Day 13 Kick Start 2022 Plant-Based Challenge
Plants to aid our sleep – The Sleep Deprivation Epidemic
The daily decision to shortchange sleep has reached epidemic proportions in much of the world. Throughout the industrialized world, rates of insomnia range from 10–30%.
It’s not just that we’re groggy, distracted, and irritable prior to our morning cup of coffee; lack of sleep can significantly degrade our physical and mental health. Here’s the shortlist of the medical risks that increase when we don’t get sufficient restorative sleep on a regular basis:
- type 2 diabetes,
- heart attack,
- and there’s also an increased risk of auto accidents and mental health challenges.
Those are just the direct effects. Lousy sleep patterns can undermine our health in a roundabout way, too, by changing how we eat. When we’re sleep-deprived, we tend to make worse dietary choices, most of which add empty calories that can further harm us.
Why Sleep Is Such an Issue for So Many
Before we dive into solutions, let’s quickly remind ourselves that for most of human history, sleep wasn’t a problem. We are hardwired to fall asleep when we’re tired and wake up when we have slept enough.
Our sleep drive (or our need for sleep) functions pretty much like our hunger drive. Don’t eat for a while, and you get more and more hungry, to the point where raw zucchini starts looking delicious; eat a big meal, and you lose your appetite. In the same way, we get more and more tired the longer we stay awake. While we sleep, the sleep drive diminishes until it’s weak enough to be overbalanced by the circadian impulse to get up and get moving.
So, what’s changed? Well, modern society isn’t exactly friendly to healthful sleep.
Electric lighting, as we’ve seen, has probably made the biggest difference. Pre-Edison, you went to bed when it got dark.
Information Overload, we’ve also got more to keep track of these days. Social media and the 24-hour news cycle mean that something’s always happening somewhere, and many of us feel compelled to stay on top of all of it.
In addition to this constant bombardment with information, we’ve also become a society of mindless scrollers and binge-watchers. Those who use social media the most, especially right before bed, experience the greatest disruptions in sleep.
Blue Light It’s not social media, in particular, though; the same is true of those who watch TV, play video games, or otherwise interact with their computers, tablets, and smartphones prior to nodding off. Part of the problem with these devices may be the band of the visible light spectrum they emit. Digital devices are heavy on blue light — which the colour-perceiving cells in our eyes interpret as the daytime sun, sending “wakey-wakey” signals to the rest of our bodies.
Blue light suppresses the production of melatonin at night, making it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Some studies even suggest a link between exposure to blue light at night and an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. The relatively new science of chronobiology is exploring the mechanisms whereby fooling our bodies into thinking it’s perpetual daytime can wreak havoc on our endocrine systems, too.
Mental Health. Industrialized societies also threaten our mental health, which can compromise sleep. Approximately half of all insomnia cases are related to depression, anxiety, or psychological stress.
Not only can mental health issues and stress lead to disturbed sleep, but causation works in the other direction as well. A lack of healthy sleep can lead to psychological problems and make us far more susceptible to stress.
Why Meal Timing Is Important
Sleep and meal timing can impact hormonal levels that, in turn, influence satiety and food intake. The hormones your body makes and deploys rise and fall in quantity throughout the day. At certain times of day, you’re hungrier, and at other times you’re not so hungry. Sometimes your body prefers to store fat, and sometimes it would rather burn fat.
One of the hormones known to be sensitive to timing is ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone. Interestingly, even though ghrelin (from the Proto-Indo-European language root for “grow”) wasn’t discovered until 1999.
Eating late at night can interfere with sleep quality and brain health. Even small snacks in the late evening can turn on the whole digestive system. If you go to sleep on a full stomach, your body has to split its energy between digestion and all the things your brain needs to do during sleep. (Insulin sensitivity is also highest in the morning, which means that for most people morning is the optimal time to eat.)
Fasting can help or hurt your sleep, depending on timing. Basically, humans evolved to eat during the daytime and not eat at night. If you fast all day and eat a big meal right before bed, your body can get confused and think that it’s time to go out to do stuff just when you’re turning down the sheets. When your body gets a big surge of calories but has no immediate need to burn them, it is also more inclined to store them as fat.
Nutrients That Impact Sleep
Before I give you a list of specific foods that can improve your sleep, let’s talk at a higher level for a bit. What are the specific nutrients in foods that can help you go to sleep easily and stay asleep until you’re fully rested?
Getting enough dietary fibre is key to a good night’s sleep. A 2016 study found that greater fibre intake predicted more time spent in the stage of deep, slow-wave sleep, which is most restorative. And, data from a survey of US adults revealed an association between the daily intake of total fibre and total sleep duration. Those who got a “normal” amount of sleep (defined as seven to eight hours per night) also had the highest fibre intake.
Folate (not to be confused with folic acid) has been linked to lower rates of both insomnia (defined as difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep, and/or extended periods of wakefulness) and restless leg syndrome. Getting enough folate also appears to make you more likely to feel sleepy at bedtime and more resilient in the face of sleep disturbances.
Complex carbohydrates (found in whole plant foods) raise serotonin, a neurotransmitter that basically orients you towards contentment. When you’re satisfied and grateful, you don’t have to chase after the next meal or avoid the next predator, so you tend toward relaxation and even drowsiness. Complex carbohydrates also lower the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol inhibit sleep, as we tend to do our best fighting or fleeing while awake.
Isoflavones are a class of phytoestrogens (that is, plant-based molecules that resemble and to some extent mimic the function of the sex hormone estrogen) found in plant foods. Daily isoflavone intake may have a beneficial effect on sleep. In a 2015 Japanese study of over 1,000 participants, higher isoflavone intake resulted in better sleep duration and quality.
We know that for postmenopausal women who find themselves struggling to get a good night’s sleep, estrogen replacement therapy can sometimes alleviate symptoms of insomnia and increase sleep efficiency. Isoflavones, possibly like other phytoestrogens, may have similar effects with fewer unwanted side effects.
Magnesium is a key mineral for sleep. Low levels are associated with poor sleep quality and insomnia. There may be multiple mechanisms at work here; not only can magnesium deficiency compromise sleep directly, but it’s also correlated with anxiety and depression — both of which can also contribute to an inability to fall and stay asleep.
Consuming more magnesium can improve subjective measures of insomnia such as sleep efficiency, sleep duration, and sleep onset latency (which just means how long it takes you to fall asleep). For various reasons most of us don’t get enough magnesium in our diets, making it a “usual suspect” nutrient to increase in people who are struggling with sleep.
Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, is the precursor to serotonin and melatonin, a hormone that we will meet shortly. As a neurotransmitter, tryptophan is key to our ability to regulate mood and cognition.
Some of the benefits of adequate tryptophan intake include reductions in obstructive sleep apnea and improvements in sleep latency and REM sleep (the phase in which you dream and decouple emotions from events so you don’t go through life in a constant state of fear).
Plant sources of tryptophan include leafy greens, sunflower seeds, watercress, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, broccoli, and peas. Cereals fortified with tryptophan have been found to increase sleep efficiency and sleep time, and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland that helps with sleep initiation and maintenance. It modulates your circadian rhythm, so it’s one of the key things that has to catch up and reintegrate if you travel to a different time zone or shift your pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
Your body uses tryptophan to help make melatonin.
Best Plant-Based Foods to Sleep Better
Now that we’ve established the nutrients related to better sleep, let’s identify some specific foods that contain those nutrients — some of which may improve sleep quality.
Pumpkin seeds contain high levels of tryptophan and magnesium and can improve sleep onset latency and sleep quality. They are so high in magnesium, in fact, that just three ounces of roasted seeds exceed the recommended daily value for that nutrient.
While it’s easy to take magnesium supplements to meet your daily requirements, there’s some evidence that getting magnesium from food may have long-term benefits.
In addition to being rich sources of antioxidants, kiwis also contain serotonin and folate, all of which may contribute to the sleep benefits of the fruit. As a result, you might expect kiwifruit consumption to help people sleep longer and better, and a 2011 study found just that. Twenty-four adults had to eat two kiwis each evening, and after four weeks, they were falling asleep faster and staying asleep longer.
Mushrooms, in general, are good sources of melatonin, tryptophan, and folate. One variety, in particular, (Hericium Erinaceus, known more commonly as lion’s mane) shows promise to decrease depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders in overweight and obese individuals.
Whole Grain Rice
Whole grain rice (as opposed to polished white rice, which has had the hull removed) is a complex carbohydrate, which we’ve already seen is a class of nutrients conducive to improved sleep. Red and black varieties of rice have the highest levels of melatonin.
In a 2020 study, sleep quality index scores showed significant improvement on a diet that featured rice along with miso and other traditional Japanese dishes.
Oats, another complex carbohydrate, are another type of grain boasting some of the highest concentrations of melatonin. They also contain tryptophan, magnesium and are a rich source of soluble fibre.
Pistachios can improve sleep thanks to the isoflavones they contain, as well as their very high levels of melatonin. They’re also a good source of magnesium and folate.
Almonds contain sleep-promoting nutrients like tryptophan, melatonin, and magnesium. A 2019 study looked at the prevalence of insomnia in Iranian students living in university dormitories and found that adding just 10 sweet almonds to their daily diets had a significant positive impact.
Whole Soy Foods
Whole soy foods such as tempeh and edamame are high in magnesium, tryptophan, and folate, and they’re a particularly rich source of isoflavones. A 2015 study out of Japan (where consumption of soy foods like tofu and miso is common) followed over 1,000 adults for five years and found that people who ate isoflavones every day enjoyed better sleep duration and quality.
Best Beverages to Sleep Better
Sleepytime drinks have been popular for a long time. From the Irish hot toddy to the mug of chamomile tea, humans all over the world have been concocting (mostly warm) beverages to help the mind calm down and the body relax.
Chamomile tea is known as a folk remedy for sleep, and science is beginning to understand. Some of chamomile’s sleep-supporting effects may be due to the flavonoid apigenin, which binds to benzodiazepine receptors in the brain.
Tart Cherry Juice
Not all beverages for sleep need to be consumed warm. Tart cherry juice can help with sleep thanks to its high levels of tryptophan, serotonin, melatonin, and antioxidants. Studies show that the juice can improve sleep quality in a couple of ways: by helping people fall asleep faster, and also helping them stay asleep for longer after nodding off.
Lemon Balm Tea
Lemon balm is a perennial herb in the mint family that grows around the world and (in supplement form) has been shown to decrease depression, anxiety, stress, and sleep disorder in patients with chronic stable angina. When combined with another herb, valerian, lemon balm may assist in reducing sleep disorder symptoms in women going through menopause, too. This same combination also improved sleep in primary school children with hyperactivity and concentration difficulties. While these studies mostly explored the effects of herbal supplements, a tea made from fresh or dried lemon balm leaves seems likely to bring about similar effects.
Valerian tea comes from the roots and underground stems of the valerian plant, which grows throughout North and South America as well as Europe and China. Depending on your olfactory tolerance and penchant for metaphor, you might describe the odor of valerian tea as “woodsy” or “a lot like dirty gym socks.”
Valerian root has been shown to significantly improve sleep quality, anxiety, and depression in hemodialysis patients. Valerian mixed with hops also helped a group of poor sleepers spends more time in deep sleep.
Lavender tea is one of the most common home remedies for insomnia. The oils in the lavender plant are considered safe for treating mild to moderate sleep disturbances. In one study, oral lavender oil showed a significant beneficial influence on the quality and duration of sleep. It also buoys the nervous system, improving general mental and physical health without any unwanted sedative effects. Another study has demonstrated beneficial effects on fatigue and depression in postpartum women, to the extent that lavender tea drinkers were actually able to bond more closely with their infants.
Lavender is so nice, you don’t even have to drink it! Lavender’s aromatherapeutic effects can help in facilitating sleep even if you just get a whiff of the herb.
3 Recipes for Better Sleep
Sweet and Nutty Oat Milk with Cinnamon Spice
- 1 cup organic rolled oats
- 4 cups water
- 4 Medjool dates (pitted)
- 2 tbsp tahini (or almond butter)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract (preferably alcohol-free)
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp ground ginger
- ⅛ tsp nutmeg
- 2 pinches salt (optional)
- sesame seeds (for garnish)
- ground cinnamon (for garnish)
Add all of the ingredients, except the sesame seeds and cinnamon garnish, to a high-speed blender.
Start by blending on low then increase speed to high. Blend until smooth or for 1–2 minutes.
Taste for additional flavours of choice like cinnamon, salt, or sweetness
Strain the milk by adding it to a nut-milk bag or a fine sieve. (Use the remaining oat pulp, if there is any, in your morning oatmeal!)
Pour milk into a 32-ounce mason jar or two 16-ounce jars. Use within 5 days.
Enjoy this milk warm: Heat eight ounces of oat milk (or more, if desired) in a small stovetop pan over medium heat. Once hot (not boiling), turn off the heat and pour into your favourite mug. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and a dash of cinnamon.
Use your favourite nut or seed butter in place of the tahini.
Make it creamier
Use one less cup of water.
Add more nutrition
Add your favourite adaptogen powder like maca, mushroom, or ashwagandha.
Store in an airtight container or mason jar in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Pumpkin Seed Sleep Balls.
These bite-size sleep balls come with plenty of fibre, magnesium, and tryptophan, plus lots of flavour. They’re very fast to prepare if you have leftover brown rice or quinoa, and some prepared roasted red peppers on hand.
1 cup organic brown rice (precooked/cooled, or 1 cup, packed, precooked/cooled quinoa)
1 cup roasted pumpkin seeds
½ cup packed organic red bell peppers (roasted, (can use jarred, just drain)
1 tbsp organic tomato paste
¼ cup green onions (+1/12 cup if needed)
1 ½ tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 medium garlic clove
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
¾ tsp salt (optional)
½ tsp marmite
½ cup organic rolled oats
2 tbsp roasted pumpkin seeds to pulse in, optional
In a food processor, add all ingredients except oats and 2 Tbsp pumpkin seeds.
Puree until well-combined, scraping down the bowl as needed.
Add oats and pulse through several times to incorporate.
Add the pumpkin seeds, and pulse in again, just to slightly incorporate but keep some texture.
If possible, refrigerate for about an hour.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 375°F. Take scoops of mixture (about 1–1 ½ Tbsp; should yield 18–20 poppers), and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake for 18–20 minutes, until golden or just firm to the touch (do not over-bake, they will dry out).
Remove, and serve with pasta and tomato sauce, or with baked potatoes.
Toasted Pistachio and Cherry Overnight Oats
Studies show that cherries can reduce pain from arthritis and exercise-related soreness. Oatmeal replenishes carbohydrate stores. Chia seeds provide omega-3s, essential fatty acids were shown to help reduce inflammation. Finally, pistachios get their green colour from chlorophyll, the same healing compound found in leafy greens, AND it was recently found that pistachios are a complete protein with all nine essential amino acids! Talk about an ideal recovery meal….so why would you not want to start your day with this!!
1 cup organic rolled oats
2 tbsp chia seeds
2 cups plant-based milk (unsweetened)
2 tbsp pure maple syrup (optional)
¼ cup organic sweet cherries (fresh, pitted, roughly chopped)
¼ cup organic tart cherries (fresh, pitted, roughly chopped)
½ cup pistachios (chopped)
Add the oats and chia seeds: Split the oats and chia seeds between two 16-ounce mason jars
Add the milk: Split the milk between the two mason jars (1 cup of milk in each jar).
Add the maple syrup, if using: Split the maple syrup between the two mason jars and stir well.
Add the cherries: Split the sweet and tart cherries between the two mason jars, adding them on top. It’s okay if some get submerged in the liquid.
Place a lid on each mason jar and store in the refrigerator for 6–8 hours.
Meanwhile, toast the pistachios: Heat a small saucepan on medium heat. Add the pistachios and toast, tossing and stirring occasionally, until slightly browned, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer the nuts to a small bowl to cool.
Once cooled, cover and set pistachios aside until oats are ready to eat (you want to add the pistachios after the oats have sat overnight to prevent the pistachios from getting soggy).
When oats are ready, stir in the pistachios and enjoy!
Instead of oats, try quinoa flakes, which are rolled quinoa (similar to oats). You can find them in specialty grocery stores or online.
In place of chia seeds use flax meal.
Instead of cherries, try blueberries, organic strawberries, organic peaches, or organic nectarines.
In place of pistachios, use your favourite nuts like almonds, cashews, or pecans.
Sugar-free: Use date paste or other fruit paste in place of maple syrup.
Add sliced banana for natural sweetness instead of maple.
Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Recipes and photos from Food Revolution Network and Eating Richly