The importance of a good night’s rest is quickly being recognized as a pillar of good health. Without a good night’s sleep, that new diet may not be working as much magic as you’d hope. Without a good night’s sleep, that school test, work presentation, or thesis may seem a bit harder to take, prep for, or write. Sleep allows the entire body to reset, the brain to wash away plaque buildup from the day, and has been linked to a reduced risk of dementia, better cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, healthier weight maintenance, and even lower rates of certain cancers.

Yet, no matter how many people may tell you how important sleep is, many of us suffer from the inability to obtain said miracle sleep. Oftentimes, looking at lifestyle and eating habits can help deduce a workable solution, and generally, when it comes to Americans and sleep, one of the biggest culprits is sugar.

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Mostly, this is due to the typical American eating schedule where we consume a sweet treat right after dinner and closer to bedtime. It also doesn’t help that the American diet is rich with both added and natural sugars that cause sugar crashes, blood sugar, spikes, and brain stimulation from morning to night.

You may be thinking… but I eat mainly plant-based foods or I’m a vegan, so this doesn’t apply. Unfortunately, eating plant-based foods doesn’t exclude you from the sugar trap!

Many plant-based and vegan snack and dessert recipes opt for natural sugars (think lots of fruit) and plant-based sweeteners (think stevia, maple syrup, and agave syrup). While these options are more nutritious than added sugars (think refined sugar cane and high fructose corn syrup), they are still a form of sugar. Store-bought vegan products — such as dairy-free milk, cheese, and yogurt — are also typically rich in sugar. Plus, many vegan recipes opt for sweet sugar-rich carbs such as sweet potato, which is very nutritious, yet should still be consumed in moderation and with care.

While there are definitely healthier plant-based options that are great to include in your plant-based diet, it’s all about consuming them around a sleep-favorable schedule!

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All About Sleep

baby sleeping

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While there are various theories regarding why our bodies actually need sleep, there’s a whole host of research showing what happens when we sleep. Both of these questions are just as important as the other. Most of us just think that our bodies need to rest, yet have you ever asked why our bodies go through different stages of sleep? What are these stages for? How about why sleep seems to impact metabolism, cardiovascular health, brain health, and even cancer?

The Many Theories of Why We Sleep

Equations on a chalkboard

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There are four basic theories to why we sleep: the inactivity theory, the energy conservation theory, the restorative theories, and the brain plasticity Theory.

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Some of these theories are a bit dated, such as the inactivity theory (also referred to as the adaptive or evolutionary theory), which “suggests that inactivity at night is an adaptation that served a survival function by keeping organisms out of harm’s way at times when they would be particularly vulnerable.”

Other theories are a bit obvious, such as the restorative theory. This one I can personally attest to. In the evening, after a day of activity, I get tired, go to sleep, and wake up the next morning feeling, well, restored. Yet, there’s more to the theory than that. The restorative theory “is based on the long-held belief that sleep in some way serves to ‘restore’ what is lost in the body while we are awake.” Studies have found that “major restorative functions in the body like muscle growth, tissue repair, protein synthesis, and growth hormone release occur mostly, or in some cases only, during sleep.” It goes deeper than that! Your brain also gets a bit of rejuvenation while you sleep. For instance, throughout your waking hours, your brain produces and builds up adenosine — “a by-product of the cells’ activities” — which is also being linked to the feeling of being tired. When we get a good nights sleep, “the body has a chance to clear adenosine from the system, and, as a result, we feel more alert when we wake.”

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The energy conservation theory “suggests that the primary function of sleep is to reduce an individual’s energy demand and expenditure during part of the day or night, especially at times when it is least efficient to search for food.” This theory looks at energy metabolism — which is “significantly reduced during sleep (by as much as 10 percent in humans and even more in other species),” — as well as the fact that “both body temperature and caloric demand decrease during sleep, as compared to wakefulness.”

The brain plasticity theory is actually one of the most recent and compelling explanations for why we sleep. This theory “is based on findings that sleep is correlated to changes in the structure and organization of the brain.” While this theory is still being research and developed, it’s fast becoming one of the most relied upon. For instance, researchers are finding that “sleep plays a critical role in brain development in infants and young children,” and, furthermore, the “link between sleep and brain plasticity is becoming clear in adults as well.” Many studies are conducted around sleep deprivation, as well as monitoring brain activity during sleep.

What Happens When We Sleep

Lightbulb in a thought bubble

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Now that we’ve looked at the reasons behind why we sleep — as lucrative as they are — let’s take a quick gander at what happens when you get a full night of shuteye.

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For a long time, generally before the 1950s, most of us believed that “sleep was a passive activity during which the body and brain were dormant,” yet this falsehood is quickly coming to light through research. Per Mark Wu, M.D., Ph.D., a Johns Hopkins neurologist, and sleep expert, “But it turns out that sleep is a period during which the brain is engaged in a number of activities necessary to life — which are closely linked to quality of life.”

So, what happens during those hours that you’re dreaming?

First off, “your brain will cycle repeatedly through two different types of sleep: REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep.” Non-REM sleep is made of four stages: the period between “being awake and falling asleep,” light sleep — “when heart rate and breathing regulate and body temperature drops” — and deep sleep — which encompasses both the third and fourth stages and is revealed to be more restful and restorative than REM. Throughout the night, the brain will “cycle into REM sleep,” in which your eyes move “rapidly behind closed lids,” your brain waves begin to mimic “those during wakefulness,” your breath rate increases, and “the body becomes temporarily paralyzed as we dream.”

A typical, healthy night’s sleep will show at least four or five of these cycles between non-REM and REM sleep.

Alright, but how does your body get to the sleep part of sleep?

There are “two main processes that regulate sleep: circadian rhythms and sleep drive.” Your circadian rhythms “are controlled by a biological clock located in the brain,” which responds to light cues by regulating the release of the sleep hormone melatonin when daylight fades and then turns it off when daylight returns. Secondly, is the craving for sleep. This feeling slowly builds throughout the day, finally getting to the point (for most) where you simply have to fall asleep.

How Sugar Messes with Our Sleep

A strawberry on a pile of sugar

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Alright, so now we know that our bodies are naturally rigged to sleep. We’ve got all the cues, the hormones, and the functions to make sure our bodies and brains obtain the crucial hours of shuteye.

So, why can’t most of us just simply fall asleep?

Unfortunately, there’s not one simple answer to this conundrum. Maybe you workout at night, which drenches your system with endorphins that want to keep you awake? Possibly, you’re a night owl with work or television and the blue light is tricking your circadian rhythm into thinking its daylight still?

Or, for most of us, you’re unknowingly diluting your system with energy boosting sugar.

Sugar and Sleep

Hand holding an ice cream cone

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The American eating schedule has made the after-dinner sweet treat — we call it dessert — a staple. This means you’re diluting your system with sugar — a stimulator — right before you attempt to get to sleep. Yet, it’s not as simple as that. Sugar lingers in the system, therefore “the more sugar that you eat during the day, the more often you’re going to wake up in the middle of the night.” This doesn’t necessarily mean you wake up fully, but sugar actually has the power to “pull you out of a deep sleep, making you feel exhausted the next day.”

Understanding the “Sugar Crash”

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Overconsumption of sugar throughout the day “can lead to an energy crash.”

What’s a sugar crash? Basically, consuming large amounts of sugar throughout the day “reduces the activity of what are called orexin cells.” This adversely affects your feeling of wakefulness, resulting in a “sleepy feeling” even when you’re not ready for sleep. If you enjoyed a donut in the morning, a fruit-filled smoothie mid-morning, or a sugary-dressing covered salad for lunch, you may hit that fatigued wall in the afternoon as the sugar in your system continues to block orexin.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just added sugars such as refined cane sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Natural sugars, while always a more nutritious option, have the same effect.

Finding Hidden Natural Sugars

Maple syrup

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Want to try reducing your sugar intake? It’s a worthy cause and completely doable. With that said, a little education will help you avoid those hidden natural sugars such as agave, maple syrup, and stevia.

While sugar is sugar, not all sugars are created equal. It’s important to focus on two things: the first is moderation with all sugary foods, including “natural sugars,” and the second is to incorporate sugars that aren’t “empty calories.” This means consuming plant-based foods that have sugar but also provide a range of nutrients, such as fresh fruit. Per registered dietician and sports nutritionist Jennifer Sygo, “what we consider to be ‘free’ sugars are those that are added to foods (like candy and cereals) and drinks like pop or chocolate milk. Other examples of free sugars are honey, agave and maple syrups.” You have to be careful with the consumption of these sugars as these types “are often the culprits of more intense spikes and crashes in our blood sugar,” as well as being more addictive.

With that said, “one of the biggest ingredients that can knock your blood sugar levels off balance is refined sugar,” which is found in “sodas and desserts, but it’s also in many juices, breakfast cereals, canned fruits, and even spaghetti sauce and barbecue sauce.” Refined sugars are also present in simple carbs such as white bread, white rice, and regular pasta.

Plant-Based Low-Sugar Sweetener Replacements

Pumpkins cut in half

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Now that you’ve removed all the empty calories sugars, what do you replace it with?

Sugar is an addictive substance. When you’re attempting to cut back, it’s important to heed that sugar craving and be aware of how influential it is. By replacing sugar-laden foods with naturally sweet, low-sugar options, you’ll avoid the sugar binge that many of us experience.

Also, it’s important to understand that sugar is an essential compound that our bodies need. This is why almost all plant-based foods have small amounts of natural sugar. The problem arises when we add sugar to our meals. We get what we need naturally from our food, therefore adding sugar simply drenches our system with more than is necessary.

With that said, there are a few naturally sweet, low sugar, plant-based foods that can help you on your way to a healthier sleep schedule. Choose plant-based foods that are higher in fiber, protein, and healthy fats, while also being lower in natural sugar. You can also incorporate certain foods that help reduce sugar cravings such as black coffee and extra dark chocolate (anything above 80 percent!)

Here are a few plant-based veggies to help curb those sugar cravings and put you to sleep!

CarrotsMoroccan Carrot Salad

Moroccan Carrot Salad/One Green Planet

Carrots are one of the sweetest plant-based veggies you can eat! In fact, when you start cutting back on those added sugars, you’ll start noticing just how sweet carrots actually are. Pulverized them, stew them, bake them, or saute them! They’re hardy, filling, and also happen to be rich in eye health boosting vitamin A. One cup of chopped, raw carrots has around 6.1 grams of natural sugar, so don’t go too crazy!

Try out a few of these zero-added sugar, carrot-sweetened recipes: Simple Lentil Soup With Leeks and Yellow Carrots, Carrot Coriander Soup, or this Veggie Kofta Balls.

RutabagaRutabaga Fries

Rutabaga Fries/One Green Planet

If you haven’t tried rutabaga, now is the time! Rutabaga happens to a naturally sweet and meaty root veggie that is a great plate and tummy filler. It’s low in sugar, one cup of cubed rutabaga as around 10 grams of sugar, and is rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals, and even some healthy fats! Plus, this veggie is perfect for a low-sugar, nutrient-rich fries option such as these super-simple Rutabaga Fries or these added sugar-free Rutabaga Fries with Basil Mayo.

Butternut SquashButternut Squash Black Bean Corn Stew

Butternut Squash Black Bean Corn Stew/One Green Planet

One of the best things about butternut squash is its capacity to fill you up! This winter squash is incredibly rich in vitamins — including A, C, E, and K — as well as minerals — such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorous. Plus, it’s naturally sweet and super low in sugar with one cup of cubbed and cooked butternut squash containing only 4 grams of sugar. If you’re trying to fight those sugar cravings in the evening, try incorporating some butternut squash into a low-sugar, protein and fiber-rich dinner regimen such as this Butternut Squash Black Bean Corn Stew, this Roasted Butternut Squash and Apple Soup, or this Butternut Squash Tacos With Tempeh Chorizo.

We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

For more Vegan Food, Health, Recipe, Animal, and Life content published daily, don’t forget to subscribe to the One Green Planet Newsletter!

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