Sleep Nutrition – Why A Diversified Diet Matters

Written by Audra Starkey | 19 December, 2019

a mix of orange and green vegetables on a white background

Sleep is undeniably an important pillar of our health, yet for many, can become quite elusive for a number of reasons. One of the most overlooked causes is a diet made up of highly refined and processed foods because they lack essential nutrients required to facilitate the many biochemical processes which help to initiate and sustain sleep.

This is where the food-gut-sleep connection comes into play, and why a diversified diet, rich in an array of plant-based foods helps to boost nutritional status, and ultimately sleep.

If we take a step back and look at the typical Western diet, it’s made up predominantly of refined carbohydrates, sugars and unhealthy fats, with little to no nutrients. This becomes problematic because the body requires specific vitamins and minerals, otherwise known as co-factors, to produce certain hormones and neurotransmitters that play a role in initiating sleep. For example, in order for serotonin to be converted into the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin, the body requires magnesium, calcium and vitamin B5. Nutrients that can be found in whole, real foods, but are fairly non-existent in processed foods.

Another key aspect of a highly refined and processed diet is that it’s often very low in dietary fibre, which is necessary to slow down digestion and minimise blood sugar spikes and crashes that can lead to disrupted sleep. This correlation was highlighted in a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (2016), where a diet low in fibre, high in saturated fat and sugar was associated with lighter, less restorative sleep and more intermittent awakenings (1).

Dietary fibre, found in plant-based foods, provides food for the millions of microscopic bugs that reside in the gastrointestinal tract, otherwise known as the gut microbiome, which are responsible for producing neurotransmitters such as GABA and 5-HTP. GABA, which is short for gamma-aminobutyric acid, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps to calm and relax the nervous system and therefore essential for sleep, while 5-HTP, or 5-hydroxytryptophan, is the precursor to serotonin needed to make the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin.

So consuming a diverse range of plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole-grains, nuts and seeds will not only supply the body with a variety of key nutrients and dietary fibre, but will also enhance gut microbiome diversity. Quite simply, the healthier our diet, the healthier our gut, and ultimately the healthier our sleep.


  1. St-Onge, M, Roberts, A, Shechter, A, & Choudhury, A 2016, ‘Fiber and Saturated Fat Are Associated with Sleep Arousals and Slow Wave Sleep’, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 19-24.

Audra Starkey

Audra Starkey is a Nutritional Medicine graduate from Endeavour College of Natural Health in Brisbane, with a passion for helping shift workers. With a particular interest in preventative health, Audra runs shift-work-specific wellness services for individuals, along with facilitating seminars within the workplace to help create an awareness on how a disrupted sleep-wake cycle and poor dietary habits can impact on our health.

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