SLEEP: The Protein-Carb Connection

                          Thrive Nutrition Practice: The Protein-Carb Connection for Sleep

                          Thrive Nutrition Practice: The Protein-Carb Connection for Sleep


Lack of sleep is common after babies come along. But sometimes, it has nothing to do with the unsocial hours babies keep.  This post is for all moms whose kids no longer wake in the night, but still suffer from sleeplessness and are searching for solutions. Mamas who suffer from lack of quality sleep also tend to feel emotionally fragile and tell me they feel stressed, moody, sad and anxious.  We don't often think of using nutrition to help with sleep and mood regulation. But, nutrition and biology offer very interesting insights into why sleeplessness, anxiety and moodiness often go hand in hand.  The food we eat - and don't eat - has an incredibly powerful impact on the quality of deep, regenerative sleep we get and how happy & optimistic we feel.

Sleep is governed by a rise and fall of certain hormones which help to either make us feel sleepy or keep us awake. Melatonin is the hormone that makes us feel sleepy.  The level of this hormone starts to rise at nighttime and generally by 10-11pm, our body should naturally start to feel drowsy enough to fall sleep.

Melatonin is made in the brain by converting an amino acid called tryptophan into a neurotransmitter called serotonin, which then in turn goes through its own little conversion process to make melatonin.

Serotonin is responsible for a lot more than just making melatonin.  It helps us feel happy, sociable, sexy & even hungry.  So, if we are not eating enough food rich in tryptophan, then we can't make enough serotonin to make us feel happy -- and by extension, melatonin to help us sleep.

Tryptophan is most readily found in animal and plant-based protein, for example chicken, eggs, pumpkin seeds & lentils. So the first thing I do with sad and sleepless mamas is check if they are including a high quality protein in every meal.  Unfortunately, most do not, especially in the morning when breakfast is usually the children's leftover toast scraps & cereal bits washed down with a coffee.  In my last post, you'll find a recipe for my favourite breakfast to kick start that serotonin creation and pump up your optimism.

But today, I'd also like you to see what's going on at dinnertime.  Mamas are more likely to have a protein-rich meal at dinnertime but the one thing that is generally absent then is carbohydrates.  If you're having a tough time falling asleep or if you're struggling with insomnia, you might want to consider including a small portion of whole grain foods like quinoa or sweet potato into your evening supper.  Carbohydrates helps make tryptophan more available to the brain, but lots of mamas cut out night time carbs because of weight gain concerns.

Now, I'm not saying have a massive plate of meat lasagne.  But here's a recipe that ticks all the right boxes and will help set your body up for a great night's rest.



  • 1 organic chicken (make sure it’s big enough for leftovers)
  • 1/4 red pepper
  • ½ big carrot
  • 1 onion
  • 4 garlic cloves
  • 2 lemongrass stalks
  • Spice mix: Salt & pepper, 1 tspn turmeric, 1 tspn paprika (combine all spices to make a rub) & add 1 tbsp of coconut oil & ½ lemon (juiced)

Preheat oven to 210C.

Rub the chicken thoroughly inside and out with the spice mix.

In a roasting tray, place all the vegetables and lemongrass.

Roast the chicken for 1hr and 30 min (turn chicken after 45min).  Once done, take the chicken out and let it rest for about 5 min before carving.  Take all the vegetables and blend (take out the lemongrass stalks and add a bit of hot water or broth at this stage).  This makes a delicious sauce to pour onto the chicken.

Serve with roasted sweet potato & stir fried spinach with garlic.

This dinner is SLEEPTASTIC because:

  • The chicken gives you the tryptophan you need to make melatonin;
  • The sweet potato makes the tryptophan more available to the brain.  And you don't have to have a lot if you're concerned about gaining weight.  A quarter piece will do.  But you know what?  Sweet potatoes don't cause massive blood sugar spikes because their sugars are released slowly into the body.  As a result, an insulin response is not triggered, which means that your liver isn't called in to package excess sugar as fat stores for a rainy day.  So as far as nighttime carbs go, sweet potato is good one!
  • Spinach is super high in magnesium - nature's relaxant.  Tired mamas with twitching eyelids are desperately in need of magnesium.  So if you like, you can even sprinkle some pumpkin seeds on that for an added magnesium kicker.

Getting a good night's rest can be a struggle.   But we can make it easier on ourselves by giving our body the nutrients it needs to make melatonin.  High quality protein & a well-timed dose of complex carbohydrates can help you get to sleep at night and wake up with a smile.  

Isn't that a lovely thought?



Cristina Tahoces is a holistic nutritionist and owner of Thrive Nutrition Practice.  Please join her Facebook group “Thrive Nutrition Practice” for daily articles, recipes, promotions on professional grade supplements and upcoming workshops.