Our natural internal clock
Our bodies have an internal clock known as the circadian rhythm. This is the natural cycle of changes the body goes through that repeats every day. It influences our sleep-wake patterns, digestive system, and other bodily functions. Changes in our environment, such as exposure to light, are well known to impact our circadian rhythm. We tend to feel more awake when it's brighter whereas our body prepares for sleep when it's darker.
A key player in the body related to our circadian rhythm is melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone generally secreted at night that promotes sleep and helps regulate our internal clock.
The emerging field of how eating behaviours may influence our circadian rhythm is known as crononutrition. Research has shown that eating irregularly can throw our internal clock out of sync, which can reduce our sleep quality and duration. Aiming to eat at more or less the same times each day helps to synchronize our sleep-wake cycle, and is one strategy to feel less tired.
Balance the big building blocks
Aside from when we eat, we can also strategize what we eat. The three large building blocks that make up foods include protein, carbohydrates, and fat. To support nutritionally balanced meals and optimal energy levels with these building blocks, the plate method is one tool. This is a guide that encourages us to fill roughly half of the plate with vegetables and fruits, a quarter with grains and starches, and a quarter with protein sources.
Let's explore protein, carbohydrates, and fat more in-depth beyond the plate method.
Protein plays a key role in inducing sleepiness by supplying an amino acid called tryptophan. In general, protein is made up of smaller blocks called amino acids, one of which is tryptophan. Tryptophan is especially important for sleep as the body can use it to make melatonin. This means we can prioritize protein on our plate for sleep, especially notable plant-based sources of tryptophan such as soy, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, beans, green vegetables, and mushrooms.
Foods contain other amino acids aside from tryptophan though which can compete with one another. If we have a high protein meal, for example, other amino acids can get in the way of tryptophan forming melatonin. Rather than overdoing the protein then, we can consider adequate amounts in line with the plate method.
Carbohydrates are a source of energy for the body, and also help tryptophan more easily reach our brain. We can split carbohydrates into two categories based on how quickly they break down into energy.
- Slower digesting - break down slower as they tend to have more fibre and are less industrially processed. For example, whole grains such as quinoa or steel-cut oats, and fibre-rich fruits and vegetables.
- Faster digesting - break down quicker as they tend to have less fibre and are more industrially processed. For example, more refined grains such as white rice or quick oats, and starchier fruits and vegetables.
Strategizing with the types of carbohydrates
Throughout the day: since slower digesting carbohydrates take longer to break down, they give more sustained fuel. This can keep us feel energized for longer after meals and has been associated with better sleep. We can aim for slower digesting carbohydrates as able when we're out and about.
Before bed: faster digesting carbohydrates may be more desirable closer to bed for those whose biggest battle is falling asleep. Quicker digesting carbohydrates support tryptophan reaching our brain more efficiently and have been found to promote sleep onset. Two snack ideas for closer to bed that are quicker to digest include a banana with nut butter or a glass of warm milk.
There are many different fats and we can strategize which ones we prioritize for overall health and energy. Saturated fat is one type primarily found in animal products, coconut oil, and palm oil. Omega-3 fats are another type found mainly in canola oil, chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, and walnuts.
Studies suggest a higher intake of saturated fat is linked with difficulty falling asleep whereas omega-3 may improve sleep quality. One explanation for this is that omega-3 fats help to reduce inflammation. In general, we can consider aiming for whole food fat sources and prioritizing omega-3 fats where possible. Some ideas to enjoy omega-3 fats include:
- Add chia, flax, or hemp seeds to oatmeal, smoothies, parfaits, or baked goods.
- Enjoy a handful of walnuts on their own or in a trail mix.
- Add ground flax seeds to homemade veggie patties.
Consider the small building blocks
Aside from protein, carbohydrates, and fat, the body also relies on smaller nutrients including vitamins and minerals. Individuals with deficiencies in these smaller building blocks have been linked to poorer sleep or energy levels. Let's dive into some examples.
There are several B-vitamins, including folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 which are involved in the synthesis of melatonin. Common sources of vitamin B6 include bananas, green and orange vegetables, potatoes, nuts, and seeds whereas some sources of folate include beans, green vegetables, lentils, and peanuts.
Eating a variety of plant-based foods helps cover our bases, although plant-based foods alone generally aren't reliable sources of vitamin B12. Due to this, vitamin B12 supplementation is often recommended for those following a plant-based lifestyle. Signs of vitamin B12 deficiency include fatigue and pale skin. For more information, see our article on Adequate Vitamin B12.
Iron is known to carry oxygen throughout the body, play a role in growth and development, and take part in the production of energy. Decreased iron intake has been associated with very short sleep durations. Iron deficiency may also reduce energy levels, lead to difficulty concentrating, and alter the stages of sleep. Some plant-based sources of iron include lentils, beans, pumpkin seeds, and spinach. Learn more about getting enough on a plant-based lifestyle in our iron article.
Magnesium may promote sleep quality and duration, especially in older populations. Adequate intakes of a variety of plant-based foods tend to be enough in comparison to magnesium needs, although older individuals are at higher risk of deficiency. Notable food sources of magnesium include leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Selenium is a small yet mighty nutrient that's been linked to difficulty falling asleep with reduced intake. Some plant-based sources of selenium include grains and nuts. Consider having one brazil nut daily to help meet selenium needs. Note that excess selenium is associated with brittle hair or nails, skin rashes, and nervous system problems, so overdoing it isn't desirable.
Zinc is needed for growth and bodily functioning. It's also thought to play a role in sleep regulation and may improve sleep. We can find zinc in grain products and plant-based protein sources such as beans, seeds, tempeh, and tofu. For those following a plant-based lifestyle, zinc deficiency can be a concern if attention isn't given. To learn about getting enough, see our zinc article.
Five other nutrition strategies
No 1 - Break the fast
Breakfast is a chance to replenish our energy stores after fasting during sleep. Those who consistently consume breakfast have reported better sleep quality, mood, and alertness compared to those that skip breakfast. Some ideas for breakfast to boost our energy and support sleep include:
No 2 - Limit caffeine
Caffeine is a natural chemical known as a stimulant because it increases the activity of the body’s nervous system. Common sources of caffeine include coffee, tea, and energy drinks.
In general adults, it takes the body three to seven hours to break down half of the caffeine in its system. Due to this, caffeine has lasting effects that make it harder to sleep, even if consumed six hours before bed. For those of us consuming caffeine, we can aim to limit sources later in the day to support energy and sleep levels. Some alternatives include:
- Herbal teas, such as chamomile tea.
- Hot water infused with lemon, ginger, fruit, or herbs.
- Warm plant-milk beverages, such as golden milk.
No 3 - Stay hydrated
If we feel fatigued, and our lips or skin feel dry or our urine is a dark colour, consider drinking more water. Keeping a glass of water on our desk is one way to remember to stay hydrated, and we can make it more fun by flavouring water with fruits, cucumber, or fresh herbs such as mint.
No 4 - Avoid alcohol as possible
On the topic of beverages, alcohol can momentarily increase sleepiness. It's also been linked with poorer sleep quality and duration. Some satisfying ideas for those looking for alternative beverages include:
- Using chunks of fruit to infuse beverages with a fresh and fruity new flavour.
- Freezing juice in an ice tray and using these as ice cubes. They look nice in glasses and add a splash of flavour to carbonated water.
- Enjoying a glass of kombucha.
No 5 - Steer clear of excess salt
Too much salt has long-term consequences, such as increasing the risk of heart problems, and may also impact our energy. Salty snacks don't tend to provide us with sustained fuel when we're awake, and having salty snacks before bed has also been shown to disrupt sleep. More salt intake in general has also been associated with difficulty staying asleep. Consider using herbs and spices for a burst of flavour in place of excess salt, and aim to prepare foods at home where possible to keep salt intake at bay.
Five lifestyle tips
Sometimes lifestyle factors can also impact our sleep and energy levels. Here are a few strategizes to consider.
No 1 - Set a regular sleep schedule
In line with consistent meal and snack timing, our bodies appreciate regularity in our sleep and wake schedule. Among university students for example, an irregular bedtime was positively correlated with poor sleep quality. Aim to maintain a consistent sleep and wake schedule as able.
No 2 - Associate the bedroom with sleep
If sleeping is the only thing we do in the bedroom it can act as a cue to our body to associate the environment with sleep. It may be common to do activities in our bedroom such as browsing the web, watching videos, or studying. Reducing this as much as possible might help when trying to sort out our sleeping patterns.
No 3 - Limit blue lights
Similar to caffeine, another stimulant is the blue light emitted from electronic devices, such as phones, televisions, and computer screens. Exposure to blue light in the evening has been found to disrupt the sleep cycle, decrease sleep quality, and quantity. This is because the blue light signals our brain to believe it’s daytime, which can make falling asleep more difficult. There isn’t a set time that electronics should be shut off, but the earlier the better for most. Some activities to consider instead include:
- Reading a printed book.
- Sketching or colouring.
- Pack a lunch for the next day.
- Play an instrument.
No 4 - Reduce naps close to bedtime
It's encouraged to listen to our body signals, including taking naps when needed, although ideally we'll limit naps close to our bedtime. Some individuals, such as those with busy schedules, doing shift work, or travelling may rely on naps. If we're having a hard time falling asleep and we're napping close to bedtime, consider shorter naps, increasing the time between our naps and bedtime, or avoiding naps altogether as able.
No 5 - Enjoy exercise
Physical movement comes with an abundance of possible benefits, one of which is an increase in sleep quality or duration. Moderate exercise in particular has shown promising impacts on sleep quality. Some fun ways to enjoy moderate exercise might be:
- Going for walks, runs, hikes, or bike rides.
- Signing up for a workout class.
- Sports activities such as badminton, dance, or soccer.
- Swimming at a pool.
A note on insomnia
Insomnia generally refers to difficulty with sleep, whether it's falling asleep, staying asleep, or feeling impairments during the day related to sleep. Two types of insomnia include:
- Acute: short-term difficulty with sleep that tends to occur when experiencing stress or other circumstances.
- Chronic: longer-term difficulty with that occurs at least three nights per week, for three consecutive months.
Acute insomnia can sometimes be reduced with lifestyle or nutrition choices as outlined in this article. Alternative approaches such as tart cherry juice are sometimes advised as well. It’s best to consult a healthcare professional for support with insomnia, prolonged low energy levels, or difficulty sleeping.
- We have a natural internal clock: our circadian rhythm describes the cycle of changes the body goes through that repeats every day. It influences our sleep-wake patterns and may be impacted by light and dietary patterns.
- Consuming a variety of plant-based foods: including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds has been associated with better sleep quality.
- The plate method: is one tool to support nutritionally balanced meals and may help us feel energized throughout the day.
- Other food choices may promote better quality sleep or energy: such as enjoying breakfast, limiting caffeine, excess salt or alcohol, staying hydrated, and considering smaller nutrient deficiencies.
- Lifestyle strategies can also help: such as setting a sleep schedule, limiting blue light before bed, associating the bedroom with sleep, and reducing naps as able.