Sleep, Rest and the Role of Nutrition

Sleep, Rest and the Role of Nutrition

Sleep cycles

There are said to be four stages of the sleep cycle – stages one, two, three and REM (rapid eye movement). One may often hear them broadly referred to as REM and non-REM. Below is an excerpt explaining the different stages of sleep. Stage three of non-REM is said to be the most restorative stage and so focusing on increasing the quality of this stage is a good first step. (Leproult and Van Cauter, 2009)

Stage 1: The lightest stage of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. Often defined by the presence of slow eye movements, this drowsy sleep stage can be easily disrupted causing awakenings or arousals. Muscle tone throughout the body relaxes and brain wave activity begins to slow from that of wake. Occasionally people may experience hypnic jerks or abrupt muscle spasms and may even experience sensation of falling while drifting in and out of Stage 1.

Stage 2: The first actual stage of defined NREM sleep.  Awakenings or arousals do not occur as easily as in Stage 1 sleep and the slow moving eye rolls discontinue. Brain waves continue to slow with specific bursts of rapid activity known as sleep spindles intermixed with sleep structures known as K complexes. Both sleep spindles and K complexes are thought to serve as protection for the brain from awakening from sleep. Body temperature begins to decrease and heart rate begins to slow.

Stage 3: Known as deep NREM sleep. The most restorative stage of sleep, stage 3 consists of delta waves or slow waves.  Awakenings or arousals are rare and often it is difficult to awaken someone in Stage 3 sleep. Parasomnias (sleepwalking, sleep talking or somniloquy and night terrors) occur during the deepest stage of sleep.

REM sleep, also known as rapid eye movement, is most commonly known as the dreaming stage.  Eye movements are rapid, moving from side to side and brain waves are more active than in Stages 2 & 3 of sleep. Awakenings and arousals can occur more easily in REM; being woken during a REM period can leave one feeling groggy or overly sleepy.

Sleep, neurotransmitters and hormones

During delta wave activity GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a inhibitory neurotransmitter, inhibits neurons throughout the entire body as a way of helping the brain to remain in the delta state. GABA is formed with the help of bacteria in our colon and vitamin B6, some research has indicated taking probiotics can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and stress, it also converts serotonin in to melatonin which is the hormone which induces sleep with the help of light changes detected in the eye. Bacteria also produce a short chain fatty acid called butyric acid which has been shown to directly stimulate the vagus nerve, the “rest and digest” nerve.

Nutrient factors

There are many factors that affect our ability to gain good quality ‘stage three sleep’, but looking from a chemical perspective we can manipulate production of hormones and tie this in with lifestyle changes to gain better results. We will need to have sufficient serotonin to create melatonin and ensuring all the ingredients for this are in abundance is key. Seratonin is made from Tryptophan, an amino acid which we can find in pumpkin seeds, sea vegetables, cucumbers, walnuts, potatoes, mushrooms and cauliflower. B6, zinc, magnesium, vitamin C and folic acid or B9 are all essential to produce serotonin and the conversion to melatonin.

Tryptophan depends on insulin to be able to enter the cells and be converted into serotonin, with an imbalance in blood glucose levels we can start to see disruption in hormone production and therefore sleep. When the glucose levels drop the body releases stress hormones which trigger glycogen stores to be broken down into glucose for energy production, the same hormones also inhibit GABA production. Maintaining a healthy glucose and insulin level in the blood by using pro and prebiotics to modulate the nervous system and create sleep hormones is essential to a good night’s sleep. By having an abundance of supportive nutrients and ensuring you create a dark and safe sleeping space as well as adopting techniques to calm the body and mind can all contribute to better non REM stage three sleep.

Ok….. now what to eat?

I have created a dish that provides a little of all the nutrients needed to support sleep and rest.

Roasted shitake with walnut and kale pesto ‘pasta’

I love pasta but it isn’t the most nutritious of foods so I often substitute pasta for cauliflower, spiralised swede or courgette. This one is with cauliflower for all those lovely sleep nutrients.


1 handful of a mixture of soaked walnuts and pumpkins seeds
1 cup of steamed kale
1 bunch of curly parsley
½ head of cauliflower
1 clove of garlic
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup shitake mushrooms
Pinch of cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
6 cherry tomatoes, halved
Zest of half a lemon


Heat the oven to 200C ish, it is not hugely important so long as it is reasonable hot.  Massage the mushrooms whole with olive oil, salt and pepper and that pinch of cinnamon and roast for 15 minutes or so.

In a food processor blend the kale, parsley, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper until you have a rough paste then add the soaked seeds and nuts and blend again until you have the desired consistency, I prefer mine to be quite lumpy rather than smooth but everyone is different.

Steam the cauliflower and immediately toss in some of your delightful pesto before topping with roasted shitakes and lemon zest, I also like to add a drizzle of Italian white truffle oil but its not for everyone.

Try to enjoy your meal quietly and calmly and when you climb into your bed tonight make sure its lovely and dark and you adopt which ever calming technique works for you to calm your body and mind, preparing for some awesome stage three non REM sleep.

Tatu Bearcroft

Tatu was born in London but has lived all over, including but not only East Africa and Thailand as well as West London where she is based now. She grew up in remote natural environments with creative parents who used herbs and food to support health, with this upbringing is was only natural that she be interested in food as medicine and nutritional science. An area where she continues to pursue her thirst for knowledge in further studies in the subject. Tatu works as an international private health food and retreat chef as well as practicing as a nutritional therapist offering both face to face and remote consultations to clients worldwide.