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Unveiling the Night: How Plant-Based Diets Can Alleviate Insomnia

26 March 2024


Commentary by Dr. Donald Greig

4 minute read

In this newsletter, we delve into a topic that intersects nutrition and sleep – two critical components of holistic health. Recent studies and nutritional science advancements have illuminated the potential benefits of plant-based diets in combating insomnia, alongside other nutritional and miscellaneous factors influencing sleep quality. Let’s explore these insights and consider how integrating plant-based choices into our diets could be a key to unlocking better sleep and, by extension, improved overall health.


Insomnia can detrimentally impact our overall health, as numerous studies have established connections between this sleep disorder and a heightened risk of numerous health issues, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, obesity, memory problems, weakened immunity, and reduced libido.


In Hong Kong, the most recent Population Health Survey conducted in 2014-2015, which assessed sleeping habits, found that a significant portion of individuals aged 15 and above experience sleep-related issues. These problems ranged from difficulty falling asleep within 30 minutes, waking up intermittently or having trouble staying asleep throughout the night, to early morning awakenings with an inability to fall back asleep, all within the 30 days preceding the survey.


The percentages of people who encountered each sleeping problem three or more times a week were as follows: difficulty falling asleep within 30 minutes was reported by 6.8%, waking up intermittently or trouble staying asleep was reported by 7.3%, and early morning awakenings with an inability to fall back asleep was experienced by 6%.


A decade-long study, published in December 2023 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that individuals following a vegetarian diet may have a lower risk of experiencing insomnia. Among nearly 6,000 participants, researchers discovered that vegetarians had approximately one-third fewer instances of insomnia compared to those who consume a standard, meat-inclusive diet.


A separate study, published in October 2023 in the journal, Sleep Health, investigated the diets of more than 2,000 people on the Chinese mainland. The research found that individuals who consumed the highest amounts of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes experienced better quality sleep compared to those who consumed these foods in much lower quantities.


Plant-Based Diets: A Green Light for Good Night's Sleep?


A growing body of research suggests that the dietary choices we make can significantly impact sleep quality and duration. In particular, plant-based diets—rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains—are linked to various health benefits, including a potential to improve sleep patterns. These benefits are believed to stem from the high levels of nutrients such as fibre, vitamins, and minerals, which are abundant in plant foods and have been shown to support healthy sleep.


·      Fibre:  A diet high in fibre, particularly from whole plant foods, has been linked to deeper, more restorative sleep. Fibre helps regulate the body's use of sugars, helping to keep hunger and blood sugar in check, potentially contributing to smoother sleep onset.


·      Magnesium and Potassium:  Magnesium, found in greens, nuts, and seeds, plays a crucial role in relaxing the body and mind. Potassium, abundant in bananas and sweet potatoes, also aids in muscle relaxation and can help people fall asleep quicker.


·      Antioxidants and Plant Compounds:  Plant-based diets are rich in antioxidants and specific plant compounds that may reduce inflammation and contribute to better sleep. For example, the antioxidant melatonin, found in cherries and nuts, is known for its sleep-promoting properties. We have explored some of these properties in ‘superfoods’ with reference to blueberries, in recent newsletters.

Other Nutritional Factors Influencing Sleep Quality


It isn't just about what you add to your diet; sometimes, it's about what you limit.


Reduced Intake of Stimulants: Limiting the intake of stimulants such as caffeine and sugar, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime, can have a substantial impact on one's ability to fall asleep.


Balanced Meal Timing:  Eating large meals or consuming certain foods close to bedtime can disrupt sleep. Opting for lighter meals in the evening and allowing for digestion before bed can foster better sleep patterns.


Miscellaneous Factors and Their Impact


While diet plays a pivotal role in managing insomnia, other lifestyle and environmental factors contribute to sleep health.


Regular Exercise:  Engaging in regular physical activity, especially aerobic exercises, can significantly improve the quality and duration of sleep. However, it's important to avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime, as it may have the opposite effect.


Sleep Hygiene:  Establishing a consistent sleep routine, ensuring a comfortable sleep environment, and practicing relaxation techniques can also enhance sleep quality. Limiting screen time before bed and avoiding long naps during the day are part of good sleep hygiene.


Stress Management:  Chronic stress is a common culprit behind sleep disturbances. Mindfulness practices, deep breathing exercises, and yoga can help manage stress levels, promoting better sleep.




Combining a plant-based diet with other nutritional and lifestyle adjustments presents a holistic approach to combatting insomnia. Embracing a diet rich in whole plant foods, alongside mindful eating habits, regular physical activity, and efficient stress management techniques, may pave the way to not only better sleep but also a healthful and vibrant life.


We encourage our patients to explore these strategies under the guidance of a healthcare professional, especially when making significant dietary changes or addressing chronic sleep issues.

If you or anyone you know need a consultation, please make an appointment with Dr. Greig at Hong Kong Surgical Specialists.

Contact us

Tel: +852 2715 4577



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