Nutritionist on what to eat to achieve better sleep and avoid afternoon crashes

When confronting our lack of quality sleep, we rarely consider diet as a potential suspect even though the two share a complex and symbiotic association. Failing to meet certain nutritional needs can condemn our circadian clocks to chaos, the same way a persistent unrestful state sees us reach for unhealthy snacks and beverages to achieve provisional alertness.

Not only are sugar highs whole-cloth fabrications, but there are also actually key foods that can effectively break the long-hours wide waist cycle.

Below Ladders compiled the best advice from our correspondence with nutrition-based counseling service, Guiding Stars.

A Circadian cookbook

On multiple occasions, Guiding Stars expert Allison Stowell has provided Ladders with a panoply of under-reported methods of dispelling reddened eyes and reducing coffee runs. The dietician focused her years of experience toward advising busy adults on how to creatively implement important (often sleep-promoting) nutrients.

Cherries and cheese,  for a start, are both packed with tryptophan and anthocyanins, two compounds that help the body produce melatonin in addition to emboldening the hormone’s effects. Enter, Stowell’s Couscous and Cherry salad. It’s a filling meal, replete with minerals and nutrients integral to a wide array of functions, including quality sleep.

Couscous & Cherry Salad recipe

  • 1 2/3 c. water
  • 1 1/3 c. whole wheat pearl couscous
  • 1/4 c. orange juice
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1 T. red wine vinegar
  • 2/3 c. unsweetened dried cherries
  • 2 stalks celery, finely diced
  • 3 oz. baby arugula, finely chopped
  • 1/2 c. walnuts, lightly toasted
  • 3 shallots, peeled and sliced
  • 2 oz. gouda, shredded


  1. Bring the water to a boil. Stir in the couscous, cover and turn down to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
  2. Whisk together the orange juice, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Add the dried cherries and microwave for 2 minutes on high. Let stand for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Drain and reserve the liquid. Whisk to make sure it’s fully emulsified. Stir liquid into the couscous.
  4. Stir in the steeped cherries, celery, arugula, walnuts, and sliced shallots. Top with cheese. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Mediterranean fish chowder with potatoes and kale recipe

  • 2 T. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lrg. onion, chopped
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 1 med. carrot, chopped
  • Salt to taste
  • 2-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 anchovy fillets, rinsed, drained and chopped
  • 2 T. fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 (28 oz.) can chopped tomatoes, with liquid
  • 1 T. tomato paste
  • 1 qt. water
  • 1 lb. fingerling potatoes, scrubbed and sliced
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 bunch kale, stemmed and washed
  • 1 1/2 lbs. firm, white-fleshed fish, like halibut, tilapia or cod, cut in 2- or 3-inch pieces


  1. Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven and add the onion, celery, and carrot. Cook, stirring, until the onion softens, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add a generous pinch of salt and stir in the garlic, anchovies, and parsley. Cook, stirring, until the mixture is very fragrant, another minute or two, and add the tomatoes and tomato paste. Cook, stirring often until the tomatoes have cooked down a bit and the mixture smells aromatic … about 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Add the water and potatoes. Salt to taste and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat to low, cover and simmer 30 minutes.
  4. Add the fish and kale. The soup should not be boiling vigorously. Simmer 5 minutes (depending on the thickness of the fillets), or just until the fish flakes easily when poked and kale is nicely wilted. Serve hot.

Southwestern  potato skins recipe

  • 6 potatoes, baked and cool
  • 1 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. chili powder
  • ⅛ tsp. Tabasco sauce
  • 6 slices turkey bacon, cooked and chopped
  • 1 med. tomato, diced
  • 2 Tbsp. sliced green onions
  • ½ cup shredded cheddar cheese


  1. Preheat oven to 450ºF. Lightly coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.
  2. When cool to the touch, cut each potato in half lengthwise and scoop out the flesh, leaving about ¼” of flesh attached to the skin.
  3. In a small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, chili powder, and hot sauce. Brush the olive oil mixture on the insides of the potato skins. Cut each half of the potato skin in half again crosswise. Place the potatoes onto the baking sheet.
  4. Mix together the turkey bacon, tomato, and onions. Fill each potato skin with this mixture and sprinkle with cheese.
  5. Bake until the cheese is melted and the potato skins are heated through (10-15 minutes). Serve immediately.

Mitigating the afternoon crash

Of course, sometimes time conspires against us. A hectic work week favors small unhealthy bites that can be consumed while on the run. Unfortunately, snacks loaded with processed sugar and salt causes us to crash before noon.  Stowell adds,

“While some foods may suggest that they will boost your energy (generally through a combination of caffeine and sugar), the best way to maintain good energy and boost productivity is to eat balanced meals and snacks.”

There may not be any shortcuts to a sure-fire productive workday but the considered approach isn’t all that difficult.  Ultimately energy is parented by carbs and healthy fats. There is an abundance of healthy and convenient sources for both.  Strawberries, apples, legumes, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts,  kidney beans, chia seeds, and whole grains are foods rich in carbohydrates that can be eaten on a crowded bus and are easily applied to traditional breakfast meals. 

Dietary fats are important because they help us absorb vitamins while also protecting our brains and hearts. More specifically monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats lower our risk for disease, strokes and lower our blood pressure. Both are ideal ways to start the day because they make us feel full for longer. 

 Avocados, olives, peanut butter, and canola oil are all good sources of monounsaturated fats, while tofu, sunflower seeds, fatty fish, soybeans and soy milk are fitting ways tp get a daily dose of healthy fats before your commute. 

“Eat small meals throughout the day: Mini-meals allows you to maintain your energy and not feel sluggish. This way of eating may be new for some. The key is to break your day’s intake down into small meals and slightly larger snacks. Snacks and meals composed of some carbohydrate along with some protein and/or healthy fat will help control blood sugar and maintain energy levels.  Banana and nut butter, plain Greek yogurt topped with berries, and avocado toast is just some examples of balanced snacks,” Stowell explained to Ladders. 

Dreamy desserts

Nothing compliments a late-night movie quite like a big oily bag of unhealthy. Not only do salty sugary snack keep us tossing and turning, as previously mentioned, but a recent study on mice also revealed that late-night munching also causes us to gain weight more quickly due to metabolism shifts. Thankfully there’s a healthy concession.

“Magnesium has a positive impact on neurotransmitters that promote and play a role in supporting sound sleep, while a deficiency in magnesium may increase the potential for sleep disorders and interrupted rest,” Stowell said.

Chocolate just so happens to be an excellent source of magnesium. There’s just about 40 mg in each tablespoon of raw cacao. Next time your binging late consider whipping up a batch of vegan snacks like brownies, smoothies and frozen bananas with a little cacao sprinkled in.

“There are other things you can do to increase your chances of having a restful night sleep like enjoying some calming tea or shifting the timing of meals. You can also make one of these recipes that include the nutrients needed for better sleep,” Stowell informed Ladders