This is not medical advice. It is information you can use as a conversation starter with your physician or nutritionist.
With plant-based diets exploding in popularity, this seems like a good time to talk about how vegan and vegetarian diets interact with sleep. These diets hold potential benefits for sleep—and they also may create complications for sleep, depending on the specific make up of one’s individual diet.
Vegetarianism and veganism, with their focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats like olive oil and coconut oil, have a lot going for them, in terms of being sleep friendly and sleep promoting. But like any diet, it can be tricky to find the right balance of a spectrum of nutrients that come together to support sleep. First, I’ll talk about some specific issues vegans and vegetarians may encounter in how their diets relate to sleep. Then, I’ll highlight a few of the natural strengths these plant-based diets have for sleep.
4 sleep-specific nutrient issues for vegans and vegetarians:
Being short on the all-purpose sleep vitamin, Vitamin D
I’ve talked before about the importance of Vitamin D for sleep.
Vitamin D affects both sleep quality and sleep quantity. Research has linked Vitamin D deficiency to short sleep duration. And the relationship between insufficient sleep and a Vitamin D shortage may be a particular issue for adults age 50 and older, according to studies.
Vitamin D appears to function in keeping the timing of our bio clocks in sync, by helping to activate two circadian clock genes that effect your 24-hour circadian rhythms.
Low Vitamin D is also connected to a higher risk of sleep apnea, and to more severe sleep apnea. On the positive side, use of CPAP, the most common treatment for sleep apnea, has been connected to a big jump in Vitamin D levels, along with significant improvements to sleep apnea symptoms.
Everyone is at risk for Vitamin D deficiency. It’s estimated that more than half the US population is lacking in Vitamin D. But vegans in particular may have a greater chance of deficiency in this sleep-promoting vitamin, by not getting the requisite amounts in their diet. Vitamin D is found in eggs and dairy products, as well as fatty fish and fish oils consumed by pescatarians and omnivores.
But the best way to increase your levels of Vitamin D isn’t through diet at all. It’s by getting exposure to sunlight, which triggers the body to make its own Vitamin D. Vitamin D is also a commonly used supplement, particularly for people in northern climates.
Not getting enough of the sleep-regulator Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 plays a role in regulating sleep-wake cycles, by working to keep circadian rhythms aligned. There is mixed evidence about how the Vitamin B12 directly influences sleep. Some research has shown a connection between low Vitamin B12 and insomnia. In other studies, high levels of Vitamin B12 are associated with restless sleep and lower sleep amounts.
Studies have shown that both vegans and vegetarians are at greater risk for Vitamin B12 deficiency than omnivores are—and that deficiency could contribute to less robust circadian cycles and more disrupted sleep.
Many vegan and vegetarian friendly foods are fortified with B12, including nut and soy milks, whole grain cereals, and nutritional yeast. Often, people adhering to plant-only diets take a B12 supplement.
Lacking certain sleep-promoting Omega 3s
Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. They have been shown to increase sleep amounts and to improve sleep quality, and to help people fall asleep more quickly. One omega 3, known as DHA, is involved in melatonin production. Research shows low levels of the DHA are linked to melatonin deficiency, increasing DHA causes melatonin levels to rise.
A lack of sufficient DHA is also linked to with greater severity of OSA. Research has shown that increasing levels of DHA may reduce the risk of severe sleep apnea. There’s some early evidence that omega 3 deficiency may contribute to the onset of obstructive sleep apnea.
There are three main kinds of omega 3s:
EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid
DHA, docosahexaenoic acid
AHA, alpha-linolenic acid
EPA and DHA are found mostly in fish. AHA is found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils and in some leafy green vegetables as well grass-fed beef and other grass-fed animal products. AHA can convert to EPA and DHA in the body, but the body produces much less of what it needs of EPA and DHA through this conversion. For this reason, vegetarians and vegans often don’t get the amounts of EPA and DHA they need for sleep and health. Studies suggest that vegans and vegetarians have significantly lower levels of EPA and DHA than omnivores do. Eating ALA-rich foods can help optimize EPA and DHA levels in vegetarians. So can limiting consumption of omega-6 fatty acids found in corn, sunflower, and canola oils. Certain algae supplements are designed to deliver these important fatty acids.
Going without enough essential sleep-fortifying minerals, including zinc, calcium and iron
Both calcium and zinc help to regulate sleep-wake cycles. Calcium deficiency is associated with a lack of REM sleep. Calcium has a calming effect on the central nervous system. Calcium also helps the brain to produce melatonin, and calcium activity in the brain may have a direct influence over how long we sleep. A lack of iron can interfere with sound, restful sleep, creating sleep that feels less refreshing and restorative.
Vegetarians–and particularly vegans–may be at greater risk for lower than optimal calcium, zinc and iron levels. In addition to supplements, targeting these minerals in a plant-based diet can help you elevate your mineral levels. Zinc is found in many vegan and vegetarian friendly foods, including grains, nuts, seeds, beans and tofu. Calcium is often fortified in plant milks, and is found naturally in dark leafy greens. The type of iron found in plants (known as “non-heme” iron) is less effectively absorbed by the body than the heme iron found in animal products. Iron is sometimes fortified in plant milks, and it’s found naturally in broccoli, peas, and beans.
4 naturally sleep-promoting elements of vegan and vegetarian diets:
Plenty of the sleep- and brain-protective Vitamin E
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps cells function properly and protects against cell damage. Vitamin E’s antioxidant capabilities appear to help with sleep and sleep-related health problems.
Because of its antioxidant abilities, Vitamin E offers important protection for the health and function of the brain. Studies show that Vitamin E may deliver specific protection against the memory impairment from sleep loss. Sleep is an important time for the brain to process memories and recent learning. Lack of sleep can inhibit our ability to store, and later recall, memories. A recent study found that Vitamin E reduced memory loss in sleep-deprived rats. Scientists found that Vitamin E protects the function of the hippocampus, an area of the brain plays an important role in memory consolidation.
Higher levels of Vitamin E can also improve nighttime breathing and sleep quality in people with obstructive sleep apnea.
Popular foods with vegans and vegetarians are rich in Vitamin E. They include almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts and sunflower seeds, as well as spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, wheat germ oil, corn and soybean oils.
Lots of sleep-friendly Vitamin C
Another antioxidant powerhouse, C supports immunity, cardiovascular health, and healthy bones, teeth and skin. Vitamin C’s health-promoting powers also affect sleep.
Well balanced, whole-food vegan and vegetarian diets can be abundant in Vitamin C, which is found in citrus fruits, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, green and red chilis, strawberries, and kiwi.
Like its fellow antioxidant Vitamin E, Vitamin C may help protect the brain against the memory losses associated with sleep deprivation.
Vitamin C may improve the symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, used on its own and with other antioxidants. Research has shown that a combination of Vitamin C (100 mg) and Vitamin E (400 IU) taken twice daily reduced episodes of apnea, the breathing pauses that are associated with sleep apnea. This C and E combination also improved sleep quality and decreased daytime sleepiness. For people with OSA, Vitamin C may offer some protection against the stress that sleep apnea exerts on heart. To be clear: you cannot just take Vitamin C and fix your apnea, but it may be helpful.
A supply of the sleep hormone producer Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 helps the body make melatonin and serotonin, two hormones that are essential for healthy sleep. A deficiency of B6 is associated with insomnia symptoms, and with depression. In studies of older adults, higher intake of Vitamin B6 has been connected to lower risk for depression.
For people interested in improving their dream recall, Vitamin B6 may help. A 2018 study at Australia’s University of Adelaide found that Vitamin B6 may help people increase their ability to remember their dreams. (Interested in learning more about controlling and directing your dreams? Check out my latest on lucid dreaming.)
Bananas, carrots, spinach, potatoes and whole grains are great sources of B6, for both vegans and vegetarians. Vegetarians can also acquire B6 through milk, eggs and cheese.
A NOTE ABOUT VITAMIN B6: It’s always important to talk about your supplement use with your doctor. That’s especially true for Vitamin B6. High levels of Vitamin B6 can be toxic. And excessive levels of B6 have also been linked to insomnia. If you’re considering a B6 supplement, it’s important to work with your doctor to find the right dose.
Benefits of soy for plentiful, restful sleep routine
Not all vegans and vegetarians consume soy, but many do. For these eaters, soy is among a select group of plant proteins that contain all the essential amino acids the body needs to function optimally.
Studies show that higher soy consumption is linked to longer sleep amounts and also to higher sleep quality. Eating soy regularly has also been associated with a low risk for long sleep duration, and with a low risk for falling asleep during the daytime.
(I’ve written about the potential health hazards associated with sleeping too much, here.)
The best soy consumption, nutritionists say, is with whole and minimally processed soy foods, including tofu, soy milk, edamame, and miso, rather than highly processed soy foods, such as textured vegetable protein.
Vegans and vegetarians who focus on a balance of whole foods, and who take initiative to ensure they’re getting the full spectrum of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, can expect to have their plant-based diet reinforce and support a healthy routine of sleep.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor
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