sleep hygiene. Tryptophan is an amino acid precursor to serotonin and melatonin production, (a neurotransmitter and hormone, respectively) which help to regulate sleep.

Foods That May Help with Restful Sleep

One study found that eating inadequate fiber and more saturated fat and sugar was associated with lighter, less restorative, and more disrupted sleep in 13 women and 13 men, all normal weight and an average age of 35 years old. Results show that greater fiber intake predicted more time spent in the stage of deep, slow-wave sleep. In contrast, a higher percentage of energy from saturated fat predicted less slow-wave sleep. Greater sugar intake also was associated with more arousals from sleep. Carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, brown rice, and oatmeal can stimulate the release of serotonin, which can help you doze off and sleep well throughout the night. Another study found that fiber may help with sleep disorders (like difficulty falling asleep and frequently waking up) by positively modulating gut bacteria and improving communication with the brain that triggers sound sleep.

Another study looked at the sleep quality and duration in 106 women, ages 20-75 years, and found that those who ate the most plant-based protein had better sleep quality and significantly longer sleep duration than those who ate animal protein. A Japanese study looked at the isoflavone intake of 1076 women aged 20-78 and found that the higher the isoflavone content the better the sleep quality and longer sleep duration. Plant-based protein sources can be rich in isoflavones (phytonutrients). These foods are also rich in tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin and melatonin.

Foods high in isoflavones include organic soy, tempeh, edamame, soy milk, miso, lentils beans, peas, pistachios, peanuts and other nuts. Those containing tryptophan include all of the above, plus beans, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sea veggies, leafy greens, walnuts, cauliflower and oat bran. All of these foods are also sources of fiber. Plant-based foods high in melatonin include nuts (pistachios being one of the best sources), legumes, tart cherries, sweet cherries, pomegranates, tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, broccoli, oats, barley, strawberries, sunflower seeds, and flax seeds. Eating kiwi fruit before bedtime has also been shown to help with falling asleep quickly and sleeping more soundly. While kiwi fruit isn't a direct source of melatonin, it's a source of serotonin, which is the precursor to melatonin.

Of note, many of the foods above are also good sources of magnesium, a mineral that’s been shown to help the body relax and promote restful sleep.

A final potential mechanism by which plant-based diets could influence sleep quality is via improvements in body composition. Normal waist circumference, BMI (body mass index) and body fat can reduce the risk of sleep apnea disorders.

Eating a whole food plant-based diet can help with weight management and support serotonin and melatonin production, potentially enhancing sleep quality and duration. If you find yourself wanting a late-night snack but don’t want that snack to interfere with your sleep, choose high fiber, isoflavone-rich, and tryptophan or melatonin-containing foods to help with a good night’s sleep.

Examples of late-night snacks that are packed with fiber and nutrients to help you sleep better:

  • a small bowl of oatmeal with organic unsweetened soy milk and strawberries

  • a handful of pistachios and cherries

  • homemade granola with pistachios, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds

  • small kale salad with walnuts and lentils

  • plant-based, no sugar added yogurt with berries or kiwi

Do you have a healthy nighttime ritual that helps you sleep better? Please share below!

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