Is This Diet The Key To A Good Night’s Sleep? MOJEH Investigates

7 min read
Photographed by Vivienne & Tamas For MOJEH 79

So much more than essential oils and meditation apps, this year is all about eating your way to a better night’s sleep with the circadian rhythm diet. MOJEH investigates

If you look at the number of studies released each year, it would be safe to say that sleep is one of the world’s most researched aspects of human wellness. There was research published just last month by University College London, for example, which found adults who reported five or fewer hours of sleep on average were two and a half times more likely to develop symptoms of depression later in life. A few months earlier, scientists in the US found people with one or more self-reported symptoms of insomnia have a 16 per cent increased risk of stroke.

Struggling to sleep is no new phenomenon. From essential oils and meditation to pre-bed rituals, the world is full of gadgets, gizmos and theories that promise to guide us into a delightful slumber. But rather than developing a whole raft of coping mechanisms that rarely work, or at least not for long, what if you addressed the issue at the root of the cause? Tackling sleep is like anything else to do with health, and while making real behavioural changes may take effort and commitment, the results are more than worth it. That’s where the circadian rhythm diet comes in.

Few people realise that your diet has everything to do with your sleep, with research pointing to the fact that when we eat is just as important as what we eat due to a little thing called our circadian rhythm. Otherwise known as our brain’s biological clock, it controls everything in the body from when we feel hungry and how much we want to eat, to our sociability and mood to longer term health. It also governs the flow of hormones and biological processes that help to set our pattern of sleep. “Our circadian rhythm is our body’s internal clock,” Khadija Kapasi, Dubai-based DHA-registered clinical dietitian tells MOJEH. “It’s an intelligence that generates feelings of wakefulness and sleepiness, and hunger and satiety during an entire 24-hour cycle. Pretty much how we sleep, eat and digest works according to this rhythm, meaning different bodily processes are designed to be carried out at different times.”

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Our circadian rhythms are affected by a multitude of factors. The sleep hormones melatonin and cortisol are two of the most important — the former typically rises in the evening to signify that it’s time to sleep, while the latter helps keep us alert during the day. Meal timing and food choices affect the levels of these hormones in our bodies, so understanding how our body is programmed, and feeding it the right foods at the right time, can help unlock the secret to a good night’s sleep. “Our circadian rhythms influence our body’s optimal times for eating,” explains Khadija. “The timing of our meals can affect the synchronisation of our internal clock, with irregular eating patterns like late-night snacking or skipping meals causing disruption and, in turn, disturbing sleep patterns.” Other benefits of aligning your mealtime with your circadian rhythm include improved endurance, reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, better digestion, increased energy levels and lower blood pressure, among other things, so it’s definitely worth paying attention.

The first thing to remember is that your metabolism is highest in the morning and afternoon, so to support this pattern and rhythm, Khadija suggests getting most of your calories from breakfast and lunch, and the least from dinner.

“A circadian rhythm breakfast diet is designed to support your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle, and should include lean protein such as eggs and Greek yoghurt, complex carbohydrates such as whole grain oatmeal, fruit, veg and healthy fats,” she advises. “These foods can help maintain alertness during the day, provide long- lasting energy and help control hunger. Whenever possible, eat your breakfast in natural light, and maintain a regular eating schedule by having breakfast at the same time each day.”

Contrary to popular belief, caffeine should be avoided first thing in the morning if you want to keep your circadian rhythm on track, with Khadija going as far as to say consuming tea or coffee before breakfast is the most detrimental thing we can do to our body clocks. “Hear me out,” she says. “When we wake up, our cortisol levels and blood pressure rise and stay high for up to three hours, which drives us to get started with our day. Adding coffee into our system at this point simply adds more cortisol into the body, which isn’t required. More cortisol means more adrenaline and higher blood pressure, which in turn can turn on the fight or flight mode, raising your blood sugar levels and heart rate too.” Instead let these couple of hours pass before enjoying a cup, and finish your last one by 3pm at the latest.

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Lunch should follow a similar pattern, with healthy fats such as avocados, nuts and olive oil, plus high-fibre foods including legumes, beans and leafy greens thrown into the mix. Looking to foods that are rich in tryptophan — an amino acid which is used by the body to make serotonin, which in turn is converted to melatonin when it’s time to sleep — is key here too. “Our bodies can’t produce it, so we must obtain it through our diet,” adds Khadija. Foods such as seeds, soya beans, bananas, chicken, turkey, oats, beans and eggs are all great shouts, while eating them with a source of carbohydrate can also help with uptake to the brain.

Ingredients that promote or support melatonin production should take pride of place on the dinner table, while anything high in sugar should be well and truly avoided. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel provide omega-3 fatty acids which have long been associated with better sleep, while brown rice and other wholegrains can also help even more tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier. “Try adding herbs and spices such as oregano and thyme to your food, as research shows they may contain compounds that have a calming effect and promote relaxation,” advises Khadija. “Cherries, particularly tart cherries, have been found to contain small amounts of melatonin, so try snacking on these if you want something sweet.” She also suggests having a glass of warm milk as you wind down for bed. “Calcium is essential for converting tryptophan into melatonin,” she adds. Try adding a dash of honey or nutmeg — herbalists say it can cause drowsiness and a sense of wellbeing in small amounts, although this isn’t proven.

As with everything in life, consistency is key — the more regular your sleeping and eating habits are, the better your circadian rhythm works. “Go to bed around the same time every night, try to wake up at sunrise, and maintain these times at least five days of the week,” concludes Khadija. With sleep such a rare commodity these days — and studies showing that up to two thirds of us admit to suffering from disrupted slumber every night — what’s the worst that could happen? Your brain, your body and your stomach will all thank you for it.

A Day in the Life on the Circadian Rhythm Diet

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A typical day on the circadian rhythm diet should look a little something like this…


Oatmeal with low fat milk or; 1 oz nuts or whole grain toast with smashed avocado and one egg or; Greek yoghurt with banana and berries.


Grilled salmon fillet with fresh green beans and pineapple rice or; avocado quesadillas or; vegan lentil burgers in a wholewheat bun.


Warm roasted vegetable salad with eggplant, cherry tomatoes, grains and mushrooms or; Cajun potato, shrimp and avocado salad or; chicken breast tray bake with carrots and Brussels sprouts.

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  • Words by Naomi Chadderton