We spend about a third of our life sleeping. Surprising as it may seem, food is a cornerstone of sound sleep. And sleep is one of the pillars of good health, supporting all the organs and systems of the body. The brain, for example, consolidates memory and detoxifies itself during sleep. In deep sleep, our blood pressure, heart rate, and glucose levels are lowered. And sleep has been found to fortify the T cells of our immune system and reduce inflammation. Many factors can influence the quality and duration of our sleep. In this post we will explore how the way we eat can help us sleep better.

In the first post in this sleep series, I recommended not eating a heavy meal before bed, because our body spends a lot of energy on digestion. It is best if our food is fully digested before sleep so that our body’s internal wisdom can focus on repair and restoration functions that occur during sleep.

When we eat is important, but what we eat is equally important for promoting sleep and rest. Even small changes in our diet can create a noticeable improvement in our sleep. Let’s take a look at some of the food elements that support sound sleep. We’ll look mostly at plant-based foods that are rich in fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamin D, folate, magnesium, melatonin, and tryptophan.

Fiber. Research has shown that people sleeping 7–8 hours a night have the highest amount of daily fiber in their diet. One study found that higher fiber intake promoted deeper, more restorative sleep. Legumes (beans, peas, lentils) are an excellent source of food fiber. Other good sources include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.

When we eat is important, but what we eat is equally important for promoting sleep and rest.

Complex carbohydrates. These, on the whole, take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates, such as simple sugar, which are broken down quickly. Since complex carbohydrates typically take longer to break down, they give your body a steadier source of fuel. They are also a source of vital nutrients that improve levels of brain chemicals that support sleep. For example, they help the brain use the amino acid tryptophan to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps you fall asleep by encouraging relaxation and drowsiness. One study found that higher intakes of dietary added sugars, starch, and refined grains increased the likelihood of insomnia, while whole grains, vegetables, and whole fruit (fruit juices may contain concentrated sugars) decreased the likelihood of insomnia.

Vitamin D and folate (vitamin B9). These are important factors in sleep quantity and quality; they reduce sleepiness during the day and sleep disturbances at night. It is difficult to get enough vitamin D from food, especially if you follow a vegetarian diet that doesn’t include fish. You can get more vitamin D by being out in the sun during the warmer months, when the sun is stronger, and by taking vitamin D supplements in less sunny seasons. Good folate sources include legumes, whole grains, seeds, and dark-green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts.

Magnesium. This mineral acts as a natural muscle relaxant and helps you get to sleep more easily and stay asleep. Magnesium deficiency can lead to sleep disturbances and insomnia, so you want to make sure to get enough magnesium in your diet. Foods high in magnesium include seeds, especially pumpkin and chia seeds; nuts, especially almonds, cashews, and peanuts; green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collard greens; whole grains; and legumes.

Melatonin. This neurotransmitter-like hormone is produced in the brain in the pineal gland and is also found in some foods. It is called the hormone of darkness because it helps the body identify the cycles of light and dark—the circadian rhythm. It helps you fall asleep and stay asleep until morning. Foods that contain melatonin include eggs, some mushrooms, nuts, cherries, and germinated legumes.

Tryptophan. This is an amino acid that, in the presence of carbohydrates, helps the brain produce serotonin, which in turn contributes to the production of melatonin. Vegetarian foods high in tryptophan include soybeans and tofu; dairy products; nuts and seeds, especially pumpkin and squash seeds; oats, quinoa, and other whole grains; and eggs.

A special sleep ally. Almonds are a special sleep ally, containing significant amounts of tryptophan, melatonin, and magnesium. A study of college students found that adding just 10 almonds to their daily diet significantly improved their sleep.

Ideal Meals for Sleep

So what does an ideal meal for sleep look like? You might want to explore recipes for some of the examples given below, each of which could serve as a light meal in itself or be combined for a more substantial meal:

• A simple smoothie that combines cherry, banana, almond milk, and hemp-seed protein powder. This healthy combination might be a quick breakfast or a refreshing midday pick-me-up.

• A simple dahl (legume) recipe that highlights legumes as a source of fiber, complex carbohydrates, and folate. This could be a split mung dahl or toor dahl. Combine this with whole grains and a few vegetables to create a more substantial, nourishing meal.

• Cooked dark-green vegetables with an easy-to-digest protein source—for example, saag paneer (dark, leafy greens with fresh cheese curds) or a tofu-broccoli stir fry.

• Whole, cooked grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, amaranth, or millet. Remember to keep it simple, without a lot of additives. You could consider adding a pinch of cinnamon, saffron or nutmeg. Some whole grains can be cooked ground, as a breakfast cereal, or unground, as a complement to a bean dish, for example.

Eating whole, fresh, nutrient-laden meals like these can make a noticeable difference in the quality and duration of your sleep, allowing your mind and body to rest from thinking and moving while they engage in the nightly process of restoring themselves. You might start with one or two simple changes in your diet and then add more as you feel inspired. See if you wake feeling more refreshed. Our desire to sleep well and wake rested is why we all end the day by saying, “Good night.”

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